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Guy Maddin and Co.’s Found-Footage Feast “The Green Fog” Teaches New Ways of Seeing

I first saw The Green Fog at its world premiere as the closing night event of the San Francisco International Film Festival, presented at the historic Castro Theatre, with the Kronos Quartet giving a live performance of Jacob Garchik’s original score. Commissioned by the festival from directors Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, and billed as a “San Francisco Fantasia,” the film felt like something that belonged to a particular time and place — a delirious reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, created out of hundreds of clips from movies and shows shot in the Bay Area that were very much not Vertigo. It certainly made for a cinematic experience, but I had no idea if this Green Fog could be replicated as a mere film, to be screened elsewhere.

Now that The Green Fog has arrived at the IFC Center, I’m happy to report that Maddin and his collaborators have succeeded in turning it into something that can stand on its own. They have reportedly not done much new to the footage, though they have toyed with the soundtrack — adding sound effects and, at a couple of points, fading the score in and out. Even so, what I saw in San Francisco, perhaps because of the live setting, felt looser, fragmented — more an exploration of Vertigo than a re-creation of it, revealing all the ways that Hitchcock’s masterpiece has sunk into our cinematic spiritus mundi through repeated gestures, glances, and images found in countless other works. (Some of these were made long before Vertigo, of course, because what is Vertigo itself but a laying bare of neurotic obsessions that were always there?) Watching it anew, I can see that The Green Fog fairly closely follows the structure of Hitchcock’s film; achieving that in itself is some sort of accomplishment. However, it’s not so much an assemblage as it is a conjuring. You don’t just watch these clips —  you see through and between them. The juxtapositions create vital, cosmic connections.

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Maddin has made a career out of mining the latent tensions of mainstream cinema, often by pushing the styles and attitudes of classical filmmaking to absurdist extremes. This time, playing with existing footage, he and his collaborators do something similar, but the effect is more subtle, and in its own way more expansive. We watch clips and clips of men communing across restaurant tables, with all the dialogue parts removed, and the silent, tense exchanges start to gain a sexual charge — as if every form of human interaction has suddenly been reduced to a series of secret impulses and desires. Lust, repression, voyeurism, and narcissism all turn out to be part of the same spectrum: Men watch women from cars, in restaurants, across rooms, on screens — just as Jimmy Stewart watched Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s original, and as we do whenever we watch Vertigo. But they also watch other men. And sometimes they watch themselves. Through the magic of the most basic of editing tricks, Rock Hudson watches footage of *NSync singing in a forest. Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco watches footage of his own naked behind (from Basic Instinct) and remarks, “Well, you look good, Mike. Ever thought about going into showbiz?”

At times, the playfulness reaches moments of sublime, unlikely beauty. The passages of Vertigo that concern Stewart’s post-traumatic catatonia coincide in The Green Fog with a masterful reverie on Chuck Norris’s face in An Eye for an Eye, remixed here so that the action lug’s impassive mug attains a melancholy grandeur; you want to laugh, but it’s all done so beautifully that you come away genuinely moved. That’s the magic of The Green Fog. It envelops you and pulls you into its own world, teaching you to see again. I’m familiar with most of the films and shows used here, but I could only recognize a small handful while actually watching the movie. You might come for the clips, but you leave with your brain on fire.

The Green Fog
Directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson
Opens January 5, IFC Center

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Beautiful, Curious Go Down Death Unveils the Cathouse of Myth

Setting aside all the women are people too! thinking that might make us a touch more enlightened than our forebears, I have to ask: Is it possible that the old-world or frontier brothel could ever be as warm and brilliant a place as the movies posit it? In films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Woody Allen’s copy-and-paste Kafka curio Shadows and Fog, as in dozens of last-century bildungsromans, the house of pleasure doubles as the seat of civilization itself, a perfumed respite from the barbarism abroad each night. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s Go Down Death, a captivating excursion into surrealist Americana, shares that fascination — like some lacy moth, it flings itself toward the lamp light of a bordello at the end of all things. But the enjoyably unsteady film, haunted by visions and shot in beautiful 16mm black-and-white, never succumbs to horny nostalgia.

Set mostly in a cathouse in a fogged-over forest of ghost-skinned birch trees, Go Down Death observes johns, prostitutes, singers, soldiers, and flimflam men in a series of fascinating vignettes that it leaves you to assemble into a narrative. People say things like, “A garden is never finished. Or it’s always finished.” After burying a corpse, a child who we’ve earlier seen engaging in creepy discussions with a shape-changing doctor sings a song that goes, “Got a cow — his name is mediocrity.” (The music comes exclusively from the people in the brothel, a reminder of the oppressive silence of the world before ours, a point McCabe & Mrs. Miller likewise was good on.)

An older john, nude, parading about a tiny bedroom, declaims about his past to a prostitute, also nude but coyly covered — a perfect, gently moving inversion of the HBO aesthetic, and a suggestion that the idea of a man buying sex but really wanting companionship isn’t always just a justification. In the undefined American past of this film, when else would this fellow get to unburden himself, at length, to a willing listener? Another john, preparing to take his purchased woman from behind, instead inspires a scene of curious horror: She’s gone blind just before he enters her, and as he explains, with curious calm, that this has happened before, she can’t hear him, as her other senses are going, too.

The songs and incidents are credited to folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus, himself a bit of folklore invented for the film. Schimberg, in this debut, demonstrates rare assuredness in shooting and staging scenes, coaxing unexpected but true-feeling flourishes from his cast of mostly amateurs blessed with extraordinary faces. The influence of Guy Maddin is strong, but much of this is singular, and Schimberg’s made-up folk tales glance against the true weirdness of actual myth.

On top of all that, Schimberg pulls a first-rate switcheroo in the last reel certain to leave audiences thinking, arguing, rejecting, celebrating. Here’s one you’ll talk about long afterward, in this age where nobody has to pay for sex to enjoy a wide-ranging conversation.

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Guy Maddin’s Dream-world of Ideas, Bolted Shut in Keyhole

The latest phantasmagoria of cinematic quotation from Canadian director Guy Maddin, Keyhole is an extremely loose adaptation of The Odyssey. Jason Patric plays Ulysses Pick, leader of a two-bit gang who, carrying a nearly drowned girl on his back, returns home after a long absence. With his criminal accomplices confined to the downstairs sitting room, Ulysses journeys through the labyrinthine house, joined by the girl (Brooke Palsson) and a bound-and-gagged hostage (David Wontner), who Ulysses doesn’t immediately realize is his only living son, Manners. Ulysses’s goal is to reach the attic bedroom where his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), lays next to her naked elderly father (Louis Negin), chained to her bed. The father lures his son-in-law with a siren call—”Remember, Ulysses, remember”—but the house is full of roadblocks in the form of locked doors, debilitating visions of the past, and inchoate anxieties brought to life.

A swirling stew of Maddin’s pet themes—family ties, irrepressible sexuality, the weather—the filmmaker has described Keyhole as a departure, an exercise in “pure narrative filmmaking.” This seems like Maddin’s playful attempt at misdirection, given that his film’s structure is not only nonlinear, but also less narrative than architectural: It doesn’t move from scene to scene, but rather from room to room. In his last feature, the fabricated “nonfiction” My Winnipeg, Maddin’s gaze was distracted away from his hometown by the powerful psychic pull of his childhood home. Keyhole, set in the same house, further emphasizes the home’s vacuum power: The movie is a schematic of a haunted mansion, the house itself a physical stand-in for a dreaming, troubled mind. The film is infectiously somnambulant, so convincingly and unrelentingly dreamlike that its sudden end mimics the sensation of snapping awake from deep sleep.

But whose dream is it? Who is haunted, and who is doing the haunting? Shot digitally in chiaroscuro black-and-white, nearly every frame complicated by multiple exposure effects and strategically harsh lighting, Keyhole is stunning to look at. But it’s so resistant to subjectivity, so much about obfuscation and the deceptive nature of the mind’s eye, that it can be frustrating to look deeply into. Every image in a Guy Maddin picture is a reference, a fragment of the collective past reconfigured through his fetishistic filter. In Keyhole, this includes the actors; the casting of Patric, in particular, seems intended to draw on his past screen images, to realize the joke of reincarnating a 1930s slang-slinging gangster in the form of a late-20th-century C-list Hollywood hard-ass.

Halfway through the movie, Ulysses’s gang turns against him, forcing him into a homemade electric chair powered by rickety exercise bikes. He not only survives, but also emerges, he says, “feeling charged”—and the 1930s monster-movie spell segues seamlessly into a distinctly contemporary alpha-male antihero’s intimidation monologue. It’s oddly one of the most exciting parts of the film. The act of collage attains a kind of lucid lunacy, and the references in combination become something new: handmade, logic-defying, and magical.

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“Tales From the Gimli Hospital: Reframed”

Dir. Guy Maddin (1988).
Maddin has “reframed” his first feature—a mock Nordic gothic about a smallpox epidemic in fin de siecle Winnipeg—with a new score, to be performed live. In its first incarnation, this product of an imaginary film studio, it achieved midnight cult status with its weird intimations of Eraserhead and SCTV.

Fri., Nov. 18, 7 & 9 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 19, 7 & 9 p.m., 2011

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What to Buy the Movie Buff Who Has Everything?

The old year ends and, repackaged for holiday gifting, some things seem absolutely new. The fruit of an eight-year, international restoration effort, Flicker Alley’s four-disc box set Chaplin at Keystone is a major work of cultural rehabilitation. Charlie Chaplin’s first movies—the 33 one- or two-reel comedies and the single feature he made for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1914—are uncanny in their immediacy. The only thing more brilliant than the print quality is the magnitude of the young Chaplin’s scurrilous charisma. The box comes with a helpful booklet and several short documentaries, but the greatest bonus is the frequent appearance of Mabel Normand, Keystone’s reigning star as well as a performer whose physical grace and appealing good nature made her a wonderful foil for the Little Tramp.

Another sort of rehabilitation may be found in the sturdy Elia Kazan Collection, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Kazan admirer Martin Scorsese made the selection—15 of Kazan’s first 16 features—and produced an hour-long documentary, A Letter to Elia, in which he speaks of Kazan’s significance for him, particularly as the director of the prole-celebrating On the Waterfront. Kazan, who brought the Method to Hollywood, was the 1950’s key director of actors, introducing a truly bizarre James Dean (East of Eden) and still raw Warren Beatty (Splendor in the Grass), while getting career performances from Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), and Andy Griffith (A Face in the Crowd). Kazan’s early social-problem films (including the Oscar-winning Gentlemen’s Agreement and ponderous Viva Zapata!) do feel dated, but a number of his shorter, less overweening productions remain fresh and vital. For all the director’s New York street smarts, most were shot on location down South. The underappreciated gems in this set include the crypto anti-communist noir Panic in the Streets, the lyrical Wild River (a non-starter in 1960 that has steadily moved to the forefront of the Kazan oeuvre), and the truly outrageous Baby Doll, condemned from the pulpit by New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman.

For Guy Maddin, acting is inherently outrageous, and the old is always new. Hilariously retro in his film language, the Bard of Winnipeg is at once the most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers and the most accessible of avant-gardists. Zeitgeist’s Quintessential Guy Maddin repackages five of his nine features, some never before on DVD: Archangel was Maddin’s breakthrough film and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs his grand folly. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary very nearly reinvents one of the oldest stories in movies; Careful and Cowards Bend the Knee are unlike anything ever made. The set also includes six short films, among them The Heart of the World, a movie that packs more ideas into five super-charged minutes than many filmmakers have in a lifetime.

Two more stocking stuffers: Kino Lorber’s latest reissue of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece of mishigas, Metropolis: The Complete Edition, incorporates an additional 25 minutes recently discovered in Argentina and is likely the last word on this oft-reconstructed monument; made 33 years ago and an instant cult film when it began showing here earlier this year, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s psychedelic horror comedy House (newly available from Criterion) has everything but Pee-Wee Herman.

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The White Devil

Alexandre Volkoff, 1930)             10/28 MoMA
A lavish Russian émigré-stocked, German-produced “soundie,” adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of the mid-19th-century Russian-Caucasian War, The White Devil has no dialogue—only music, synchronized audio effects, and mishigas. Either pale-eyed, charismatic Ivan Mosjoukine or dancing fool Lil Dagover could be the movie’s eponymous subject, just as this long-forgotten UFA spectacular might pass as a new movie by Guy Maddin.

Thu., Oct. 28, 4 p.m., 2010

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Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Dir. Guy Maddin (2002).
Guy Maddin takes one of the oldest stories in movies and very nearly reinvents it as a silent—or rather Mahler-scored—feature. Shooting a dance performance on super-8 through what might be an anamorphic Snow Globe, the look is powerfully seductive. This enraptured composition in mist, gauze, and Vaseline isn’t campy, but it is funny—as well as overtly erotic, willfully archaic, and beautifully convulsive.

Sat., Sept. 11, 2, 4:30, 6:50 & 9:15 p.m., 2010

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Guy Maddin Revisits His Frozen Horse Heads

Guy Maddin’s 2008 docu-fantasia My Winnipeg was an uneasy combine of fact and fiction, autobiography and civic history—”What if I film my way out of here?” the exceptionally idiosyncratic film director asked, a bit frantically, as his camera traveled his native city’s icy streets. Conceived as a remedy to the sorry lack of mythology about Maddin’s somnambulant Canadian home, My Winnipeg invented new myths of its own: a long-running television sitcom, Ledge Man, in which a near-suicide is talked off the precipice daily; frozen horse heads sticking up from the ice in the Forks—”eleven knights on a vast white chessboard” where lovers come to gather. Maddin rented his old childhood residence for a month, and populated it with actors playing his mother and siblings. Traumatic family episodes interpolate with Winnipeg’s own checkered history and, sometimes, as in the simultaneous undoing of Maddin’s father and the various Winnipeg hockey teams for which he worked, become one and the same.

It was a Sebaldian project—one long, digressive walk across material and mental geography—and, in a nod to the film’s literary affinities, Coach House Books is now bringing out My Winnipeg in book form. The tome was conceived as a physical companion to Maddin’s film, complete with a heavily annotated script, collages, pages from the director’s journals, and an interview between Maddin and Michael Ondaatje.

Like the film, Maddin confesses, when reached on the phone in Toronto, where he now also owns an apartment, the book is “a mixture of myths I wish had been around for decades or centuries, and facts I never ought to have blurted out.” The text is dense with the latter: Maddin’s PIN codes, dream diaries, a letter from a furious ex-girlfriend. New legends include the E Gang, “an elusive group of nocturnal criminals whose sole crime . . . was stealing the letter E from every piece of signage in the city.”

“Sometimes I found that just by treating all this stuff as fairy tale,” says Maddin, somewhat mischievously, “makes it the kind of fiction which can better produce truth.” My Winnipeg, on the page, is an almost vertiginous experience: Scenes from the film are undermined or bolstered by Maddin’s whimsical notations, which sometimes expose a distortion but, far more often, merely add another one. He cites Infinite Jest‘s footnotes, Wayne Koestenbaum’s double-column novel Hotel Theory, and Fernando Pessoa as possible influences, but confesses, basically, to having no real model for the work or any assurance that his experiment is at all tolerable to an innocent reader.

“It’s just way more time than should be spent with oneself,” Maddin admits, about his experiment in overwhelming (if often misleading) self-disclosure. “And certainly with one person. It’d be different if you were reading War and Peace or something, and the three months you spent with Tolstoy felt ennobling. But I just feel like I’m going to drag someone down to the gutter and then urinate on them, you know?”

On April 19 at 8 p.m., Guy Maddin introduces Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue. April 20 at 7 p.m., Maddin reads from My Winnipeg at the Union Square Barnes & Noble.

zbaron@villagevoice.com

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WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE

Guy Maddin, known for his weird, hallucinatory films, including last year’s My Winnipeg, a personal portrait of his hometown, is in NYC for two events to promote his new book of the same name, a companion piece to the movie that includes Maddin’s diary entries, childhood photos, and artwork. Tonight, at IFC, he’ll be signing copies of the book before a screening of what he described as “the dreamiest of all my dream double bills”: Jean Vigo’s 1933 Zero for Conduct and Nicholas Ray’s 1952 On Dangerous Ground. On Monday, he’ll read with acclaimed poet Robert Polito (whose new movie-themed collection is titled Hollywood & God) at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. Tonight at 7:30, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, 212-924-7771, $15; Monday at 7, Union Square Barnes & Noble, 33 East 17th Street

Sun., April 19, 7:30 p.m.; Mon., April 20, 7 p.m., 2009

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BODIES IN MOTION

Now in its 37th year, the Dance on Camera Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association, zooms in on the cinematic contributions of choreographers and dancers and their unique collaborations with filmmakers, ranging from silent classics to cutting-edge indies for a total of 40 works. The January 11 lineup includes “On the Short Side,” a program of 11 bold new works by indie filmmakers (a highlight being Manuelle Labor, French experimental filmmaker Marie Losier’s collaboration with Guy Maddin, introduced by Losier); the silent 1918 film The Blue Bird, with live piano accompaniment by Ben Model; and VSPRS Show and Tell, directed by iconoclastic filmmaker Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema), with moves by pioneering Belgian choreographer Alain Platel.

Sun., Jan. 11, 2009