Abbie is sticky, shirtless and drinking eight baby bottles of milk. He is not allowed to leave the leather couch, lest he forfeit victory. This milk challenge was dictated by his brother, Cam. There are a lot of rules. All of them arbitrary.
As Abbie is on the cusp of winning, the rules change. The goal post is moved further down field. Now, instead of eight baby bottles, his bro demands Abbie finish the entire gallon. It was probably spoiled to begin with, but Abbie peed in it during a desperate moment, so it’s even more raunchy now.
“We could have really done a little more with the vomit,” says Relaxer director Joel Potrykus on his film’s milk challenge scene. I can almost hear him shaking his head on the other side of the line.
He knows they could have “done a little more with the vomit” because he’s definitely puked from chugging milk before. In fact, his buddies in Grand Rapids, where Potrykus still lives and makes his movies, used to each throw $5 in a bowl, then chug milk until they puked. Whoever puked last got the pot.
I can tell this ‘inauthenticity of milk vomit’ thing is weighing on him.
“Other people who watch [Relaxer] say ‘that’s really excessive,’” says Potrykus, with a tinge of frustration in his voice, “I want it to feel real.”
As Abbie’s story builds, so does the challenge. It’s summer of ’99. Billy Mitchell has offered $100,000 to anyone who beats the corrupted 256 level of Pac-Man. Cam challenges Abbie to do it by the century’s close because “there ain’t no Nintendo in the Y2K.” To make it more interesting, for Cam anyway, Abbie isn’t allowed to leave the couch.
Abbie, sick of losing, accepts.
The rest of the film is one gamer’s harrowing journey to survive, both in human and eight-bit form. Every small victory unravels just as he’s about to enjoy it. It’s a Rube Goldberg of tiny defeats. He will breathe poisonous fumes. Eat non-food foods. And be covered in a sewage waterfall by the time it ends. He does have one secret weapon, a pair of 3D glasses that may or may not harness his possible telekinetic powers. Only one thing is certain: Abbie’s room must smell positively rancid.
“I don’t even look at it as gross,” explains Potrykus. “I look at it as a war movie. People sweat and bleed and suffer and are tortured in a war movie. And that’s what this is: a war movie.”
Potrykus loves to put his characters through the ringer. In his three other features—Ape, Buzzard, and The Alchemist Cookbook—his protagonists will battle demons, fight with blade-tipped Nintendo PowerGloves, or make actual deals with the devil, just to score some Doritos. And maybe a Slurpee, on a really good day. So, when people call his characters slackers, he just doesn’t buy it.
“They’re putting in so much work and thought into these very silly plans for very little, and to me that shows that they have ambitions and motivations in life,” he says. “But maybe that’s what it is: Maybe they’re very low ambitions.”
For his characters, low ambitions could also be called being realistic. They’re not born rich. Or traditionally beautiful. And whenever they climb up one rung in life, they’re destined to fall down three. Every system fails them, because it’s either designed for someone else’s success or because it isn’t a true system at all. “My characters just say ‘What? This isn’t the law. This isn’t rules. Why is this happening and why is everyone doing this?’”
It’s in all of that questioning, disguised as humorous bumbling and scamming, that Potrykus’ films dig into such rich soil. Why don’t we all call Totino’s and complain about our pizza, then get five free?
“Because, well, if everyone did that then nobody would be spending money on the pizzas and they’d go out of business and then you wouldn’t have your favorite dinner anymore,” laughs Potrykus, who then continues.
“You’re the enemy of your best friend all of a sudden. I’m kind of fascinated by all of those dilemmas. What you can cheat to get, and what are the small or long, long, long term consequences – if there would be any – of these things. I’m not thinking about global warming. I’m thinking about what would happen if we were all to scam Totino’s. I’m just more into that stuff.”
In Relaxer, Abbie’s $100,000 goal sets the stage for high-stakes entropy. Even Billy Mitchell himself, the one man who claims to have done it, eventually had all of his high scores removed from the record books for cheating. And in the case of Pac-Man’s famous programming glitch on level 256, that means Mitchell might have cheated a game that cheated him first, but only he got punished.
In the system of successful filmmaking, you’re supposed to move to California or New York. You’re supposed to pitch a $20 million TV show about a witch who’s also a cabaret singer with a complicated love life. You’re supposed to know you’ve made it when you work with ‘the best in the business.’
Potrykus never bought into any of that. Instead, he stayed in Grand Rapids to make movies with his friends on positively microscopic budgets. They built this Relaxer set from scratch in a friend’s parents’ garage. It took three months. They communicate in non-verbal shorthand, call themselves a “film band” and they practice once a week. And it’s working: they’re making some of the most interesting new film projects you’ll find.
Back on the couch, Abbie has settled into his new, relaxing life. He’s built contraptions that do not work — or at least don’t seem to solve any of his many problems. But hey, they’ve kept him busy as Y2K looms. And sometimes, that’s enough. Besides, he’s no quitter. He rises to a challenge.
See Relaxer, the movie with more levels than Pac-Man, when it screens for one night only, Sunday January 13 at Cinépolis, Victory Park at 4 p.m. It’s the Oak Cliff Film Festival’s selection for Best of Fests, this weekend’s celebration of 22 DFW film festivals. And as an added bonus, Relaxer’s cinematographer Adam J. Minnick will be there, so pelt him with questions about shooting surrealism in what was certainly a very stinky room. Tickets are $10.