Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Zachary Levy makes "Strongman" (opened March 25 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) an old school documentary that puts his subject front and center.
Stanley Pleskun hails from South Brunswick, New Jersey, and he has a special skill. He's extremely strong. He can bend a penny with his fingers or lift a 10-ton truck using only his legs. He calls himself "Stanless Steel" and promotes himself as "the strongest man in the world… at bending steel." He dreams of making a career out of his strongman skills but so far nothing major has come from it. He makes an occasional TV appearance and talks at schools or birthdays but true fame has eluded him. Maybe that's because at fortysomething he seems a bit past his prime and because his feats, like his tagline, require some kind of modifier. So when he lifts the truck it's just for a split second and only high enough for his assistant to pull a sheet of paper out from under the tire. His act may not be flashy but Pleskun is persistent.
Director Zachary Levy gives his first documentary the feel of a reality TV show. We enter Pleskun's life and end up feeling like a fly on the wall as family drama and career crises play out. Pleskun can come across as a likable lug at times but his career ambitions seem unrealistic, so he can seem a bit pathetic. So we feel bad for him when he goes on a cheesy British variety show where another performer, with a more highly polished act, boasts about his success and $2000 pay checks. But Stanless Steel needs a lot more polishing before he can achieve that kind of professional success. He can't have appearances where his stunt doesn't go off as planned or where the payoff fails to impress the audience.
Pleskun makes his disappointment and frustration quite apparent to us and to his family, especially his girlfriend Barbara. She tries to be supportive and Pleskun enlists her as his emcee, a task she tries to do well but simply lacks the showmanship for. So there are times when Pleskun berates her for not "selling" his brand or his stunt with enough flair. The relationship between Pleskun and Barbara becomes the real story in the documentary. During the good times, they seem well matched and in love. But As Pleskun grows more impatient with his lack of professional progress, he takes out his anger on Barbara who can only take so much. In Levy's close ups of Barbara, we see her quiet devotion slowly fade into a tired and slightly sad realization that she cannot stay with this man she loves.
Levy catches some very intimate and not always pleasant moments. At these times you are not sure if you should admire him for the honest emotions he seems to be recording or slightly put off that he is intruding on something so obviously personal. Levy seems to want us to like Pleskun yet he shows an unpleasant side that can be off putting. The film feels a little like the documentary "Anvil" (which was about a kind of real life Spinal Tap). But "Anvil" was able to let us feel the passion of its down on their luck band members and find something endearing about their persistence in the face of so many obstacles. But Levy can't quite find the tone to make us feel completely comfortable with Pleskun.
Sometimes he seems to make Pleskun more of a freak in a sideshow than a person that Levy really wants us to understand and like. In that respect his film is a marked contrast to the recent documentary "Marwencol." That film was about a Mark Hogancamp who had suffered brain damage and created his own form of therapy by creating a 1/6th scale World War II era town in his backyard. But "Marwencol" never lets Hogancamp come across as some oddball. It took an intimate approach that brought us into Hogancamp's world to let us appreciate it. Levy's approach is definitely intimate in the sense of getting his cameras in everyone's face and not flinching. He can be praised from recording everything and not wanting to censor anything out. So there's a calculated sense of objectivity. Yet the choices Levy makes of what to leave in seem to be driven by what makes for the most dramatic moments (fights, disappointment) and he doesn't necessarily let us see what drives Pleskun and why he has pursued this particular career path. That's what "Anvil" and "Marwencol" did so well. They got in close to their subjects, showed them warts and all, but also let us understand the passion that drives them. Levy doesn't quite get us there with his documentary. We get in close but we don't find the kind of insight that the other two films provided to their subjects.
"Strongman" is a solid, no frills documentary that draws its strength from Levy's intense focus on his subject.