Video games may be Lana Del Rey’s idea of fun, but cinematically, they’re somewhat problematic to represent. From Tron to Pixels, it’s not been easy to find a way to create drama from interactive entertainment; Joel Potrykus’ film doesn’t try, but instead places the viewer on the couch with the player. We see very little of what’s on the screen, which sounds frustrating, but Relaxer is such a strange, off-beat fish that it writes its own rules as it goes along.
This is a period piece. Y2K is approaching, and slacker Abbie (Joshua Burge) is playing Pacman, hoping to reach the fabled level 256; player will know that he’s on a hiding to nothing, since a glitch stops the game just before he can win. He’s working a side-mission, and hoping to win a cash prize by not budging from his couch; this goal is equally elusive. At the millennium approaches, noises from outside his apartment suggest that his task may prove pointless, but what else is Abbie to do?
Relaxer may not sound like a must-watch, but then again, watching people play video games is big business these days. Potrykus ingeniously uses the noises of the Pacman game to soundtrack the action, and there’s a constant stream of friends and obstacles arriving in Abbie’s apartment to distract from his pale, thin body. These range from supportive pals to vermin eradicators, and Abbie’s inability to remove himself from his seated position reaches Cronenbergian heights when he seems to have become glued to the surface. Abbie’s refusal to participate in life beyond the on-screen maze also recalls Herman Melville’s Bartelby, and his refusal of the urge to conform or participate with the external world. Burge does a great job of making the bug-eyed Abbie seem sympathetic despite the extremity of his situation; when the story takes an abrupt and surprising lurch towards the end, engagement levels are high, and Relaxer manages to make something gripping out of a story that might appeal abstract and alienating; like David Lynch’s Eraserhead if the central character had a Sega Mastersystem habit. And the set is particularly ingenious; Relaxer plays like a film rather than a play, mainly because there’s something inherently cinematic about the way that Abbie’s environment changes as his disintegration occurs. It took four months to contract the environment that Abbie sits in, but revealing why that build was so laborious would be to spoil the film’s twists.
Relaxer has been a film festival circuit favourite, and arrives in the UK this week on streaming and blu-ray, complete with the director’s previous film Buzzard, as well as a wealth of extras. It’s one of three new titles from the Anti-Worlds imprint, and features the eclectic tastes of John Morrisey and Sam Dunn and their Powerhouse films label, which seeks from bring rare and under-valued films to new audiences. At £25.99, Relaxer isn’t a cheap option, although you can stream it for a much more competative price of under a fiver to get a taste of it’s hypnotic appeal. With a growing cult-following and a decidedly unique appeal, it’s a desirable purchase for the cineaste who wants something a little off the beaten track; Sonic the Hedgehog this is most assuredly not.