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Flicks - Strongman
Strongman 11/04/14 3:07
Flicks - Strongman
An honest and unflinching portrait of a man who can bend steel with his hands, but has trouble negotiating ordinary life. One of the pleasures of the documentary form is its ability to contrast our wishes and expectations of ourselves with the messy reality of how we really appear. A good example of this approach is Ross McElwee's 1986 film Sherman's March, which starts with the director attempting to make a film about the famous march of Sherman's troops through the South at the end of the Civil War, but ending up creating a personal account of the various women - some of old acquaintance, some of new - whom he encounters along the way. He's never less than generous towards all the women in the film, as they reveal themselves before the camera with all their virtues and flaws, and at the same time he doesn't spare himself at all, which means that we get to experience his egoism, pretentiousness, and hapless ineffectuality as a potential lover, all with a disarming sincerity and humor. The film goes on a bit too long and is frustrating at times, yet the authenticity of the approach, where the front that people present to the world inevitably crumbles before the camera, is interesting in a way that a fiction film with actors could never be. It's available on DVD, by the way.
So I thought of Sherman's March while watching Strongman, Zachary Levy's portrait of New Jersey muscleman Stanley Pleskun, who tries to make a career splash bending steel with his bare hands, lifting trucks with his legs, and other amazing feats of strength. In the world of strongmen, Stanless Steel, as he calls himself, is a purist, eschewing short cuts and tricks, a laudable philosophy which manifests sometimes as frustration and cynicism regarding the success of better-known practitioners in his field. The subculture of strong men revealed by the film is fascinating and often funny, but the real focus is on the private life of Stan, particularly his relationship with his girlfriend Barbara, who tries to be supportive, but seems cowed and bewildered by Stan's overbearing ways.
Levy obviously gained complete trust, and we can clearly see the progression from self-image to self-encounter in the film. For example, Stan touts his natural lifestyle early on, but later it's quite evident that he is still smoking and drinking. The people in the film are generally inarticulate and at times barely self-aware, but the cumulative effect of this is really very touching. Levy is not making fun; his commitment is to the truth of simple people's lives, and that comes from a basic respect. At one point, when Stan's selfishness has forced Barbara to break with him, he moves into a new place and then wonders out loud how the strongest man in the world could be expected to live in such a small room. That is just an example of the unforced pathos of this slice-of-life film.
Along with the humor and the fascination of lives laid bare there's also some boredom here—but I can't be sure that that's not actually part of the method as well. Overall, the film really stuck with me. Levy proves again that the most truthful approach can be the most compassionate.
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