Both in person and online, I have encountered the criticism-or-maybe-it's-just-an-observation that if you don't know what The Green Fog is doing before you see it, you probably wouldn't figure it out. Maybe that's true - I knew what it was doing before I saw it - but it is quite entirely beside the point. The Green Fog is, if you squint and turn it around and decide that words no longer mean things, a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo, but that doesn't mean (as some reviewers have seemingly concluded) that it is a a narrative film and meant to be encountered as one. It is an experimental film, in the most straightforward sense: the filmmakers are exploring what happens when you do this, wherein this involves perceptual and structural games more or less stripped of content (those filmmakers Guy Maddin and brothers Even and Galen Johnson, both of whom have worked with Maddin in various capacities on most of his projects for a few years now; since Maddin is the brand-name auteur, it's easy to call this "Maddin's film", but it does seem to have been a largely collaborative affair). Experimental films, unique among all genres - even unique among genres within the broadly-described cinematic avant-garde (which I think includes all experimental films, though not all avant-garde films are experimental, even though the terms get used as synonyms sometimes) - are supposed to be watched with the answer key laid out in front of you - nobody goes to see Warhol's Empire or Brakhage's The Text of Light or Hollis Frampton's Zorns Lemma without knowing precisely what the thing is, how it was made, and how they're expected to watch it.
So back to The Green Fog. I don't know exactly what Maddin and the Johnsons were thinking, but my gut tells me that this isn't the commentary on Vertigo or Hitchcock that some are trying to make it; Vertigo is a parameter, not a subject. The Green Fog is a 63-minute-long attempt to reconstruct the plot of that film using footage of movies and television shows shot on location in San Francisco, though very much not Vertigo itself (the film does use the Vertigo parody High Anxiety, which I think is cheating). Mostly, though not exclusively, dialogue is crisply chopped out of the footage, leaving a whole array of jerky little jump cuts that take place just as a character is about to speak, so that the whole thing is in a sort of half-formed pantomime. There's also a plot tacked onto the beginning and sporadically referenced inside the film, which is that a green fog has been infecting San Francisco; this is itself another Vertigo reference, to the dreamy green lighting and diffusion that happens in that film's famous makeover sequence.
So much for what the film is. What makes The Green Fog an amazing, precious viewing experience is what the film does. And that could be a lot of things, depending on the preoccupations of the viewer, but for me, the very most important and exciting project of the film is to grapple head-to-head with the question of how we watch movies, and how we build narratives in our heads. Knowing that it's just Vertigo done with an absurdly large helping of irony, the plot takes care of itself: instead, the film's chief pleasure lies in watching how totally disconnected bits and pieces of footage, from extremely famous and mostly obscure films alike, are reconstituted as a "narrative", though one in which the protagonist keeps changing bodies throughout, and spaces are only vaguely formed out of irreconcilable images. It is, in effect, simply working through the exact same theoretical material that the Soviet montage filmmaker Lev Kuleshov laid out in the late 1910s: look at how you can make the audience suppose that two images are spatially related simply by putting them next to each other. And God knows, there's no actual value to re-proving the Kuleshov Effect in 2017; if it didn't exist, neither would the entire last century of cinema. Yet by reminding us that this is how movies work, and by using this mostly to construct jokes (some of which are incredibly fucking dumb, all of which are hilarious; I will say only that going into it, I was most curious about how the Muir Woods scene and the nun who appears at the end were going to be reconstructed, and those ended up being my two favorite parts of the movie, alongside a thematically poignant montage during which James Stewart's aimless depression after the big mid-film twist in Vertigo is re-imagined as a montage starring one of filmmaking's haplessly inexpressive actors), The Green Fog demands our almost unwavering attention to the construction in front of us. It is, basically, a film that with every single cut taps us on the shoulder to say, "remember, editing creates an illusion of continuity, there is no continuity in fact", and uses this to make us laugh rather than ponder. It's no exaggeration to say that that the only things that are ever funny in The Green Fog are funny because we are aware of how ridiculously the fiction of Hollywood continuity editing is failing.
Okay, it's actually an extremely large exaggeration: the other things that are funny come from the other big variable in the experiment, the removal of dialogue. The result is as revelatory as it is silly, an exercise in looking at performances as a series of wind-ups, letting us see how actors communicate emotion and meaning through expression and gesture, but not tone of voice and line delivery. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this; what it feels like, though, is an invitation to watch movies with a much fresher eye (and not just the few dozens of movies that pop up somewhere in The Green Fog itself), both towards the material within their shots (like acting) and in the way that shots are pieced together. Basically, I think it's a film that wants to reset your brain a bit: ask that you really notice what a film is - not a story, not an examination of character psychology, not an expression of theme or social issues or whathaveyou, but a kludged-together assemblage of fabricated parts that combine to make a coherent object for very little reason other than that we have, as a world culture, agreed to the deception this is so.
I mean, there's plenty else going on! The film is a collection of representations of San Francisco; it is a genre-hopping look at the similarities in how certain visual conceits occur and reoccur in different ways (but also a demonstration of the dissimilarities that crop up in the gulf between, say, an action movie and a romantic drama); it is a catalogue of the evolution of cultural norms across the 20th Century as seen in cinematic representation. The film is probably exhaustible, but not after one viewing, nor after many viewings more. Anyway, this time around, it was the film's joyfully, goofy grappling with the mechanics of film viewing that really grabbed me; the last time I felt this energised by a film asking me to reflect on what I was doing, right there, as I was watching it, and what was going on in my brain, was Jean-Luc Godard's 2014 assault on the eyes Goodbye to Language, and that's in the running for my favorite film of the 2010s so far. I won't say that The Green Fog is quite up that level, not yet, but I will say that no Maddin film has left me so happily gasping for breath and convinced that I just had An Experience since his 2000 masterpiece The Heart of the World. So that, at least, is a hell of a thing.