Joel Potrykus has emerged as one of Michigan’s brightest sons. With three features films under his belt, the filmmaker’s vision has come to embody an emerging genre of metal slackerism. A sort of blended comic dread lies at the heart of Potrykus’ depiction of outsiders, who all seem to be playing a game of low-stakes rebellion against the expectations of what entails a normal life. Comic paranoia seems to be his bread and butter, with each of his characters riding a line towards a festering and apocalyptic impulse towards self-annihilation. During the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival, Vague Visages sat down with Potrykus to discuss his work. With a vision born from “punk rock music and Nirvana, that and Harmony Korine,” he aspires to “make the movies that I want to make, not the kind of movies that I think other people are gonna want to see.”
Potrykus’ first feature, Ape (2012), feature characters on the brink of non-survival. A few notches below hack comedian, Trevor (Joshua Burge) tries to make a living as a comic with no success. Unfunny, unconvincing and uncharismatic, he can’t lure butts into seats in his regular Grand Rapids comedy club, threatening his already razor thin career. Perpetually broke and continually isolated, Trevor finds catharsis in music and setting fires.
So much of Potrykus’ films comes with bargaining: a kind of asshole move of low-grade scammers and cheapskates trying to continually get off paying as little as possible. His characters are not trying to hoard any wealth and they are often barely scraping by, but their bargaining doesn’t feel desperate as much as it seems like a compulsion. The refusal to abide towards the unquestioned tenets of how a society works almost feels celebratory, as Potrykus’ tongue in cheek treatment of characters feels subversive and gleefully slack. Not every personality can get away with wearing down apathetic low-level employees, but Trevor’s affected frustration grates on people to the point where they give him what they want just to get him out of the way.
Ape sets the tone for Potrykus’ follow-up films by way of creating a perfect blend of fantasy, comedy and slacker culture. Riding on the wave of the rap and punk music, the film channels this overwhelming desire to create your own reality and leave behind the one imposed on you by society. His films showcase that, for most people, a preconceived ideal for what constitutes an ideal life has long been injected with a sort of pointlessness; a toiling perpetual motion machine with little joy and opportunity outside of the sad-sack comfort of feeling like you’ve conformed to what society has laid out for you.
To date, Buzzard (2014) stands out as Potrykus’ best film, encapsulating themes of isolation, self-annihilation and dark comedy. Like all of his films, it’s told from within the character, a rule Potrykus is strict about. “My movies are only from one perspective, it’s really super important to me,” he says. “I don’t ever break that unwritten rule.” Set in Grand Rapids, Buzzard depicts the life of a temp worker, Marty (Joshua Burge), who scavenges his way through life and stumbles upon a low-level scheme where he signs over small change cheques over to himself. Paranoid that his employers and the law are onto him, he escapes from the world to his coworker’s basement and then runs off to Detroit.
Blending elements of horror and comedy, Buzzard depicts Marty as a lazy scammer trying to avoid the responsibility of normal life. A liar and a petty thief, he embodies the world of the low-stakes glamor of passive aggressively subverting all levels of authority. While the world often pushes back and forces him to pay — in spite of his downtrodden and desperate demeanor — the filmmaking draws viewers into his experience and makes him a kind of hero. Perpetually unlikeable and increasingly paranoid, Marty isolates himself further and further over the course of the film, but he’s just more and more likable.
Like all of Potrykus’ films, Marty seems to be very isolated, but he doesn’t dwell on loneliness. His filmmaking seems less interested in urban ennui, focusing instead on how we behave when no one is watching, perhaps revealing a truer sense of who we are. Food plays an integral part of this narrative, figuring in all of the director’s films so far. Apples, Totino’s pizzas, spaghetti and Doritos all fuel his vision of loneliness.“How do people eat when no one’s watching?” Potrykus asks. “Are they polite? Do they just chomp with their mouth open?” Watching TV in a hotel room, Marty eats spaghetti mouth open, sauce spilling over himself and his sheets. In a food performance that would make Chevy Chase proud, Burge creates a perfect moment of contemporary loneliness that feels more liberating than unhappy.
“My world makes sense to me, your world doesn’t make sense to me.” This is the ethos that lies at the heart of Potrykus’ most recent film, The Alchemist Cookbook, which screened at Fantasia. Focusing on a young man living in a trailer in the Michigan backwoods, the film brings Potrykus’ vision of loneliness further than ever, as he creates his first real horror film. “The first movie that made me want to make a movie, that made me think that I could make a movie, was The Evil Dead”, Potrykus explains. This film represents his closest feature to incarnate of that ideal.
The loneliest of Potrykus’ films, The Alchemist Cookbook is also the first to not star his collaborator Joshua Burge. Taking up the mantle of slacker realité, Ty Hickson plays Sean, who has isolated himself in order to solve some ancient mystery. With only one other character (cousin Cortez, played by Amari Cheatom), who drops off supplies and meds, the film feels cold, gray and alienated. Over the course of The Alchemist Cookbook, Sean’s reality begins to crack. As a viewer, one may become entirely invested in his vision, unsure where his reality begins and that of the real world ends.
Silence dominates the film, and Ty’s performance grounds the increased sense of loneliness that sets in. His ticks and movements feel authentically unwatched, his performance channeling a man who feels the freedom of being alone in a trailer far from society. His mumblings don’t feel as symptomatic of mental illness (though that’s clearly festering close to the surface), and they instead seem like natural inflections of a person who has been very alone for a very long time. For Potrykus, focusing on just one or two characters may be convenient as an independent filmmaker, but he says, more importantly, “that’s how artists feel.” To understand his protagonists as artists casts them in a new and almost philosophical light.
Horror slowly creeps into this world by way of an increasingly fractured reality, as the film seemingly navigates around blackouts in consciousness and sanity lost in chapters dropped off and worked around. In that endless void of isolation, monsters crawl out from the darkness. Far more eerie than Potrykus’ previous entries, the film depicts a man losing a grasp on reality by way of mental illness. The film feels lonely and dark, while also being a step away from the director’s comfort zone, for better and for worse.
While Potrykus has not benefited from Michigan’s generous film tax incentive, he will nonetheless be affected by its uncertain future. Since the Republican-led government completely repealed the incentive to nothing earlier this year, the industry has been cut off. Potrykus will likely survive, as his filmmaking works within low-budgets now. But he takes on bigger projects in the future, he might be forced to migrate elsewhere, in spite of his voice being so reflective of the Michigan experience. The short-sightedness of cutting short the industry, just as it was beginning to bloom, highlights an unfortunate symptom of art-targeted austerity measures that tend to proliferate in conservative-run governments. Hopefully Michigan, like Potrykus, will survive and even thrive in spite of this, with both the state and filmmaker proving to be relevant in the American independent scene.
NOTE: The piece originally stated that Joel Potrykus’ films benefitted from the Michigan tax incentive. That isn’t the case, and the article has been changed to reflect that.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.