During a period of mourning, James is pursued up a tree by angry man armed with a sword. Time loses all meaning as the two men stand-off.
I guess, thematically, my review for “James of the Tree” ties in with “Set Fire to the Stars” as I went into both movies without any sort of awareness of their literary backgrounds. In ways it benefited my viewing of “Set Fire to the Stars” but my lack of knowledge left me a little more than confused by “James of the Tree”.
On the surface, “James of the Tree” comes off as a humorous experimental film where a man spends his days on top of a tree after being pursued by another man. Without contextual clues, it’s hard to interpret what the visuals meant and I was left scratching my head. Thankfully the credits provided some insight when it sighted a source for the film’s story being “St. Simeon Stylites” — a poem by Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson’s poem being about Simeon Stylites (obviously) — a man who achieved sainthood after living on top of a pillar for 37 years.
I had no knowledge of the Saint or the poem, so I had some homework ahead of me but I eventually returned to “James of the Tree”. After an additional viewing, I had a better understanding and appreciation for the short film but, for better or worse, I was still left with a few questions. I should note that the film is not a direct adaptation of the poem but a retelling of the story. The poem seemingly about self-reflection, while the short seems to take on a darker approach of guilt and penance…perhaps?
If I were to give “James of the Tree” credit for anything it would be for the challenge issued by James Ristas. I feel as though every thought or opinion I have about the movie should be followed by a question mark, simply because I am not sure. And I’m not someone who can so arrogantly declare their interpretation of a movie being true and absolute. “James of the Tree” is able to capture the dark and humorous nature of Tennyson’s poem, but in the retelling of the story, I can’t help but feel there is a disconnection between the imagery and the narrative.
Again, this could be the result of the material simply going over my head, but for me, it was hard to find the meaning behind some of the symbolism and how they related to the story. Why was James pursued up the tree after he declared the young woman had ascended to heaven? What was the representation of the hand that came to James’s aid by offering weapons and food? Or why did the final images include James standing outside a mall entrance? I have my own ideas, of course, and again I relate a majority of the story back to guilt — it’s why James gave the corpse food and beer, and why he couldn’t pass through the doors at the end.
Is that what it is? I don’t have the confidence to say for sure. Certainly I don’t feel as though Ristas should have to hold my hand as a viewer and spoon feed me the meaning behind the metaphors and the symbolism, and thusly I don’t fault my entire lack of understanding on the movie. In fact, I appreciate that he was able to create a challenging film. Again though, I think the only downside is that some of the imagery doesn’t tie into the narrative as well as it needed to. With that being said, “James of the Tree” is still a visually strong short that is able to capture the darkly humorous tone of the original poem.