Feature Article

Freewheeling Through Film History: The Green Fog and the Vertigo of Time

Author: Russell Banfield (Birkbeck, University of London)

  • Freewheeling Through Film History: The Green Fog and the Vertigo of Time

    Feature Article

    Freewheeling Through Film History: The Green Fog and the Vertigo of Time


How to Cite:

Banfield, R., (2022) “Freewheeling Through Film History: The Green Fog and the Vertigo of Time”, Film Criticism 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2709

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Published on
22 Jun 2022
Peer Reviewed

In The Remembered Film (2004), Victor Burgin discusses how two sequences from two films, Vive l’amour (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan, 1994) and A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell, UK, 1944), “have become inseparably associated in my memory.”1 Two very different films, one in colour, the other in black and white, two very different narratives, made in different countries yet brought together by an image of a woman walking, first in long shot and second in close-up, the wind tugging at her hair. Burgin’s fascination with these two sequences leads him to articulate how his memory of films fractures into individual fragments or scenes, cut off from their larger narratives, and which then merge together through associations and connections between each other. “Detached from their original settings,” Burgin explains, “each scene is now the satellite of the other. Each echoes the other, increasingly merges with the other, and I experience a kind of fascinated incomprehension before the hybrid object they have become.”2

Burgin’s account of his free-associative cinematic memories, his “fascinated incomprehension,” could easily have been written in response to The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, US/Canada, 2017), a remake of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1958) made entirely of found footage from over one hundred films and television series. The Green Fog was commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society as a cinematic celebration of the city of San Francisco as it had been portrayed on screen to close the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2017. Whilst trawling through over 200 films and television shows looking for motifs and themes to use, Guy Maddin and his regular collaborators, Evan and Galen Johnson, fixed on the idea of remaking Vertigo after they noticed that much of the footage they screened had scenes that, to them at least, were reminiscent of Hitchcock’s film. Mirroring Burgin’s description of how “each echoes the other, increasingly merges with the other,” Maddin spoke of how “while we were watching the footage, we noticed that little bits of Vertigo floated up to us, in the form of homage or coincidences.”3 Using a plethora of clips taken from every decade of cinema from the 1920s onwards, The Green Fog repeats the narrative of Vertigo, albeit warped and manipulated, (mostly) broken down into its iconic moments; the opening rooftop chase; the first appearance of Madeleine (Kim Novak) in Ernie’s restaurant; Scottie (James Stewart) following Madeleine across San Francisco; Madeleine’s attempted suicide and rescue at Fort Point; Judy’s transformation back into Madeleine; and Scottie and Judy’s final reckoning.

Only we don’t get to see any of these moments; instead, The Green Fog relies on Maddin’s and the Johnson brothers’ free-associative memories as they serve up scenes from other movies that repeat those iconic moments, whether it’s running across a rooftop, driving through San Francisco, visiting a flower shop, a church, a museum, falling from a great height, or a woman entering a room where a man is waiting for her. As such, the memory of Vertigo looms large in The Green Fog as each scene is transformed into a duplicate image from Hitchcock’s film, and the recognition of what is being duplicated, and when, is how the narrative progresses.

Yet Burgin also warns how memory is personal and subjective, as conscious and unconscious desires come together in ways that resist language: “the telling of a memory, of course, betrays it,” Burgin writes, “both in the sense of there being something private about the memory that demands it remain untold, and in the sense that to tell it is to misrepresent, to transform, to diminish it.”4 None of the clips used in The Green Fog can match the beauty, the camera movement, and the use of colour as when Madeleine makes her entrance at Ernie’s, the camera lingering on her in profile for both the audience’s and Scottie’s gaze; Scottie languidly, hypnotically, tailing Madeleine through the streets of San Francisco as if following a ghost; the “vertigo” shot where the camera zooms in whilst simultaneously tracking out; or when Madeleine reappears, as if in a dream, at the Empire hotel, bathed in the green fog of memory and desire. These scenes feel like an enchantment, the spectator seduced by the languid camera movement, meditative pacing, and the haunting score by Bernard Herrmann, captivated by the image of Madeleine, and captured by the obsessive gaze with which we are asked to identify with Scottie.

Vertigo, then, is one of the privileged moments of cinephilia, a film that evokes, even seems to enact, the kinds of affective responses that Sarah Keller suggests express such a love: “wonder, astonishment, longing, devotion, possessiveness – in short, powerful feelings attached to the cinema.”5 Cinephilia, at least as it was conceived in the 1950s and 1960s, was defined by passivity, of being captured or captivated by what was on the screen. Andrew Sarris willingly surrendered to “the voluptuous passivity of moviegoing.”6 Susan Sontag described her own cinephilia as “the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.”7 Although he was no cinephile, Roland Barthes would conclude that cinema was “a perfect lure… the image captivates me, captures me.”8 Barthes would describe himself leaving the movie theater “a little dazed, wrapped up in himself… he’s sleepy… his body has become something sopitive, soft, limp, and he feels a little disjointed. In other words, he’s coming out of hypnosis.”9 Whilst Barthes wasn’t explicitly referring to Vertigo when he wrote this, his description of hypnosis is akin to how others have described their own experience of watching Vertigo. Michael Oliver-Goodwin and Lynda Myles wrote of how they watched, entranced, as the Saul Bass-designed title sequence began, an extreme close-up of a woman’s face, the camera zooming in to her right eye until it fills the screen. The title ‘Vertigo’ appears out of the center of the iris, followed by a spiral “spinning slowly against the blackness like an island universe – ominous, hypnotic. We fell into the screen.”10

Penelope Houston would also be hypnotized by Vertigo as she watched Scottie following Madeleine through the streets of San Francisco, finding herself “drawn again into the obsessive occupation of spying on a spy. The first half of Vertigo moves like a slow, underwater dream. The second half… has the hallucinatory quality of nightmare.”11 But Houston wrote this in 1963 on her second viewing of Vertigo, admitting that she had resisted this hypnotism first time around, unwilling to accept the “wild improbabilities”12 of the plot. Houston was not alone: on its release in 1958, Vertigo would receive decidedly mixed reviews, some praised its artistry, but most criticized the slow pacing and the absurdity of the murder plot. What had changed in the reception of Vertigo between 1958 and 1963? Robin Wood hinted at an answer when he claimed, in 1965, that “Vertigo seems to me Hitchcock’s masterpiece to date, and one of the four or four most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us.”13 As Wood would make clear in his 1988 introduction to Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, his initial response to Vertigo belonged “to a certain phase in the evolution of film theory/criticism… the high point of auteur theory in its original, unmodified form.”14 The auteur theory had developed out of postwar French cinephilia, starting out as a polemic written by Francois Truffaut in 1954 that railed against the literary tradition in French cinema, arguing that a director should have the freedom and the artistic vision to transform a screenplay into his own unique cinematic work. This was further articulated in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, which looked to Hollywood cinema and those directors who were able to impose their own signature into their films, despite the limitations of working within the studio system. By the time this auteurist criticism was imported to America as a loosely defined theory championed by Andrew Sarris, a new canon of films and filmmakers was being constructed.

The auteur theory, with its pantheon of directors and its freshly minted film canon, would soon be adopted into film schools and on film courses, where it would find an appreciative audience in a generation of young filmmakers eager to make their mark by alluding to the films and filmmakers in the auteurist canon. “The boom of allusionism,” Noel Carroll argues, “is the legacy of American auteurism,” a term he chooses to “denote the frenzy of film that seized (America) in the sixties and early seventies.”15 Whilst allusions to other films didn’t begin in the 1960s, note how Hitchcock appropriated the 360-degree pan in Ordet (Carl Dreyer, Denmark, 1955), where the priest and the young girl remain facing the camera whilst the room seems to revolve around them, for his own version of the shot in Vertigo, Carroll is correct in suggesting that auteurism changed our relationship with film. Before auteurism, and the cinephilia that sustained it, American cinema, particularly genre films, were deemed to be of dubious artistic value. The ‘frenzy of film’ that exploded in the sixties was “a call for the democratization of art – for the admission of the lowly genre film into the canon of aesthetic and academic worthiness,”16 thus breaking down the old, snobbish barriers between art and commerce and, in the process, reevaluating film history. The auteur theory was, in effect, a reassessment of Hollywood film history that attacked the old critical consensus, elevated genre films into art, and created a pantheon of directors and films. For filmmakers, auteurism appealed not just to their egos, but also to the obsession with film history or, more to the point, their film history, the films that mattered to them. The use of allusion was essential to this remaking of film history.

Carroll noted that the practice of allusion took the form of “quotations, the memorialization of past genres, the reworking of past genres, homages, and the recreation of ‘classic’ scenes, shots, plot motifs, lines of dialogue, themes, gestures, and so forth from film history.”17 Allusions to Vertigo are plentiful, often taking the form of homages, plot motifs, and themes, but what links many of them is the recreation of “classic” scenes and shots. One of the first was La Jetée (Chris Marker, France, 1963), which repeated certain themes found in Vertigo – the madness of time, the falsification of memory, the obsession to relive a lost love. As Chris Darke has pointed out, there were also three allusions to Hitchcock’s film: there is the time traveler (Davos Hanich) pointing to his place outside of time on the rings of an ancient sequoia tree which mirrors the same gesture used by Madeleine in Vertigo; the man following the woman (Helene Chatelain) to a department store, where he loses sight of her only to find her again amongst bouquets of flowers and mirrors, alluding to the scene where Scottie spies on Madeleine through a mirrored door at Podesta Baldocchi. This scene ends with the woman appearing next to the man in profile, her hair tied back in a spiral, as if replicating the famous image of Madeleine pausing behind Scottie at Ernie’s restaurant.18

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

The woman (Helene Chatelain) in profile in La Jetée (1963), Vertigo (1958) mimicking the profile shot of Madeleine (Kim Novak) in Vertigo.

Obsession (Brian De Palma, US, 1976) was De Palma’s homage to Vertigo in which the narrative closely follows that of Hitchcock’s film. Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) is haunted by the death of his wife, Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold), and his guilt in being unable to prevent it. He then meets and falls hopelessly in love with a young woman, Sandra, also played by Bujold, who has an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, only to have the events of the first trauma repeated. More than just the narrative, though, Obsession replicates the mood, texture, and style of Vertigo, even using Bernard Herrmann to score the soundtrack. The pacing is languid and meditative as the camera slowly tracks, pans, and circles its subjects. Its images almost seem to be in soft focus and the lighting is diffused, creating a foggy, dreamlike world, a world of memory and the ghostly presence of another film. De Palma ends the film with a recreation of another “classic” scene from Vertigo; the 360-degree pan shot of Scottie and Madeleine embracing after he has transformed Judy back into Madeleine is repeated in a dizzying shot where the camera continually circles around Michael and Sandra as they embrace at the airport.

De Palma would return to Vertigo, and the 360-degree pan, in Body Double (US, 1984), where he would recreate two famous scenes; Scottie tailing Madeleine through the streets of San Francisco and, again, Scottie and Madeleine caught in the spiral of time as they embrace. When Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) begins to follow Gloria (Deborah Shelton), a neighbor he has become obsessed with after watching her undress each night, the camera stays with him in a series of shot/reverse shots, as he first tails her in his car, before following her into a shopping mall, then down to the beach, (almost) always seen from his point-of-view. After Gloria has been brutally murdered, Scully tracks down Holly (Melanie Griffith) who had been impersonating Gloria, undressing for Scully’s voyeuristic pleasure every night. As Scully and Holly embrace and begin to kiss and caress each other, the camera begins to circle around them, cutting between Scully and Holly and Scully embracing Gloria in the same continuous camera movement.

Figure 2:
Figure 2:

Jake (Craig Wasson) tailing Gloria in Body Double (1984).

Figure 3:
Figure 3:

Scottie (James Stewart) tailing Madeleine in Vertigo (1958).

Steven Spielberg also paid homage to Vertigo in Jaws (US, 1975), where he memorably recreated the “vertigo” shot, the camera zooming in on Brody (Roy Schneider) whilst simultaneously tracking out, not to evoke the hero’s acrophobia, as in Vertigo, but instead his dizzying horror that his worst fears have been realized. Paul Verhoeven made no secret that Basic Instinct (US, 1992) was a homage to Vertigo, claiming to “know every shot of that movie by heart and entire scenes from Vertigo came back to me while I was shooting Basic Instinct.”19 Aside from being set in and around San Francisco, Basic Instinct has several allusions to Vertigo. Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone) is a dead ringer for Madeleine, mirroring her hairstyle and clothes. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) tails Catherine twice, once in a car, the other on foot, both sequences without any dialogue. An increasingly infatuated Nick visits Catherine at her villa and they embrace, framed by the Pacific Ocean in the background, a recreation of the moment where Scottie and Madeleine kiss at Cypress Point, the waves crashing behind them in the near distance.

Fredric Jameson considered such recreations to be blank parody, an imitation of Hitchcock that lacks any satiric or critical impulse. What was the point in slavishly imitating Vertigo? For Jameson, it spoke of nostalgia, of a desire to return to the past and experience it once again. Writing of Star Wars (George Lucas, US, 1977), which Jameson argued was a pastiche of Saturday afternoon serials of the 1930s to the 1950s, he states that “by reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period (the serials), it seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects.”20 With their recreations of Vertigo, De Palma and Spielberg were also seeking to reawaken a sense of the past, of film history, in their audience. But such an audience would need to know what was being imitated in the first place. As Carroll argues, allusions begin with a recognition of a similarity to another film, but there also needs to be an aptness to the similarity, “a correspondence between a new film and an old film… it asks us to apply what we know of the old film to the new film’s point of view on its materials.”21

An awareness of Vertigo is central to the allusions offered in The Green Fog. Whilst the recreations of “classic” scenes from Vertigo used in Jaws or Body Double were intentional allusions on the part of the filmmaker, The Green Fog uses sequences and shots from films and tv shows that were not themselves recreations, transforming intention into unconscious homage, where the cine-literate audience must work out the similarity and aptness to Vertigo of each new scene. In the prologue at the beginning of The Green Fog, after Maddin has hinted at an alien conspiracy with a shot of planet Earth and a mysterious green fog enveloping the west coast of America, amid scenes of men and women gathered around radios or loudspeakers, a lone man runs through the deserted streets of San Francisco at night, the footage slowed slightly, and the green fog digitally added giving the scene an unreal, dreamlike quality. The man is Dean Jones, and the footage is taken from The Love Bug (Robert Stevenson, US, 1968), a comedy produced by Disney about a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own.

Fig 4.
Fig 4.

Dean Jones in The Love Bug (1968) as reimagined in The Green Fog (2017).

The sequence used from The Love Bug has no equivalent scene in Vertigo; Scottie never runs aimlessly through the night in search of Madeleine, but he does revisit the same locations he tailed her to after he has recovered from his breakdown following her death, still haunted by her image. By placing the sequence from The Love Bug in the prologue, Maddin can hint at something more thematic, as if the man is caught up within a dream, looking for someone who is forever out of reach. Each fragment used in The Green Fog follows this associative pattern of perceptions and recollections, of what we see on screen and what we recollect from our memory of Vertigo. Perception and recollection, the actual image and the virtual image, are central to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the time-image, an image infused with the past and the present. The recollection-image may begin as a virtual-image, Deleuze argues, but “it becomes actual in so far as it is summoned by the perception-image. It is actualized in a recollection-image, which corresponds to the perception-image.”22 Yet, in The Green Fog, perception and recollection coalesce together so that the actual image is always in relation to another image, “a virtual image which corresponds to it like a double or a reflection.”23 Thus, the images in The Green Fog become actual and virtual, what Deleuze calls crystal-images, where time splits into two, “the present which passes and… a past which is preserved.”24 The present and the past embedded in the crystal-image disrupt the illusion of the linear flow of time in a film, which create a temporal short-circuit that keeps circling back on itself. Chris Marker imagined Scottie’s vertigo not of space and falling, but as a kind of temporal short-circuit: “a clear, understandable, and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent - the vertigo of time”25. It is through perception and recollection that The Green Fog actualizes what Hitchcock could only hint at.

Anchored by a memory of Vertigo, the spectator becomes a kind of time traveler, leaping back and forth across the decades and across different genres, from film noir to melodramas, disaster films, romantic comedies, thrillers, and television cop shows, experiencing a temporal disparity between a “then” and a “now,” most obviously visible between black and white and colour films, but also between the multiple temporalities that exist in each piece of footage, the “then” of its moment of inscription on film and perhaps of a previous viewing and the “now” of present viewing that changes how each piece of footage is perceived in relation to a memory of previous viewings of Vertigo. This temporal disparity echoes what Jaimie Baron has dubbed the “archive effect,” a sensation specific to found footage films where there is a recognition that “certain sounds and/or images within these films come from another time and served another function.”26 This effect is generated when the past collides with the present, between a visible “then” and a “now,” not through the footage itself, but by how we experience the pastness of the footage when we encounter it in a found footage film. As the past and the present in The Green Fog is not that of “real” history, but of Hollywood film history, the archive effect is more uncertain, akin to Janet Harbord’s response to the opening montage in La Jetée, which featured another time traveler: “Remembrance? Anxiety? Disorientation? Vertigo?”27 The footage used in The Green Fog comes and goes so quickly that the viewer is often left bewildered, caught between trying to remember where the footage comes from and recognizing who’s on the screen, and memories of Vertigo that can then anchor each scene into some coherent form of narrative.

The sensation of temporal disparity, the vertigo of time, in The Green Fog is most explicit in the montage sequences that repeat some of the iconic moments from Vertigo: the rooftop chase, tailing Madeleine across San Francisco, and Judy’s transformation into Madeleine. In these sequences, footage from different films showing the same action or gesture, running across a rooftop, driving up and down the iconic hilly streets of San Francisco, or a woman entering a bedroom where a man awaits, is repeated over and again. Repetition disrupts time as well as narrative by stalling its forward momentum. The spectator as time traveler is seemingly caught in a loop as essentially the same scene is repeated, before being released as the montage ends and the film lurches forward to the next part of Vertigo’s narrative, only to be caught in another loop.

One such loop is the rooftop chase sequence, which cleverly begins with a scene taken from Vertigo itself: the shot of the top rung of a ladder, held for a moment before being grasped by two hands. This is the first shot of Vertigo and its placement in The Green Fog, appearing after the strange, dreamlike prologue, is no coincidence: both films start off identically, with the same shot, but then rapidly deviate from one another, to tell the same story in very different ways. Maddin teases this shot of the top rung of the ladder, cutting to it six times between shots of a man climbing up a building’s exterior ladder before the two hands grab the bar. The next shot, though, is of Chuck Norris climbing onto a roof, taken from An Eye for an Eye (Steve Carver, US, 1981), which begins a montage consisting of thirty-five shots of various cops and criminals running, jumping, glancing down, and teetering on the edge of rooftops. If we started in 1958 with a rung of the ladder before leaping forward to 1981 then the rest of the montage similarly takes us back and forth through time, between black and white and colour, as Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, US, 1947), The Man Who Cheated Himself (Felix E. Feist, US, 1950), and The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, US, 1952) are intercut with They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (Gordon Douglas, US, 1970), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, US, 1971), Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972–77), and McMillan & Wife (NBC, 1971–78), before ending with Vincent Price dangling off a roof in Confessions of an Opium Eater (Albert Zugsmith, US, 1962). The result is bewildering, disorientating, and delightful, revealing how much Vertigo has sunk into the cinematic unconscious through repeated gestures, iconography, and imagery.

Figure 5:
Figure 5:

The rooftop chase in The Green Fog (2017). Clockwise, from top left: two hands grab the top rung of the ladder in Vertigo (1958); Chuck Norris in An Eye for an Eye (1981); Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage (1947); Vincent Price in Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962).

As the rooftop chase sequence unfurls, familiar faces appear, sparking a moment of recognition that quickly turns to pleasure, before they disappear, replaced with another actor. Other times, the faces are unfamiliar, journeyman actors who toiled away in film and television. We recognize Chuck Norris, Karl Malden, Sidney Poitier, Michael Douglas, Humphrey Bogart, and Vincent Price, alongside other actors we might not recognize, the likes of John Dall, Andrew Robinson, Arthur Franz, Rex Holman, and Steven Keats. Baron argues that the archive effect often produces the “archive affect,” the shudder that comes from the realization that “our desire for the “presence” of the past through its archival traces is always accompanied by the recognition of its absence, of all that has been lost.”28 The footage used in The Green Fog might not be that of “real” history, but these actors are, many of whom are no longer alive, yet they can live on in the archive, and be reborn, if only for a moment. These actors, then, are the “presence” of the past in The Green Fog: when Humphrey Bogart appears in close-up, looking out of a broken window, he and the film seem to pause, only for a moment, as if to allow us to gaze at this most iconic of film stars, before he begins to back away towards the door, puts on his hat, and leaves off-screen. Laura Mulvey has commented on how watching old movies and their iconic stars “is to have the impression of looking into history.”29 Discussing the films of Douglas Sirk, Mulvey argues, “to see Imitation of Life now, after Lana Turner’s death… is to see time itself caught and fossilized into the illusion of movement… her presence brings with it the cinema’s unique ability to return to and repeat the past.”30 To see Bogart in The Green Fog was also to see time itself caught and fossilized, to feel the “presence” of the past.

Figure 6:
Figure 6:

Time caught and fossilized in The Green Fog (2017): Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage (1947).

The use of allusions to Vertigo and its rollcall of stars from cinema’s glorious past begs the question, is The Green Fog another form of blank parody, rewarding cinephiles for their cultural literacy and ability to recognize the source material? At the same time, though, there is clearly parodic intent to The Green Fog, a desire by Maddin and the Johnson brothers to mock or deflate some of the privileged moments of Vertigo. Think of the three scenes that so entranced Marker in La Jetée: Scottie and Madeleine visiting Muir Woods; Scottie spying on Madeleine at Podesta Baldocchi; and Madeleine’s first appearance at Ernie’s. In The Green Fog, these scenes are recreated using N’SYNC’s music video for “This I Promise You,” where the band members sing in a forest of Redwoods, Karl Malden walking into a florist in The Streets of San Francisco, and Pippa Scott, dressed in red, seated at a restaurant looking directly to camera, again taken from The Streets of San Francisco. Or there’s Madeleine’s jump into the bay at Fort Point, recreated in The Green Fog through a scene taken from The Zodiac Killer (Tom Hanson, US, 1971), where Grover (Bob Jones) falls into a swimming pool with a comedic yelp after being shot. The next shot is from It Came from Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, US, 1955), where a diver helps another to the surface.

Such scenes suggest a disjunction between high art and low art as The Green Fog constantly undermines the artistic splendor of Vertigo. In this, The Green Fog moves away from blank parody, with its clever use of allusions that appeal to cinephiles, to become closer to détournement, the rerouting or hijacking of preexisting artistic elements to create a new artwork, as posited by the Situationist International. A detourned work would serve two purposes: firstly, it would negate the ideological assumptions embedded within the original artwork, and secondly, to then negate this negation and produce something politically instructive or revolutionary. Whilst The Green Fog clearly doesn’t share the radical politics of Situationist International, its use of détournement does point to a similar investment in the devaluation of art. In the foreword to his 1959 exhibition of detourned paintings, Asper Jorn wrote “Détournement is a game born out of the capacity for devalorization.”31 Jorn had creatively disfigured paintings by unknown artists that he had picked up at flea markets, adding abstract shapes and details. By using these forgotten, banal paintings, Jorn took aim at the cultural elite who wielded the power over what was remembered and what was forgotten from the history of art.

Guy Debord and Gil Wolman saw Jorn’s detourned paintings as exemplary of a “parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.”32 The use of détournement would devalue the artistic medium it appropriated explicitly through the inclusion of the worthless, the forgotten, and the banal, but it would also keep those objects alive by reinvesting them, giving them a new “presence.” Debord and Wolman speculated that one of the first consequences of détournement would be “the revival of a multitude of bad books, and thus the extensive (unintended) participation of their unknown authors.”33 In The Green Fog, it is the revival, not of bad films, but of banal, forgotten, generic films and television shows, and the actors who populated them.

In Vertigo, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) expresses his romanticized and idealized nostalgia to Scottie: “San Francisco has changed. The things that spelled San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” But what if we change the word “San Francisco” and replace it with “cinephilia”? Cinephilia has changed. The things that spelled cinephilia to me are disappearing fast. This could be the cinephilia of the 1950s and 1960s, the foundational moment that Paul Willemen dubbed “the heyday of cinephilia,”34 the period of film noir, the auteur theory, and Jean-Luc Godard, a period that would have a lasting influence not only on our collective memory of cinephilia, but also on the film canon. A ‘frenzy of film’ that produced a special, intense love of cinema that Susan Sontag would describe as “quintessentially modern, distinctively accessible, poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral – all at the same time.”35

Yet Sontag laments that this type of cinephilia is indeed disappearing fast: “You hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of, but a certain taste in films.”36 Moreover, she sees that “cinephilia itself has come under attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish.”37 All the characteristics that Sontag gave to “a certain taste in films” have been challenged38; quintessentially modern has given way to nostalgia, always looking back to a romanticized, idealized cinematic past; what was once distinctively accessible is now an elitist and hierarchical mode of film spectatorship; and the pleasures of cinephilia – the poetry, mystery, eroticism, and morality – were analyzed and dismantled through the lens of voyeurism and fetishism, and renamed scopophilia. Above all, it was this pleasure, the passive surrender to what was on the screen, that was identified as the most regressive aspect of cinephilia. To destroy pleasure, as Laura Mulvey, circa 1975, famously declared, was a way of countering the spell of cinephilia, to break the enchantment, and shift the balance of power back to an active and critical spectator.39 Yet, this was not so much a devalorization of cinephilia, and a certain taste in films, as a revalorization, giving legitimacy to the study of cinema as an academic discipline. The word “cinephilia” might have been treated with suspicion in film studies, but the fascination with its taste in films, the auteurist canon, continued unabated.

Sontag’s cinephilia was distinctly high-brow – Italian neo-realism, European arthouse, American independent cinema, and generally dismissive of Hollywood – as opposed to the wildly eclectic cinephilia of Sarris and the auteurist critics at Cahiers, which celebrated Hollywood B-movies with the same feverish excitement as it would for Italian neo-realism. Both, though, would strictly police their borders over what was and was not worthy of their love. As Sarah Keller argues of the cinephilia championed in Cahiers du Cinéma, it was “singular, elite, grounded in and simultaneously giving legitimacy to a canon of films and filmmakers, asserting limits to the idea of what cinema is,”40 all of which can also be levelled at Sontag’s lament. Colin McCabe asserts that the goal of the auteurist project of the 1950s and 1960s was the creation of the ideal spectator, the omniscient cinephile, “the privileged fan who distinguished himself from the rest of the audience in his ability to recognize not just art but the guarantee of art – the artist.”41 In effect, a certain taste in films was precisely this guarantee of cultural legitimacy, positing which films should be remembered, and which should be forgotten.

It is this certain taste in films that The Green Fog playfully takes aim at, choosing its footage less from the canon of Hollywood’s glorious past than from the fodder of mainstream American cinema, the formulaic thrillers, melodramas, actioners, and comedies. Occasionally a fragment of Hollywood’s lauded past shows through the banal, such as Greed (Erich von Stroheim, US, 1924), The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, US, 1948), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1962), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1974), and Vertigo itself, but The Green Fog gives equal if not bigger billing to the likes of Sudden Fear (David Miller, US, 1952), It Came from Beneath the Sea, Portrait in Black (Michael Gordon, US, 1960), Go Naked in the World (Ranald MacDougall, US, 1961), The Zodiac Killer, The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, US, 1974), An Eye for an Eye, and Jagged Edge (Richard Marquand, US, 1985). And then there’s the privileging of television in The Green Fog, once considered anathema to cinephilia, where the police procedurals and soap operas of the 1970s and 1980s are used more frequently than any film and, by editing all the film footage to match the television-friendly aspect ratio of 4:3, seem to eliminate the tell-tale signs of their origins - limitations on budget and set design, static camerawork – until it becomes harder to recognize what has been made for television and what was made for cinema.

If Hollywood’s glorious past – Vertigo - is at the center of The Green Fog, then Maddin and the Johnson brothers travel backwards through Hollywood’s more recent inglorious past to get there, as if reminding us that a certain taste in films is just that, a dogmatic taste preference that ignores vast swathes of film history in favour of a hallowed few. As if to prove the point, The Green Fog is split into two chapters, the first of which is titled “Weekend at Ernie’s,” a play on words that references both Madeleine’s stunning entrance in Vertigo and the black comedy Weekend at Bernie’s (Ted Kotcheff, US, 1989) in which two hapless wannabe yuppies parade around the wealthy seaside enclave of the Hamptons with their dead boss, pretending that he is still alive. “Weekend at Ernie’s,” then, points to Maddin’s stated intention that “we wanted the low rent pictures to mingle with the posh,”42 harking back to the feverish excitement that first defined cinephilia in the 1950s before the omniscient cinephile and their certain taste in films came to dominate how cinephilia would be perceived.

Figure 7:
Figure 7:

In The Green Fog (2017), Madeleine’s visit to Podesta Baldocchi in Vertigo (1958) is evoked by Lt. Mike Stone (Karl Malden) visiting a florist in The Streets of San Francisco (1974).

Figure 8:
Figure 8:

In place of Madeleine jumping into the Bay at Fort Point, The Green Fog (2017) shows Grover (Bob Jones) being shot and falling into a swimming pool in The Zodiac Killer (1971).

Figure 9:
Figure 9:

Judy becomes Madeleine bathed in a green neon haze in Vertigo (1958) is reimagined as Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) entering her husband’s bedroom in Sudden Fear (1952).

In La Jetée, the time traveler is given a choice. After he has completed his mission to unlock the key to rebuilding the ruined world he inhabits, the time traveler is offered a chance to join those he contacted in the pacified future. He refuses, preferring instead to retreat to the past, the world of his childhood and the memory of the woman he loved. This decision will cost him his life; as Janet Harbord argues, “his fate is sealed by a desire for repetition, for an identical match, to experience the moment as it was then”43. This could easily have been written about Vertigo, but could Harbord also be describing the cinephile with their obsession with the past, nostalgic for a relatively brief period of American cinema, and a desire to keep that memory alive?

Yet could the time traveler in La Jetée also be Maddin and the Johnson brothers, faced with the choice of looking forward or retreating to the past? Jaimie Baron warns of two types of nostalgia that can potentially accompany the archive affect: “either a nostalgic desire to recreate the past in the image of the perfect snapshot or a nostalgic but self-conscious awareness of the past as past.”44 The Green Fog does indeed recall the memory of the “perfect snapshot” – Vertigo – but its recreation is imperfect, a Frankenstein’s monster of bits and pieces from “lesser” snapshots of film history. Much like Vertigo itself, The Green Fog tries to recreate the lost object of desire and obsession, mirroring Chris Marker’s assertion that Scottie’s desire to transform Judy into Madeleine is “nothing but a mad, maniacal attempt to deny time, to recreate through trivial yet necessary signs (clothes, make-up, hair) the woman whose loss he has never been able to accept.”45 The Green Fog recreates Vertigo through trivial yet necessary images of other movies, trivial in that they are never as captivating as the images they emulate in Vertigo, but necessary in that they retread the same path as Hitchcock’s film. By doing so, The Green Fog confirms Thomas Elsaesser’s observation that “the new cinephilia is turning the unlimited archive of our media memory, including the unloved bits and pieces, the long-forgotten films or programs into potentially desirable and much valued clips.”46 Freewheeling through film history with Vertigo at its center, The Green Fog produces a kind of vertigo, perplexing and disorientating yet joyful and celebratory, that revels in the trash as much as the canonical.

Author Biography

Russell Banfield is a PhD candidate in the department of Film, Media, and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, where his primary research is found footage, cinephilia, star studies, and film noir. As part of his PhD, he is making two short found footage films featuring Sterling Hayden and Angie Dickinson.


  1. Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film, (London: Reaktion, 2004), 59. [^]
  2. ibid. [^]
  3. Eric Kohn, “Vertigo Revisited: Guy Maddin Explores Hitchcock’s Classic with Found Footage,” Indiewire (April 15, 2017), https://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/vertigo-remake-guy-madden-the-green-fog-interview-1201805968/, accessed on December 12, 2020. [^]
  4. Burgin, The Remembered Film, 16. [^]
  5. Sarah Keller, Anxious Cinephilia: Pleasure and Peril at the Movies, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 38. [^]
  6. Andrew Sarris, “Foreword: Allen Smithee Redux,” in Directed by Allen Smithee, eds. Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), X. [^]
  7. Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema,” The New York Times (February 25, 1996), https://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/25/magazine/the-decay-of-cinema.html, accessed on March 12, 2022. [^]
  8. Roland Barthes, “Leaving the Movie Theater,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 348. [^]
  9. Ibid, 345. [^]
  10. Michael Oliver-Goodwin and Lynda Myles, “Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco: You Can Hang by Your Fingers with James Stewart, Dream in the Fog with Kim Novak, and Relive Their Terrifying Love Story on the Vertigo Tour,” in The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage, and Commemoration, ed. Douglas A. Cunningham, (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 83. [^]
  11. Penelope Houston, “The Figure in the Carpet,” Sight and Sound, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Autumn, 1963): 160. [^]
  12. Ibid. [^]
  13. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 108. [^]
  14. Ibid, 1. [^]
  15. Noel Carroll, “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond),” October, Vol. 20 (Spring, 1982): 54. [^]
  16. Ibid, 80. [^]
  17. Ibid, 52. [^]
  18. Chris Darke, La Jetée, (London: Palgrave, 2016), 44–45. [^]
  19. Jean-Marc Bouineau, “Beyond Flesh and Blood,” in Paul Verhoeven: Interviews, ed. Margaret Barton-Fumo, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), 81. [^]
  20. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983–1998, (London: Verso, 1998), 8. [^]
  21. Carroll, “The Use of Allusion,” 52. [^]
  22. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 56. [^]
  23. Ibid, 68. [^]
  24. Ibid, 81. [^]
  25. Chris Marker, “A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo),” in Projections 4 1/2, eds. John Boorman and Walter Donohue, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 123. [^]
  26. Jaimie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History, (London: Routledge, 2014), 11. [^]
  27. Janet Harbord, Chris Marker, La Jetée, (London: Afterall Books, 2009), 2 [^]
  28. Baron, The Archive Effect, 22. [^]
  29. Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 160. [^]
  30. Ibid. [^]
  31. Asper Jorn, “Detourned Painting,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin, https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/painting.html, accessed March 12, 2022 [^]
  32. Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” trans. Ken Knapp, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm, accessed March 12, 2022. [^]
  33. Ibid. [^]
  34. Paul Willemen, “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered,” in Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, (London: BFI, 1994), 227. [^]
  35. Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema.” [^]
  36. Ibid. [^]
  37. Ibid. [^]
  38. See, for example, Girish Shambu, The New Cinephilia, Second Expanded Edition, (Montreal: Caboose, 2020). [^]
  39. For an overview of 1970s screen theory’s renunciation of cinephilia, see Nico Baumbach, “All that Heaven Allows,” Film Comment, Vol. 48, No. 2 (March/April 2012): 46–53. [^]
  40. Keller, Anxious Cinephilia, 6–7. [^]
  41. Colin McCabe, The Eloquence of the Vulgar: Language, Cinema, and the Politics of Culture, (London: BFI, 1999), 154. [^]
  42. Guy Maddin, interviewed in Scott MacDonald, “Lost in The Green Fog and Feeling Vertigo,” Cineaste, Vol.xlvi, No.1 (Winter 2020): 28. [^]
  43. Harbord, Chris Marker, La Jetée, 5. [^]
  44. Baron, The Archive Effect, 130. [^]
  45. Marker, “A Free Replay,” 123. [^]
  46. Thomas Elsaesser, “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment,” in Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory, eds. Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 41. [^]