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A Year of Rest and Relaxation: "Relaxer" and the Cinema of Joel Potrykus

The cinema of Joel Potrykus and Ottessa Moshfegh's novel "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" favor outsiders disconnected from modern life.
Caden Mark Gardner
There is no clear, direct film comparison to provide for Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer. It can feel like a blender of one director’s proclivities and tastes. That speaks well for Potrykus’s imagination, one who alchemizes and is inspired by polar opposite film sensibilities, as there are times Relaxer looks and goes in directions uncharted by current American independent cinema. In its play-like staging, gross-out humor, and signifiers of the end of the century that tease an alternative reality, Relaxer is a gnarly, minimalist tour de force, Sartre’s No Exit for the Y2K period slacker.
Slackerdom is hardly the new exploration in American indies. Richard Linklater built his career on such character types. His slackers, however, carried an air of pretension to occupy themselves, like reading the classics or deep-diving into conspiracy theories. Even with Linklater’s Rohmerian style of centering philosophical conversations, his works had an accessibility that has enabled the director do major Hollywood studio films on and off. Potrykus is not aiming for that kind of approachability or respectability; in fact there are times where it can appear his films are consciously moving in the opposite direction. Stylistically, his films often clash the highbrow and lowbrow aspects of film tastes in his work, such as with ‘80s VHS video store B-movie genre nasties and European arthouse cinema. As a result, Potrykus has been labeled a “punk rock” and “guerrilla” filmmaker for his relatively small but distinct oeuvre. His films do not just get presented at micro-genre film festivals but at Locarno, where he has won prizes. There is a deeper chord struck in viewing his films that manage to attract from different corners of cinephilia, be it erudite critics all across the world and American video store nostalgists. Relaxer is in many ways a culmination of Potrykus’s whole career, a body of work that is worth seeing because of what it is saying and representing even as its abrasiveness is firmly not for everyone.  
Joel Potrykus’s cinema first earned him attention with his "Animal Trilogy," the short Coyote (2010) and the two features, Ape (2012) and Buzzard (2014). The lifeblood in these films are in characterization, building an arc around antisocial loners who self-debase in petty crimes, foolish compulsory games, and dares that gradually lead to his lead characters (all of them portrayed by actor Joshua Burge who reunites with Potrykus in Relaxer) experiencing mental breaks and physical transformation into their most animalistic ids.  Those films also are more than just character pieces. The three films are emblematic of their settings: all set in Potrykus’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The American rust belt feels brewing under the surface of these films and resonates in telling stories that indirectly comment on the post-recession impact of those areas. One can look at these settings as representing the decaying American power, particularly as represented in the state of Michigan, that aligns with what Burge and Potrykus create in characters that rapidly decline into William S. Burroughs / David Cronenberg-style body horror that deeply sensorial and full of maximalist manifestations.Potrykus protagonists are not the industrial, blue-collar men of Fordism and the auto industry that Paul Schrader (another Grand Rapids native) captured in their death rattle with the Detroit-set Blue Collar (1978).  These are deeply unsatisfied characters who are incredibly unfit for a traditional desk job or any real occupation. But what they do in finding any pleasure in their adamantly avoid labor at all costs approach to modern life becomes the point of fascination.  These characters want something, but what can they get?  
The turning point for Potrykus as a filmmaker happens in his second film of the trilogy. There’s a moment in Ape where the aggressively unfunny, pyromaniac, failed stand-up comic Trevor (Joshua Burge) goes into a rant in a set where he lists the various small regional cities similar to Grand Rapids where it would be expected of him to tour next were he a success.  But that will not happen, as he bombs his set and his contempt turns not inward but outward towards his audience and the life he cannot even achieve in failing as a comedian. Deep down, Trevor cannot handle being seen as a failure and so his rant is him rejecting this lifestyle altogether before it closes on him.  That level of impotence in somebody so alienated and unlikable yet seeking to be liked is high. After this film Potrykus seems to not focus on his characters having an eagerness to be liked and more about their oddball and more fluidly acquired pleasures, albeit with notable confrontations. 
His follow-up, Buzzard, involves grifting, scamming, and any way to buck the system.  Buzzard begins with Marty trying to run a scam at a bank. Instead of having Marty start with a petty theft of burglary or even bank-robbing, Potrykus has his protagonist humor himself in trying to pull a fast one by creating a new bank account to get $50 as a new customer and then immediately wanting to opt out yet still keep the money. It comes as no surprise that Marty is unreliable at his office job and also employs similar scams to get any kind of money out of it, such as returning office supplies and keep the reimbursements for himself. The amount of effort in not working and doing nothing feels like a feat, a battle won. Marty’s ambitions are formless but not without the sense of thrill and joy he has in the scam, best exemplified by Potrykus filming Burge as Marty stuffing his face with spaghetti while laying on his bed wearing only a white robe at a hotel that he paid for with his scam money. It is childlike, in ways that recall a Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone movies, and it similarly reacts to those who want to spoil these pleasures with cartoonish D.I.Y. violence. Nick Pinkerton in his review of Buzzard in Reverse Shot perceptively boiled down Marty’s method and worldview as being less of a Travis Bickle anti-hero and more pathetic, somebody who overshot their ambitions and got caught red-handed. Pinkerton writes, “There’s zero indication that Marty will go home a changed man, and literally anyone else would be more deserving of the breaks he’s gotten—though of course ‘deserving’ has very little to do with how things are parceled out in this world. The only philosophy behind Marty’s dissidence is self-preservation, and his highest aim is shirking. When backed into a corner, he blurts some half-baked righteousness about ‘corporate thievery,’ but you don’t believe for a minute that he cares about anything but covering his own ass.” Like Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s “angry young men,” the main characters of a Joel Potrykus film feel very much like products of their culture and surroundings. However, the crucial difference in what Potrykus is doing in showing his type of masculinity and male loner is that there is no real sexual libido (it is difficult to recall anything from a meet-cute, holding of hands, or a kiss in these films) of his characters nor a system of faith in which his characters are tested or that they subvert.  His outsiders opt-out rather than engage with the world and in the rare instances they do engage are willful attempts at gaming the various systems.  The one non-Burge Potrykus film, The Alchemist Cookbook (2016), has its lead Sean (Ty Hickson) live a life of hermitage, called out by his friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom) for avoiding bills and society as he does science projects in his trailer in the Michigan wilderness. All play and no work, effort sustained in the aims of no effort at all, could describe all of the Potrykus leads.  The dream of ultimate freedom in that regard takes on a nightmarish, “maybe dreams are not what at all what we imagine they to be,” quality in Relaxer.  
Relaxer takes place in the single setting of a living room of a decrepit apartment.  There a few signifiers of its location but its setting in 1999 is full of cultural touchstones like now defunct store Media Play, Chuck E. Cheese, and the Pac-Man game, the latter of which is an obsession of Abbie, Joshua Burge’s character. Y2K looms due to the survivalist paranoia of Abbie’s older brother Cam (character actor David Dastmalchian, who is closer to the Potrykus leads of previous films than Burge is in this) and before he leaves town, he issues his brother one last major challenge. Instead of doing more of the previous childish gross-out food challenges—like drink a whole gallon of soured milk— Cam wants Abbie to reach the infamous, near mythic Level 256 on Pac-Man and must stay put on that couch until he does so. 
Potrykus stated he intended to make Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) by way of Linklater’s Slacker (1992) with this film and Relaxer’s biggest success is its effort that pushes it into the surreal. The film is so detached from reality yet urgent in its ritualism. Abbie, so demure and different from other Potrykus protagonists, remains steadfast in staying on that couch as long as he can even as his body and surroundings begin to rot and decay.  On occasion friends and former colleagues of Abbie (it is actually shocking to learn—and still difficult to imagine—via exposition that Abbie had at one point a life outside of those apartment walls) stop by to check on him, but he is removed from the person they knew.  Abbie soon begins to wield something fantastical (which links him to previous Potrykus characters) with some kind of telekinetic power. This occurs parallel to him moving up levels of Pac-Man but this revelation has a minimal audience beyond Abbie. He is fully alienated from society as time moves ever so nebulously outside of his windows.  The way time and life moves around in Relaxer does not recall a film as much as it recalls the 2018 Ottessa Moshfegh novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about a protagonist going into a near-hibernation sleep state for over the course of a year with the assistance of dozens of real and fictionalized prescription drugs. Moshfegh’s heroine reflects on her experience, “I didn’t do much in my waking hours besides watch movies. I couldn’t stand to watch regular television. Especially at the beginning, TV aroused too much in me, and I’d get compulsive about the remote, clicking around, scoffing at everything and agitating myself. I couldn’t handle it. The only news I could read were the sensational headlines on the local daily papers at the bodega. I’d quickly glance at them as I paid for my coffees. Bush versus Gore for president. Somebody important died, a child was kidnapped, a senator stole money, a famous athlete cheated on his pregnant wife. Things were happening in New York City—they always are—but none of it affected me. This was the beauty of sleep—reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me. Subway workers went on strike. A hurricane came and went. It didn’t matter. Extraterrestrials could have invaded, locusts could have swarmed, and I would have noted it, but I wouldn’t have worried.”  Sound familiar?  
The similarities between this novel and the film are purely coincidental, Relaxer was in film festivals last year right before My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s publication. It speaks more to the fact that Potrykus and Moshfegh have an unlikely kinship and shared interests in exploring some of the most grotesque aspects of being somebody in a world not as transparently profane as their characters. As storytellers they both run at a cross-section of familiarity in these characters and a strangeness that veers into the abrasive, absurd, and fantastical. Moshfegh’s works dating back to the recently re-released novella McGlue (2014), her debut novel Eileen (2015), and her short stories anthology Homesick for Another World (2017), have been filled with solitary, deeply alienating characters who are unafraid to present how unflattering they come across to other characters or the readers, be it on an interpersonal or on a hygiene level.  Filmmaker John Waters is a fan, stating that Eileen was a Christmas gift he provided all of his friends one year. Potrykus and Moshfegh have filmgoers and readers bare witness to their characters in their most private moments, stripped of civility and respectability. In these works of hibernation-like sleep and playing Pac-Man, slackerdom transforms into a rigorous pursuit towards rebirth and retreat.
Like Relaxer, My Year of Rest and Relaxation reads part culmination of a career and part a provocative step forward for Moshfegh by not expanding but rather paring down her prose into presenting the single action  in her protagonist’s choice to devote to being asleep. And the similarities continue with these works in parallel. Hygiene-wise, both Abbie and the heroine abdicate the responsibilities in personal upkeep, Abbie with never a care for it while the heroine remains ever self-confident in her “effortless beauty.” With the exception of lethargic trips to the nearby bodega and recollections of a character’s previous career at an art gallery, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is set primarily in one location of a Manhattan apartment much like the single-location Relaxer. Like Potrykus, Moshfegh has a panache for mixing tastes of the high, middle, and low into her works; her lead, while being Ivy League educated and once a modern art gallery employee, is also obsessed with her VHS tapes collection that she falls asleep to and has a genuine, unironic appreciation for Whoopi Goldberg. The rare instances of Moshfegh’s heroine interacting with other characters are much like Abbie’s: no camaraderie or platonic bond in the present, just history and memories. Once on their journeys, Abbie and the unnamed heroine arcs get bifurcated into a different self and mental state, in the latter’s case by design from the medication. They do this to escape from modern life and also from a sense of loss in their life. The lead character in My Year of Rest and Relaxation states early on that she has suffered the personal losses with both of her parents dying and sees her action as “self-preservational.” “I thought it was going to save my life,” in defending her choice against the idea she was suicidal or had a death wish.  Abbie’s reasons for going along with Cam’s decree initially comes off as some Pavlovian reaction, he simply is used to following his older brother’s orders even if it is more of a man in arrested development getting played—once again—by the childish games of his brother, the bully. But what becomes revealed and obliquely referenced is the fact that Abbie has been experiencing some level, it is unclear the extent, of trauma. What is concrete is that he lost his father, who went to prison after being found guilty of sexual abuse against other boys, and that absence of normalcy in his life in being tied to a broken home has informed his decision-making that extends to doing this. This effort offers him control.
But perhaps the most crucial connection between My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Relaxer are how close they are in time period as recent period pieces and how both tie their endings to major historical events. The former is set in the aftermath of the Y2K anticlimax and ends on what ultimately did truly became the defining cultural flashpoint of the new century, September 11, 2001. Relaxer ends on a speculative version of what the Y2K alarmists thought would happen: anarchy, violence, and mayhem teased outside of Abbie’s apartment. What these denouements show are two characters who have reached their conclusions and are now staring at a new world that went on without them. Their visions of this come with seeing somebody they believe they know, who is either the ultimate reality gut-check, a welcome back into the human race, or their mind playing tricks and projecting what they want to see. But for that moment, they both have never felt more alive.
In visual storytelling and written storytelling, the absurdism and extremities of the familiar define both the works of Ottessa Moshfegh and Joel Potrykus. The former has enjoyed some mainstream success although not without pushback—Moshfegh has mentioned secondhand anecdotes about how her works have scandalized various book clubs across America. Potrykus still remains a very independent filmmaker, one who has passed on more mainstream film offers, in a time where that term has taken on different connotations that are more tied to the marketplace than the work itself. Relaxer is unlikely to convert any prior skeptics of the filmmaker yet it feels like a statement that cannot be so easily ignored.  In this time of art being called to engage with the real-life problems du jour, it feels more honest and human to make a film, however absurd or grotesquely drawn, about those who do not engage, who step away of modern life, and get their sensations from an alternative source of living for as long as they possibly can.


Joel PotrykusLong ReadsOttessa Moshfegh
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