Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Siding With Midge: Of Guy Maddin, Vertigo and The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia: an interview with co-director Evan Johnson

I am by no means an expert on Guy Maddin's cinema, though I understand why friends of mine like veritable blog co-author David M. declare him "Canada's greatest living filmmaker." I haven't gone deep enough into his cinema to meaningfully agree or disagree with that statement. I find Maddin a bit daunting, actually, often find myself squinting and trying to understand what he's doing while he nimbly capers and plays, and sometimes I feel like the joke ends up on me; but Archangel and The Saddest Music in the World both delighted me, and I can see (with apologies to David Cronenberg) that M. might have a point. Certainly the Kronos Quartet providing a live score, at the VIFF tonight, to Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson's "sampled" reconstruction of Hitchcock's Vertigo, The Green Fog - which uses footage found in other films (or TV shows) shot in San Francisco to retell the story of Vertigo, as you can read about in the Georgia Straight and the Province - sounds like a must-see event, so I'm going, tonight, and bringing my wife, and have interviewed one of the two brothers who assisted with the film, Evan Johnson (I actually asked Guy Maddin, as well, but he's too busy with the holiday to contribute and offers his apologies). 

I'll get to the interview with Evan Johnson in a second. But first a confession: I have never been the hugest fan of Vertigo.   

It's actually a bit odd when one of the few major Hitchcocks you find deeply problematic ends up voted the greatest movie of all time by the Sight and Sound critics poll (full list of the top 50 here). Vertigo - recently supplanting Citizen Kane at the top of the BFI canon - has always been a challenging movie for me: it has brilliant stuff in it, but it is all packed into the last half, which forces you to go back and re-evaluate the first half of the film, which it reflects and complicates. The re-evaluation of that first half requires you to actually finish the movie; but I've had more than one attempt to view Vertigo thwarted around the 40 minute mark, where I was overtaken by frustration at the leisurely pace and slow accumulation of apparently useless information. If you asked me any other day but today - the day after I finally successfully completed Vertigo for what may be only the second time - I would say that I actually preferred (besides a dozen other Hitchcocks) a couple of movies that riff overtly on Vertigo, Miike's Audition and Brian DePalma's Body Double, which are far more parsimonious. Vertigo has always been a meh Hitchcock for me, though having finally gotten through it again, I'm kind of excited to try it a third time (and I don't mean as re-imagined by Guy Maddin; that's a separate film, though it will be fun to see how it riffs on the original). 

The plot of Vertigo, if you haven't seen it, goes like this (I will try to do this justice, in case you're curious about tonight's screening but find yourself lacking a familiarity with the original film that inspires and informs it). Scottie - an ex-policeman with a fear of heights - is hired by an old friend, Gavin, to follow his wife, Madeline, who may or may not be suicidal, and whose suicidal thoughts may or may not be informed by an ancestor named Carlotta, who killed herself some time past and may now be "possessing" Madeline (there's lots of "possession" in Vertigo, though none of it proves to be supernatural). Besides lots of scenes of Scottie driving around San Francisco following Madeline, that's pretty much all you get for 40 minutes, either in terms of story or theme; there's also Midge, a rejected love interest pining for Scottie in the wings - played by Barbara Del Geddes - but she barely figures in the story, save as a "tragedy enhancer," since she is ever present as a neglected-but-available alternative to the doomed love that ensues between Scottie and Madeline. (The fact that someone has had to write an essay called "Why Midge Matters" sort of proves that she's relegated very much to the margins of the story). Otherwise, there's not much else to chew on, at least not that we know about yet; we are, in fact, being lied to throughout the first third of the film, and watching through to the ending, as I say, requires you to go back and re-think things - but taken at face value, especially with all those poorly-aged fake driving shots, those first 40 minutes make Vertigo a real hard sell as the greatest movie of all time. 

Then you get to the ending. Neverminding plot implausibility, this is pretty rich stuff (and spoilers, here, ensue, though I've already kinda tipped to them by mentioning Body Double). The woman who we know as Madeline, in fact, is not the wife of the man who hired Scottie, but his lover, being employed by him to impersonate Madeline, so that a convoluted murder plot can be enacted, with Scottie as a credulous and compromised witness. He's been played for a fool - exactly like Craig Wasson in Body Double, he's been set up to witness a death and misunderstand it, so that the killer can get off "scot"-free and Scottie can carry the burden of humiliation, guilt and failure in the wake of the crime. We learn all this long before Scottie does, and can see more than he can through the last third of the film, so we can understand just how unfortunate and misguided everyone is. "Madeline" - real name Judy - actually, um, falls for Scottie, and, after her lover (murderer Gavin) rebuffs her, seeks him out. His obsession transfers easily onto his dead loved one's (apparent) look-alike, but just as Judy's value to Gavin lay in her ability to pretend to be someone else,  Judy discovers Scottie is so much in the grips of Madeline that she must, once again, pretend to be her, wearing her hair and clothes in direct imitation of her, to satisfy Scottie. Judy is put in the un-enviable position of being jealous of her own successful performance - jealous of herself! - but she eventually agrees to recreate the role, to become Madeline again, at least in terms of her appearance, if it means being with the man she loves.     

It all works out, for a short while, until Scottie realizes he's been lied to, and that Judy is, in fact, actually the woman he knew as Madeline; and that he has been used. The climax of the film sees Scottie liberated of his fear of heights, but it denies either him or Judy any sort of redemption or forgiveness; the past repeats itself in a very literal way. The themes are multiple, touching on the illusory nature of love, the nature of fetishization, the ways in which men use women, and the ways in which women allow themselves to be misperceived, in order to provide the lineaments of gratified desire to their own love objects. The "possession" of Madeline by Carlotta is replicated in the possession of Judy by Madeline, as is Madeline's fall in Judy's. Everyone in Vertigo is trapped, everyone is doomed; no tragedy in the film's world exists without repeating itself, and what we see more often than not won't help us. It's a dark, despairing, and probably quite profound film - if you can make it to the end. It probably has plenty to say on a meta-level about cinema, too, though shy of a third viewing, I'm not sure I'm prepared to tease that out (Audition and Body Double both explicitly make use of the metaphor of "casting" someone as an object of desire, in the context of filmmaking; and at least one critic I've read has pointed to Hitchcock's own fetishistic approach to his leading ladies as being critiqued in Scottie's obsessiveness, though there is no literal film-within-a-film here). 

I'm excited to be seeing what Mr. Maddin and co-directors/ editors Evan and Galen Johnson do with their re-imagining Vertigo tonight. It is, of course, deeply funny, meta-level stuff to have a doppleganger of a movie about dopplegangers. The Kronos Quartet's performance of the live score - not Bernard Herrmann's, note, but an all new one, by Jacob Garchik - is more or less a cherry on top of what already sounds like a very fun project, though I've been a fan of theirs since the days of Black Angels (the first Kronos Quartet I heard, when it was released in 1990). I've never gotten to see them live before, and while the $55 orchestra seat may seem expensive when viewed as a ticket to a movie, it seems a real steal as a ticket to a Kronos Quartet live performance.     

The Kronos Quartet playing in front of The Green Fog, by Pamela Gentile
Here is my interview with Evan Johnson, co-director of The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia.

A: I have NOT seen The Green Fog yet - I'm saving myself for Tuesday - so I'm curious if the three of you have played with the work of Saul Bass much in the film, or if Jacob riffs on the music of Bernard Herrmann? (Is it at least a Herrmannesque score? Did Jacob have any directions to work with as to how to score the film?)

E: We thought about making a full-on Vertigo title sequence, in the style of Saul Bass, but abandoned the idea when it just didn’t seem like it was going to look very good. At one point Galen was working with a shot of Linda Fiorentino from Jade as our Vertigo title sequence face-double, but it wasn’t coming together. As for the music - I think Jacob was mostly avoiding Herrmann. His score isn’t particularly Herrmannesque, though he is and was a longtime fan of Herrmann. We made his life difficult by repeatedly sending our rough cuts to him using Herrmann’s Vertigo score as our temp music. Very cruel! But he was a great sport and his score is terrific, it has just the right amount of angst and beauty and impishness, and of course Kronos performs it invigoratingly.

Are there any references to Hitchcock's cinema that only a Hitchcock devotee will spot? Are there any shots you chose BECAUSE they evoked Hitchcock, or conversely, shots you could have used but didn't, because they were too overtly Hitchcockian?
I’m not sure we were really making Hitchcock references, except the many explicit and implicit ones to Vertigo. Inadvertently, of course, this resulted in plenty of Hitchcockian shots finding their way into the movie.

I am guessing at something here: you supposedly use a shot from
The Birds; is it by any chance the pet store scene in The Birds where Hitchcock himself appears? (Does your homage include any Hitchcock cameo?). Are there any other Hitchcock clips employed in the film? How about clips from other films that are explicit homages to Hitchcock or Vertigo? (Did Brian DePalma ever shoot in San Francisco?)

We did not use the pet store scene from the Birds, though we looked closely at it, and we were so stupid not to even consider a Hitchcock cameo…our mind was on other things, I suppose. And that’s it for other Hitchcock films, though I know Family Plot is sort of ambiguously part-set in San Francisco. There’s a lot of very explicit Vertigo references in films shot in San Francisco, as you might imagine, and we definitely include those - they’re sort of hard to miss. Mel Brooks plummeting to his death off a bell-tower, that kind of thing.

Ha! So I have a confession: I LOVE Hitchcock, but... I am not a huge fan of Vertigo. It's one of those flms - John Ford's The Searchers is another, or Orson Welles' Touch of Evil - where its towering reputation preceeds it and makes it impossible for me to enter it on its own terms and I end up wondering if something is wrong with me for not having enjoyed it enough. I watch it every few years to see if I "get it yet." Do you know what I mean? (...this seems like a problem Guy Maddin might not have, actually). If so.... what are those films, for you? (Was Vertigo by any chance one of them, or do you all love it equally, or...?).

I certainly know what you mean. First of all, I have trouble with The Searchers too, though I love John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favourite films), and yeah, Touch of Evil can probably seem a bit…cold, cynical and pyrotechnic, maybe? (I do like it though.) I fell asleep the first time I saw Vertigo, like most people. It is a grim, gloomy movie, looked at one way, and though I’m easily cowed by critical consensus and expert opinion, I would never begrudge anyone who fails to be moved to enjoyment or anything else by Vertigo. I do find it very moving though, in complex and mysterious ways, and am fascinated by its secrets. Anyway, other ‘masterpieces’ I don’t really connect with? I find Metropolis pretty boring, I have to admit, though I love almost everything else Lang made. I shudder to type the words! I realize now how difficult it is to admit something like this. Speaking truth to power!

Are the three of you on equal footing as film enthusiasts or was working with Guy Maddin an education in cinema? (What is he like in person/ as a collaborator? What's your history with him?).

It’s hard to top Guy for film enthusiasm, but we try to keep up. Guy was partially responsible for my film education in the first place, when I was his student, but he still ‘educates’ me, in certain ways, though these days the education is usually concurrent with his own, in that he shares with me recent discoveries he’s made. Guy is a very close friend and a very fun collaborator - of course, we have our little disagreements, as everyone does. But the collaboration has been remarkably smooth. Of course, for all I know, he is secretly building up a massive warehouse of grudges against me (and Galen?) and will one day suddenly tolerate me no more. But it’s my impression that we regularly air our grievances - to use Festivus terminology - and that this reduces the tension that might otherwise be there. Guy can be a sneaky fella, and mischievous and occasionally confusing and emotionally indirect, but he is spectacularly generous, friendly in elevators, full of good, crazy, implausible ideas, and very funny.    

Was there ever any "limit" set on irreverence? (Were there shots you COULD have used that were too goofy or too disrespectful or... does Guy's sense of humour and playfulness allow for a no-holds barred approach?) Was there any disagreement/ difference between the three of you about which shots to use from which sources?

Alas, there was no limit set on irreverence, though perhaps there should have been. I was reading an amazing essay about Vertigo yesterday, by our friend George Toles, and I had a realization about what we’d achieved (or failed to) in making The Green Fog. In Vertigo, there’s a great scene where Midge, in an effort to puncture Scottie’s overpowering romantic illusion - his obsession with Madeleine - paints her own face into a portrait of Carlotta Valdez, the ancestor figure supposedly haunting Madeleine. Midge thinks she’s done something playful and funny, and that this gag might destroy Scottie’s illusion and bring him back to earth, as it were, but all she’s done is make explicit her own failure to intoxicate him. Midge’s painting is the perfect analogy for what we’ve done with The Green Fog - we’ve made a parodic facsimile in an attempt to puncture a romantic illusion (Vertigo itself), but as a result have simply revealed the extent of our own self-loathing, our knowledge that we could never achieve such feats of overpowering illusion. This doesn’t sound like a very kind self-assessment, so I will add that I love Midge, and that though Scottie is offended by her gag, I admire her for attempting it and I think it was the right thing to do. In short, we’re siding with Midge here, for better or worse. Although I should ALSO add that I don’t know if Guy and Galen agree with me on this, they might have a different account of what we’ve done.   

Do you have any favourite riffs on Vertigo from other films? Do you have any favourite (or least favourite!) homages to Hitchcock out there? What did you think of Gus van Sant's Psycho remake? (Do you like De Palma's films, out of curiosity? He seems, whatever might be said about him, to have really learned how to "speak" Hitchcock cinematically...).

I quite like De Palma and think his skills with tone and perspective help him achieve something more or less Hitchcockian, sometimes. Though I guess the truly Hitchcockian remains ineffable. I’m not sure Hitchcock himself could describe it. There’s something - some surplus guilt or dread - in his films that floats free of the inexorable cinematic logic, the tightly framed shots and tightly choreographed scenes and sequences, some mystery element. I thought the Gus van Sant Psycho remake was rather educational, for me, anyway. I saw it when I was young enough that it had much to teach me about the power of small (and large) directorial decisions. In fact, I think it’s the first time I was aware that a director did anything at all. I remember when I was young, wondering what a director could possibly do if someone else wrote the script and the actors did all the acting and said all the words, and a DOP composed the shots, an electrician did the cords and stuff, etc.. What is this ludicrous, superfluous job, “director”? I hadn’t read much Cahiers du Cinema at that point. Anyway, I really like Chris Marker’s Vertigo talk in Sans Soleil, though his remarks on Vertigo are almost as mysterious to me as Vertigo itself.

Did the three of you have any discussions of Hitchcockian film language in making the film? I assume someone out there can actually describe what IS "Hitchcockian" - if Brian DePalma can replicate it, presumably anyone else can; it's certainly easy enough to spot when you see it. Was a discussion of what is/ is not Hitchcockian at all relevant to making the film? Did you learn anything about Hitchcockian language (or
Vertigo) in making the film?

We really did not go deep into Hitchcock theory during the making of this, not out of laziness, I don’t think - I would have loved an excuse to read a bunch of Hitchcock books and watch all (most of) his movies again, but we wanted to learn about Vertigo/Hitchcock through the pragmatic act of putting together the movie, if that makes sense.

It sounds like the three of you were ALREADY watching other San Francisco films before you hit on the idea of remaking Vertigo using these other films - did you then have to go back through these films to select shots that correspond to scenes in Vertigo? How long did that take? How did you divvy up the work? DId you go with the first shot you found that fit, or did you ever look for a "better" option? Were there any moments from Vertigo that you had a hard time finding a match for? Was there ever a mad rush to Google OTHER FILMS SHOT IN SAN FRANCISCO to look for a scene you needed? (Were there ever moments where you could remember a scene that you needed from a movie you'd seen but couldn't remember what movie it was in?).

Yeah, we watched 20-30 San Francisco set features before deciding on Vertigo as our guiding force, but luckily we had been taking detailed notes while watching so in most cases we didn’t really need to go back into our “watched” bin and go trawling again. The work was divvied up thusly: we all watched many many many movies together, over many long hours during Guy’s Christmas break from his Harvard teaching gig; we made a rough plan of action together, then Galen and I began editing scenes and sequences and emailing them to Guy for feedback and/or rubber stamp approval. And yeah, we had trouble finding material for certain Vertigo sequences, but in those cases we would find something un-Vertigo like and try to work it in in a way that seemed like its negative outline was shining some light into Vertigo’s crevices. There were PLENTY of times when we knew we had a shot somewhere but couldn’t remember what movie it was from, and we’d start going over Herbie Rides Again with a fine-toothed comb, hunting in every frame, before realizing 90 minutes later that the shot we were looking for was in an episode of Murder She Wrote.  

Were there ANY other rules used in the search besides "fits a scene in Vertigo" and "shot in San Francisco?”

Nope - those were the rules! We did focus on feature fiction films, for the most part (though there are some exceptions), if only because were attempting to replicate a feature fiction film. But also we were limited by the amount of time we had to track down obscure or difficult to acquire films or clips.

Are there any San Franscisco films that got snuck in because any of the three of you have a particular fondness for them, or for other sentimental reasons (shots of favourite locations in San Francisco? Was location-matching an issue?) Are there any interesting background stories behind the inclusion of a particular shot? Are there any films you really wanted to include but couldn't, because there was nothing in
Vertigo that they spoke to?

We snuck in a shot of the great George Kuchar from Thundercrack! And a few shots from an Obayashi Nobuhiko movie that looked great though we never saw it with English subtitles after we found it on Japanese Amazon; there’s some stuff from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments (from 1923) which has some sequence set in then modern-day San Francisco; an episode of Mission Impossible because we wanted to sneak Peter Graves in. A very good noir called Women on the Run. There were all kinds of films we wished we included but couldn’t quite fit in. I would have loved to included Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, which is pretty cool and seems to have been shot partially in San Francisco. There’s a bunch more, but I can’t remember them now because all this watching was crammed into a very ludicrously small amount of time, and my brain is all scrambled and useless from the endeavour.

Dumb question, but is Tommy Wiseau's The Room used at all? Any thoughts on that film?

Not a dumb question! We didn’t use it, though we considered it! I love The Room, and I am a little protective of it, the way I am with other so-called “bad movies” that are actually more alive with human strangeness and (perhaps inadvertent, but so what?) formal ingenuity than many works of prestige. But for whatever reason, it didn’t fit with what we were doing.

Have you actually seen
The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia screened with an audience yourselves? Did you have any fun observations of the audience? Any advice/ caveats/ "preparatory remarks" to make to VIFF audiences (besides the obvious one of "watch Vertigo before you see The Green Fog?”)

We saw The Green Fog (live with Kronos) at the San Francisco world premiere, and it was a pretty great time. The audience was very receptive, they seemed to find it as funny as we had intended it to be. Whether they found it moving, or interesting, it’s harder to tell, as audiences generally don’t let out loud whooping sounds when they find a movie moving or interesting. If you’ve seen Vertigo, you’ll understand much more about why we put sequences where we did, and why certain shots are included at all. But if you haven’t, most of the scenes should work on their own anyway, as montages highlighting certain cinematic conventions, or as strange Kuleshov-effect-demonstrating whatsits. It’s a found footage movie, for better and worse, so it’s composed of clips from vastly different things, which means there’s hopefully enough variety of tone and haircut style to keep things from getting boring for very long. And we wanted it to have its own flow, we even secretly want viewers to pretend it isn’t a found footage film at all, that we actively wrote and shot all this material in this way in an attempt to achieve a decades-hopping dream-logic narrative tour through San Francisco’s history. So that’s what it is! We worked hard on it, but it’s supposed to go down easy.    

The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia plays at the Centre for the Performing Arts at 8pm tonight. More information here.

1 comment:

David M. said...

Or as in the case of his Dracula ballet film "Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary", Guy Maddin is "Canada's greatest undead filmmaker".