Avant-Garde "James of the Tree" Aims High With Sword & Skeleton

Genre: Experimental
Company: Metro Film Produktion
Website: Official

There are films that can be understood simply by watching them, and there are films that viewers have to work at to comprehend -- and even then, they may withhold their secrets from the audience.

"James of the Tree" falls solidly into the latter category.  Taking influences from the poetry of Alfred Tennyson, the music of Haydn and the avant-garde cinema of Europe, it serves as a major question that only you, as the audience member, can answer.


"James of the Tree" is writer/director James Ristas's fourth short and, while his previous films such as "A Film in Tongues" and "Jehovah's Cobras" were challenging in their own ways, this latest is arguably the most demanding and difficult film yet.

The story very loosely echoes the poem, "St. Simeon Stylites" as written in 1833 by the famed poet Alfred Tennyson.  In case you're unaware, this classic poem is essentially Tennyson trying to weigh in on what makes a man worthy of ascending to Heaven -- all peppered with numerous satirical stabs.
If you know that going in, the madcap events in the film aren't quite as over the top and strange.  Everything is a metaphor, or at least everything pretends to be a metaphor.  You start thinking about what's going on, and James' attempts to escape persecution, only to murder his attacker and wander from place to place, utterly devoid of emotion, and eventually, it kind of clicks.


That being said, not everything plays along with the themes of the poem particularly well.  I don't get the significance of the tree in regards to the story.  I don't get the sword, or what that strange rake is that appears periodically and pokes at James.  Who are those people at the beginning, the mourners, and why does one of them "ascend", and more than that, why does her ascending inspire the others to hate James?

It's one thing to be metaphorical, or to demand total audience attention, but it's another thing entirely to just simply not have any answers for the numerous questions.


I enjoyed the black and white presentation, complete with fake dirt and damage to the "film stock".  The action was either fast and furious -- almost like a Looney Tunes cartoon -- or so slow that I found myself wondering if anything else of note would happen.  It's an experimental film, and I get that, but a steady buildup to a climax would have been much appreciated.

The makeup effects, by Jessica-Lee Van Winkle and Angela Gendron, were quite effective -- the skeleton, in particular, looked realistic.


Writing: 2 / 5.  The only spoken words in the film are quotes from Tennyson, but they serve their purpose: trying to adopt a deeper meaning to the seemingly unconnected images onscreen.  The metaphors are not readily apparent, and perhaps some more of it would become clear with repeat viewings, but the slow pace of the story does nothing to make me want to watch it again.  As it is, there are hints of intelligent discourse here, but they're few and far between.
Directing: 3 / 5.  I enjoyed Rista's take on silent films -- he cuts the sequences together and frames his shots almost like an old Groucho Marx silent film.
Editing: 3 / 5.  This is a difficult score to give, as I have no way of knowing how some of the more rough edges of the film were on purpose, to lend the film its "old" look.  Ristas contacted me and informed me that this short was filmed on Super 8 film and the dirt and scratches were real.  As a whole, the film suffers from serious pacing issues -- but that's more of a writing problem than anything in the editing room.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  Haydn's music is intriguing, especially with the weirdness going on in the film.   Dr. Michael Hurley, who is the voice reading Tennyson's poem, is up front and center.
Acting: 2 / 5.  James of the Tree (Kevin Geezil) does what he can, but if a film doesn't make sense, it's hard to then, in turn, make sense of a character's emotions.  The remainder of the cast are largely forgettable.  Dr. Hurley's voice is monotone and droning, and after a while I wanted his voiceovers to stop.

Final Grade: 2.6 / 5.

Check out "James of the Tree" on Vimeo right here -- and then say hello to writer/director James Rista on Facebook!

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!