A strange and strangely beautiful movie, “Strongman” concerns a modern-day Samson — Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun — who can lift dump trucks and bend steel, but can’t pull himself out of the rubble of his own dead-end ambitions and expectations. Years in the making, “Strongman” is painfully candid, romantic in its fashion and a testament to long-range, long-term nonfiction filmmaking: Without total immersion in Pleskun’s life, a filmmaker could never have achieved the exhaustive intimacy Zachary Levy delivers in his docu, in which verite becomes surreal, and the fourth wall is poised for collapse. Look for Stanless at the arthouse, or on cable.
The muscle-bound irony of “Strongman” is that Stanless Steel does one thing, does it better than anyone else, and still can’t make it work — because he’s the wrong guy in the wrong business. To be what Stan wants to be — a highly-paid performer celebrated for his ability to twist steel bars, drive nails into boards with his bare hands and bend U.S. pennies with his fingers — one needs to be at least half a huckster — a Houdini, in a sense — who knows that ability without salesmanship is a losing proposition.
But Stan is a purist: He gets angry at other strongmen — a vanishing breed, admittedly — who take shortcuts, or out-hype him. He is completely tone deaf to the needs of the marketplace; the fact that he has to constantly explain “Stanless Steel’ to people should tip him off that perhaps he needs another nickname.
But no. He bulls his way through life, lifting a dump truck here, bending a horseshow there; when he appears on a U.K. TV show called “Don’t Try This at Home,” he’s seriously underpaid, and this later adds to his resentment. He insists that his girlfriend, Barbara, be his announcer, although it’s clear she’s never going to get it right. Their relationship is straight out of the very TV show that Levy shows them watching — “The Honeymooners,” which is also about a childless couple, a dreamer and the woman who loves him despite his obvious hopelessness. Unlike Alice Kramden, Barbara has drunk the Kool-Aid, but her faithfulness is touching nonetheless.
Levy’s masterstroke is in letting Stan be Stan, with no subtitles, no voiceover. “I try to get my power from good thoughts,” Stanless says, although his thoughts seem imprisoned by frustrations and resentment. He doesn’t listen to anyone; a “manager” he hooks up with suggests he lose the pigtails he’s acquired, but Stanless doesn’t listen. He talks about “craftsmanship” and “realism,” but they’re merely words. He talks about adopting a healthy regimen but smokes heavily and drinks. By taking the fly-on-the-wall approach, Levy never has to judge. Stanless brings it all on himself.
Without belaboring it, “Strongman” also makes oblique commentary on the state of celebrity, of what constitutes talent, offering a dash of nostalgia for the days when acts of strength were considered entertainment. One of the sadder aspects in what is really a tragic film is the notion that even if everything were going Stan’s way, no one would care.
Productions values are adequate; the editing of what must have been days of footage is really first-rate.