With all the technical trickery of today’s movie industry, it is a rare treat to find a film both unassuming and honest. But against all odds, that’s exactly what I found when director Zachary Levy brought his 2009 documentary, Strongman, to Images Cinema last Friday night. A screening of the movie and a follow-up Q&A with Levy gave students of the College and residents of Williamstown exactly what they wanted: a refreshing perspective on the possibilities and pitfalls of documentary film at its best.
Strongman tells the story of “Stanless Steel” Pleskun – the Strongest Man in the World at Bending Steel and Metal – with a shocking and occasionally uncomfortable honesty. Premiering nearly two years ago at Slamdance film festival, Strongman has been lauded throughout the film community, winning Slamdance’s prize for best documentary and being recognized as a New York Times critic’s pick.
Positing that it is “as real a documentary as there is out there,” Levy paints for his viewers the portrait of a strongman in his weakest moments. Levy courageously places his camera, and in turn his audience, into the fragile turning points when Stan confronts the limits of both his physical and emotional strength. An entertainer by nature, Stan thrives off his ability to please crowds of incredulous fans. But from the first minutes of the film, Levy hacks away Stan’s stage personality, carving for the viewer a privileged place “backstage.”
In the film’s opening scene, Stan attempts to identify himself during a phone call. “It’s Stanless Steel calling,” he says, “you know like stainless but like you take the ‘i’ out. I thought you’d like to have me lift a truck.” From this first encounter, we are able watch as Stan comes to the terrifying realization that his strength and his reputation are diminishing. Levy’s documentary is rife with these moments of imperfection, saturated with the “would’ve beens” in a way that mesmerizes viewers, keeping lumps in their throats and Stan on their minds.
The film is, in some ways, a constant battle between now-hopeless dreams and still-attainable aspirations. We watch as Stan wrestles with that balance, especially as it pertains to his girlfriend of two years, Barbara.
A model in her youth, Barbara is presented to us in Strongman in an entirely different incarnation. Weighted down by unnecessary pounds and years of disappointment, Barbara epitomizes with wrinkled honesty the fate of those who never achieve what they once aspired to. She repeatedly anchors Stan to their flawed reality, reminding him that “[they] will never have perfection.”
And throughout the film, we watch as Stan attempts to mold Barbara into the perfect announcer for his lackluster performances. Despite Stan’s efforts, however, Barbara does not fit into his dream the way he wants her to, a realization that is devastating for their relationship. “I guess that’s my problem, isn’t it?” Stan muses, looking unblinkingly into the camera. “That’s my problem. You can bend bars and you can break chains but you can’t bend people.” And as Stan’s world begins to fall apart around him, he forges an increasingly intimate relationship with the viewer. “It makes perfect sense that as Stan’s world gets smaller he begins to reach out to the audience more,” Levy notes. Perhaps it’s this phenomenon that makes Levy’s film the kind that remains on your mind long after you’ve thrown away your popcorn and left your plush theater seat.
And in many ways, this tension is the thrust of the film: the ebb and flow between Stan’s indefatigable optimism and Barbara’s cynical fatalism. This loaded opposition is, as Levy explains, central to the success of the film. “This situation might blow up at some point and that tension is always there,” he said during the Q&A. “That tension is what is driving this film forward because you don’t know if Stan’s going to bend something, break something, let it go or let it deflate him; all those things are possibilities.”
Described by New York Times critic Jeanette Catsoulis as “unbearably intimate,” Levy’s narrative structure works to make the viewer wonder if the simmering conflicts will ever be diffused, if the dull pain will ever get better. And yet, Levy considers his film a “fundamentally hopeful” one, explaining to Friday’s crowd that, “in the midst of that craziness and chaos there is a lot of beauty.”
A truly fantastic film, Strongman makes its audiences eager for Levy’s next undertaking. It showcased both its star and its director with optimistic honesty and gave its viewers a raw and indelible demonstration of another kind of strength entirely.