Thank you, Foster Hirsch | Bleader

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thank you, Foster Hirsch

Posted By on 08.24.12 at 03:08 PM

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From William Castles Undertow
  • From William Castle's Undertow
While I'm grateful for any opportunity to see classics like On Dangerous Ground or Phantom Lady on 35-millimeter, the highlight of this year's Noir City series at the Music Box was hearing film scholar Foster Hirsch introduce William Castle's Undertow (1949). That film—a thoroughly generic programmer, even by Hirsch's generous estimation—attracted one of the best turn-outs of the week simply because it was shot partly in Chicago, and one could feel the room surge with pride when the Monroe and Wabash el platform appeared on-screen. Hirsch stoked the crowd's enthusiasm with his characteristically lively introduction (one of these days, he and Jim Trainor ought to tag-team on something, though I fear the combined energy might cause one of them to explode), finding cause for admiration in the smallest eccentricities. "Isn't it interesting how the two leads, Scott Brady and John Russell, look a bit alike!"

I don't mean to sound flip: Hirsch is an inspiration. He can find redeeming qualities in any movie, no matter how generic; overriding any potential disappointment is his astonishment at cinema's ability to preserve quirks of character, location, and narrative sensibility. That's a skill few critics manage to keep sharp (understandably so, since we see so many generic movies), yet Hirsch's remains knife-edged decades into his career. That meticulousness allows him to pinpoint the five minutes of Undertow whose moral ambiguity seems to have come out of a much better film. Focusing on those five minutes (which concern a mentally handicapped servant played by a forgotten character actor named Daniel Ferniel), Hirsch set up the movie so that it seemed to build up to them. He gave this mostly pointless movie a point.

I kept Hirsch in mind this week when watching mediocre movies for work. This proved rather helpful in the case of The Apparition, a new horror film I'll likely forget about by next month. The movie stars Sebastian Stan, a decent enough supporting player in Captain America and David Mackenzie's Spread but who's as much of a nonpresence as John Russell when placed in a leading role. But in spite of his generic earnestness, a certain intelligence comes through in Stan's line readings. There are some poignant moments near the beginning—before the paranormal creepiness starts—when his character goes shopping with his fiancee, a veterinarian played by Ashley Greene. He's working a dumb tech support job while she earns the bulk of their income (there's a nice, unforced sense of gender equality to their relationship, which makes the movie on one level a document of heterosexual coupling circa 2012), and you can feel him trying to bulk up his conversation with flourishes of intelligence—any creative work to remind himself of the education he's abandoned.

Reading up on Stan online, I learn that he was born in Romania, moved to Vienna at the age of eight, and only arrived in the United States at 12. What an exciting childhood! And what a good American accent he's developed! It's also worth mentioning that he appeared in the 2007 Broadway revival of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio directed by Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls; and one can sense from the way his eyes dart on-screen a quick-thinking performance style more common among stage actors than movie stars. None of this makes The Apparition a good movie, but it gives one plenty to think about as it brightens up the big screen.

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