Major Arcana (2018) tells the story of wandering carpenter Dink (Ujon Tokarski), who returns home to Vermont seeking redemption in the shadow of his alcoholism. As he builds a log cabin by hand, his desire to reconnect with Sierra (Tara Summers), a woman with whom he has a fractious relationship after his sudden departure from his home town, evokes a struggle between the man he wants to be and his past self.
The narrative feature directorial debut of Josh Melrod who, in 2012 co-directed with Tara Wray the documentary Cartoon College, about the two year programme run by The Center for Cartoon Studies at White River Junction, Vermont. In 2014 he edited Annie Silverstein’s short film Skunk, which was the recipient of the Cinefondation Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Gold Plaque for Best Student Short Film at the Chicago International Film Festival. In the same year, he also edited Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT LeRoy. For lead actor Ujon Tokarski, Major Arcana is his first exposure to the filmmaking process.
In conversation with PopMatters ahead of the World Premiere at the Raindance Film Festival 2018, Melrod and Tokarski discuss the capacity for film to create connections through shared experiences, and their desire to not hold the audience’s hand, so to speak, but to allow them to come to their own conclusions.
In The Hero (2017), Sam Elliott describes a film as another persons dream. Would you agree, or is this is a romantic idea of cinema?
Josh Melrod: I strongly agree with that. When I think about where the basic idea for the movie comes from, I was inspired by this documentary (Alone in the Wilderness, 2004) I had seen in bits and pieces over a period of years. It was about this guy called Dick Proenneke, who filmed himself on a 16mm camera in the late ’60s or early ’70s building a cabin in Alaska. He was just a very capable carpenter and it was fascinating to watch him chop down trees, hew logs and build a cabin.
So there was this idea in the back of my head that this would be something to build a film around. But in terms of where the meaningful part of the story comes, I came up with the idea during a two hour drive through Vermont. I was just sort of zoned out and I could see the beginning, the middle and the end, and a year later that became the script.
When I watched the movie last night in a theatre with the audience for the first time, it was very true to that original idea. I have thought many times how that just came fully formed into my head in a certain way, and how it is sort of dream like. Where and why inspiration strikes, why certain people feel compelled to share these things with other people is odd, and it’s unique to human beings. To me, that’s deeply associated with dreams, our sub-conscious and ego, and all sorts of other things.
Ujon Tokarski: In so far as the dream part of it, I think depicting someone else’s vision of what’s in their head is in a way dreamlike. My hope is that I can portray the character and his ideas accurately and effectively to get the message of what the story is, across [to the audience]. So yeah, I very much think the purpose of film is to give people an opportunity to enter an alternate reality. The hopes for the filmmakers and the actors is to create some kind of connection with what’s happening in their head, with their own experiences, and maybe even seeing themselves in a similar role.
Ray Bradbury said, “Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.”
I share this thought that there is an unconscious dimension to writing, in which ideas and characters are given to you. Do you see yourself has having an absolute conscious control over the genesis of a story, and its development?
Melrod: I don’t know where ideas truly come from, just as I don’t know where the words, the thoughts in the answer to this question are going to lead me. When I look at the story now, I can see elements from my own life, inspirations for different characters. At the same time everyone has that, everybody daydreams and creates stories in one way or another. But then I like to give myself a little bit of credit that I thought to write it down, and struggle for over a year to write the script. I challenged myself that I was going to work on the script every single day until it was finished, and because I’m a film editor, I was doing that at night.
Sometimes I would put in a ten or eleven-hour day in front of a computer editing, and then I would say: “I haven’t done my writing today.” Somedays that meant I was writing one sentence just to fulfil the requirement that I had given myself. But the pushing of myself to write, it was a lot of work and it’s something I’m proud of having accomplished, and of course I worked on it long after I finished the first draft.
That effort is another part of it. So everybody has these ideas, and when you tell people you’re a filmmaker and that you are involved in movies, everybody says: “Oh, I have a great idea for a movie.” But it takes a lot to put forth that effort and make it into something. I don’t think it’s just as simple as that, but that’s what separates some people from being writers or painters, or whatever else. People will go to museums and say: “I could paint that.” But they didn’t, and so I think some people just feel drawn or compelled to create these things, and other people have things that fulfil them in their lives where they don’t feel the need to.
There are those films — such as blockbusters — that are pure escapism. Then you have other films that are more grounded in trying to replicate the human experience. Major Arcana is not the escapist type; rather, it’s intent is to take its audience into another world, to connect with another character. This is an example of cinema is about sharing an experience with a stranger as we come to learn about the character(s), while also learning about ourselves in the wake of their choices and experiences.
Melrod: One of the things I find interesting in stories is a degree of ambiguity. I get this sense that so much of what we see in movies, but also in the news and other media, the world is presented in terms that are very black and white. I feel like almost all of existence exists in a grey area. So that was something that felt very real, and human and natural to me, and I’m proud of the movie for successfully doing that.
Tokarski: The whole concept of dreaming and film — great storytelling is certainly always about existentialism and our place in humanity, or rather our process in humanity. It’s also said in history that there isn’t any human story that hasn’t been told, and what changes is the circumstances and the characters. In any of the great stories that are told, any human being can connect on some level to the experience as it relates to their own. What that does is it allows us to identify our human experience through someone else’s eyes, and through someone else’s circumstances, and maybe it gives us an opportunity to realise and connect on a higher level with what everybody is going through.
We are all subject to our own fallacies as humans and to joy and triumph, as well as the challenges. So yeah, a good film so much like the film we were able to create here, I think, does that. It unquestionably gives us the opportunity to see what our life is made of. Is it made up of a path that is laid before us, of the choices that we have been given and been able to make on that path? So yeah, I think it connects us all on a very fundamental level to the fact we are all dealing with the same situation, but a different circumstance.: The whole concept of dreaming and film — great storytelling is certainly always about existentialism and our place in humanity, or rather our process in humanity. It’s also said in history that there isn’t any human story that hasn’t been told, and what changes is the circumstances and the characters. In any of the great stories that are told, any human being can connect on some level to the experience as it relates to their own. What that does is it allows us to identify our human experience through someone else’s eyes, and through someone else’s circumstances, and maybe it gives us an opportunity to realise and connect on a higher level with what everybody is going through.
We are all subject to our own fallacies as humans and to joy and triumph, as well as the challenges. So yeah, a good film so much like the film we were able to create here, I think, does that. It unquestionably gives us the opportunity to see what our life is made of. Is it made up of a path that is laid before us, of the choices that we have been given and been able to make on that path? So yeah, I think it connects us all on a very fundamental level to the fact we are all dealing with the same situation, but a different circumstance.
Major Arcana requires patience from its audience. One can find themselves questioning the intent of the storytellers. As the story gradually unfolds, the time spent with Dink yields a moment of connection. This kind of ‘patient filmmaking’, however, forces to immerse ourselves more deeply, to look for that point of connection, which the lack of exposition is critical in forcing us to see.
Tokarski: The concept or the idea of ‘patient filmmaking’ is a concept or a terminology I’m not familiar with, but … it makes complete sense. In the process of being an actor and learning about making a film, and then watching it, I think you’re absolutely right. Audiences today want to be led in a direction; they want somebody to hold their hand and tell them that this is what this is about, and this is what it’s supposed to mean. But in this concept of ‘patient filmmaking’, the onus is on the audience, on each person to decide where this is going and to not be given all of the answers.
Interestingly enough, as I watch this film I’m not watching myself. I’m watching a character tell a story and in the beginning even I found myself wanting to know more quickly, where is this going to go? …When you sit back and you let yourself engage in the character’s process, of what he’s going through in his life, you’re led to your own conclusion of what it means. I think the greatest part about how it unfolds is that it’s a matter of choices. But the film means something different to each person, who through this process of slow filmmaking has to reach a conclusion on their own.
Melrod: It was definitely very intentional. I like all sorts of movies and I like a big budget Hollywood movie as much as anybody. I’m not hugely into experimental movies or things that push me too far from things that are familiar to me. I think I have a middle of the road aesthetic, but I’m definitely more drawn to stories where things aren’t laid out plain for you. So it was a very conscious decision to begin the film in a way where we don’t have much dialogue for the first seven or eight minutes, where you are just watching him go through the motions.
That last night when I watched the movie in a room with an audience for the first time, it was horrifying because I was like: Holy shit, we are going so deep into this. By minute five — when nobody has said anything and the room is quiet and people are just watching — it was scary for me. It felt good when the movie ended and people said that they liked it, just because it did feel very quiet and methodical in a certain way.
But I do know when I made the first assembly of the movie, we were fourteen minutes in before we got to the first scene with dialogue, and even for me that was pushing it a little too far. But I like this idea of things just unfolding and causing people to have to… I didn’t want people’s minds to wander. But I also wanted them to fall into a certain rhythm that the movie has, and that I hope is a little bit different than most of what they see, but not terribly so. I think the story should be fairly engaging, even if not a lot is said in the beginning.
Tokarski: It sort of reminds me of the idea that the interrogator that asks no questions, will get the most answers. I think that’s what this film does – by being quiet and not giving away a whole bunch of stuff in the beginning, it forces people to engage in a way that they start to answer the questions on their own…
Picking up on your point about the grey area, Fink and Sierra are characters that can both draw us in and push us away. Major Arcana lacks a tidy ending, with Dink’s journey up until that point the main point of reflection. Here’s a character that represents the individual leaving home to go out into the world, to seek self-discovery and understanding. There’s also a romanticisation of “place” where we, the audience, cannot be. Much of the film is about our tendency as humans to live life inside of our minds, which often contrasts starkly to the reality of our experiences.
Melrod: When I thought of the story and what appealed to me as I was working on the script, from that very first time that I came up with it, all of my thoughts were jumbled and chaotic. I don’t feel the same, not just from one day to the next, but from one minute to the next. When Ujon is answering your questions my mind wanders for a minute, where I can put myself in a foul mood, and it’s just all messy and chaotic. I don’t think that the pace in the movie is chaotic, but in the inner lives of the characters that does come through, where there’s all of this indecision and regret — especially in Tara’s performance.
There was a nice moment when I saw it on the big screen last night, and I had never seen the movie projected so large… It’s the morning after Sierra and Dink have slept together in the tent, where he goes inside the house and looks at himself in the mirror. When he comes outside, she’s waiting, leaning against the car and her performance is so beautiful to me because there’s so much, not regret exactly, but there’s so much going on in her face.
What I should say is there’s so much room for interpretation. That was a beautiful moment, because it was finally projected on the big screen, I could really see it, and I felt it strongly.
It’s just this idea that our thoughts are messy and the sanest of us aren’t that sane. So I feel pride that it came through. Afterwards when people were coming up to speak with me, everybody had a different impression. They were all true, they were all things I agreed with and it wasn’t like anybody said something that would make me respond, “Well that’s not what I meant.” They were all different, but they all fell into things I had thought about before, and so I’m really proud of that.
Tokarski: Similar to Josh, the juxtaposition that you present is an interesting part of our human nature. When we have expectations about anything, essentially what we’re doing is were setting ourselves up for failure, or to be disappointed that it didn’t turn out the way that we wanted it to. Or the vision in our mind was completely different than what we thought would happen, and the film definitely depicts that as well.
Here are people that are struggling with who they are as a person, and how other people see them. I’m constantly caught in that struggle of wanting people to see me this way because they see me that way. So yeah, that comes through clearly in the film, and that’s what the constant human struggle is – this is who I am and this who I want people to think that I am. But it’s all based on expectations, so how can anything be right or wrong?
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
Melrod: A lot of the film is about struggling to overcome who we inherently are, and that’s something that… I struggle with. I would love the opportunity to make another film in part just to put into action the things I learned making this one. So it was a learning experience that was incredibly transformative, but in terms of who I am as a person, I don’t feel like I changed as much as I would like to change, or to grow as much as I would like to grow.
In terms of sitting through a film, I do think it should be a transformative experience for people in some way, whether it’s just to make them laugh or cry, or have their attention diverted for a time. I think a necessary component of a successful film is that people are transported away, and hopefully they come out a little bit different on the other side.
Tokarski: Similarly for me, the whole experience of making a film was transformative in the fact that I’ve never been exposed to any of this stuff. So it transformed my understanding of how films are made and what the process involves, and added to my repertoire of skills as a person, and it definitely broadened my horizons. In some sense that’s what you would expect would happen in an audience if a good story is relatable; to the point that it might not be transformative in a way that is very profound, but it definitely should add some perspective to someone’s life, to where they have a broader sense or have an ability to relate to other people. So yeah, I think [Major Arcana] is transformative to some degree for everyone that is exposed.