Thursday, June 5, 2014

Dances with Films: The Historian

I’ve had the pleasure of screening a few selections from this year’s Dances with Films, a film festival in Los Angeles currently in its 17th year.

The Historian
Directed by Miles Doleac
Screening June 5 at 9:30pm

Some people have more than one passion. When one person indulges more than one interest at the same time, interesting things can result. Fashion designer Tom Ford, for example, directed “A Single Man,” crafting a gorgeous and remarkably compelling film, both technically and creatively. Miles Doleas, a trained historian from Mississippi, steps behind the camera to write and direct his first feature, portraying a history professor at the start of his career beginning a promising new job and trying to maintain balance in his life, all the while knowing that human nature and historical tendencies are inevitable.

Doleac, whose film acting credits are few, stars as Ben Rhodes, who arrives at a prestigious university as a visiting professor. He immediately meets two notable members of his department, both with extraordinarily different demeanors. Val Hadley (William Sadler) is the seasoned and respected professor with a penchant for being strict and unforgiving, and Anna Densmore (Jillian Taylor) is the perky grad student who just happens to be Rhodes’ neighbor. Trying to impress the surly Hadley and not to fall for the overenthusiastic Anna proves challenging, and Rhodes also finds himself struggling to come to terms with the primary motivator of his institution: money.

There are layers of meaning to all that occurs over the course of two cinematic hours in “The Historian,” and parallels between what is going on in Rhodes’ personal and professional lives and what he is teaching his students. Some of it is more literal than others, like when Hadley demonstrates on a curious student what crucifixion was really like. Ultimately, it’s a bizarre product, one which is truly interesting but also includes some odd inconsistencies, mainly in how its history-oriented students speak like hipsters.

Sadler, who has been working for decades, has just the right disposition to play the steely Hadley, one who has long since abandoned the notion of caring what others think of him, at least publicly. Taylor brings a spirit of excitement to her character, who is often all over the place, and John Collum and Leticia Jimenez help to anchor the film as Hadley’s ailing father and Rhodes’ most honest colleague, respectively. Doleac’s performance is certainly enthusiastic, full of emotion and energy, a possible reflection of his real-life love for the work. Though it’s difficult to come to a clear conclusion on the overall effectiveness of its film, it’s definitely an interesting and thought-provoking dissertation.


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