Screened at festivals around the world, Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog (2017) is one of his best experiments to date, a recreation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo through a dizzying collage of famous films and TV shows set in San Francisco. The resulting cinematic spree is as much an ode to the possibilities of avant-garde film as it is a celebration of the master of suspense, and it marks Maddin’s enduring importance on the experimental scene. All of his trademarks to date – his eclectic palette, vivid color filters, playful surrealist streak, insatiable cinephilia, and tongue-in-cheek approach to sensational drama – have been swirled together with a sense of humor Hitchcock would have appreciated.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Maddin’s interest in cinema began while working as a photo archivist. He enrolled in film classes at the University of Manitoba, where he met his key mentors (Stephen Snyder and John Paiz) and future collaborators (John Harvie and George Toles.) Early on, his main influences lay in surrealist and experimental film, particularly the works of Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, John Paiz, and David Lynch. His debut short, The Dead Father (1985), mixes elements of body horror and surrealist ghost story, focusing on a son who is haunted by his recently deceased father. Shot on 16mm black-and-white film for only $5000, it was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival and marked Maddin’s entrance onto the Canadian film scene.
His first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), is also teeming with weirdness, reflecting the warped rivalry that develops between two smallpox patients who begin to compete for the attentions of the ward’s nurses with increasing obsessiveness. Maddin was not invited back to Toronto, yet in this film, critics already glimpsed his adeptness at genre-borrowing and stylistic allusion. Tales from the Gimli Hospital earned him a cult following and received a yearlong run at a midnight movie house in Greenwich Village.
Maddin also achieved cult status with Careful (1992), a German mountain film (or bergfilm) about an isolate town where deadly avalanches are triggered by the slightest display of emotion, resulting in violently repressed desires and jealousies that tear apart the lives of the central characters. A neon variation on German Expressionism, the film’s harsh reds and oranges bleed through the screen, making its downward spiral of duels, despair, and suicide all the more deranged. Though Careful was not a commercial success, Maddin’s revival of the bergfilm enjoyed pockets of appeal, single-handedly salvaging a dying art-house cinema in Missoula, Montana as the crowds poured in to see it.
Maddin’s Archangel (1990) also resurrected an all-but-forgotten genre: the part-talkie, produced only briefly during Hollywood’s transition to sound. Set at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, it follows a Canadian soldier suffering from amnesia as he wanders through the wastelands of post-war Russia and fatally falls for a woman he mistakes for his wife (having forgotten his actual wife is dead.) With its foggy black-and-white visuals, the film literally feels caught in a cloud of amnesia and generates a disturbing contrast between the ethereal softness of the camera filter and the landscapes of mass death where the action is set. Further disorienting, critics have noted, is that Archangel is riddled with traces of disparate and obsolete film styles: from Soviet War propaganda to German Expressionism to Buñuel surrealism to the part-talkie melodramas of late ‘20s Hollywood. “Maddin’s most distinctive trait,” wrote J. Hoberman, “is an uncanny ability to exhume and redeploy forgotten cinematic conventions.”
The observation seems especially prescient in light of Maddin’s later works, particularly his installation series Hauntings (2016), for which he reconstructed films from the silent period that had either been destroyed or were never released. Essentially, Hauntings was an interactive web project that involved taking Maddin’s lost-cinema recreations and putting them through an algorithmic generator that arranged clips of them into short 10- to 13-minute films. With its infinite number of permutations, Hauntings was a surrealist’s schema for the digital age, producing non-linear scenarios that lent themselves to open-ended, dreamlike interpretation.
While developing Hauntings, Maddin also came out with his own feature, The Forbidden Room (2015), drawing inspiration from his web-based project in the same way David Lynch’s Inland Empire had grown out of the Rabbits web series. The Forbidden Room features some of Maddin’s most outlandish satire, intricate references, and dream-drenched visuals to date. While Variety was unimpressed with its overabundance of crazed subject matter, Film Comment devoted a significant article to it, “The Infernal, Ecstatic Desire Machine of Guy Maddin,” sifting through its formal qualities and underscoring their sheer potency and sensibility in reproducing the textures of vintage film.
Film Comment did well to appreciate Maddin’s flair for pastiche, which emerged in much more polished form in The Green Fog. Liberated from the tasks of staging and story, Maddin was able to channel his energies into the purely formal elements of his found-footage fantasia. The love child of a mad cinephile and a meticulous alchemist, The Green Fog is proof of how much inspiration lies in the archives and how much of cinema’s magic is born in the editing room.