Man of steel
Zachary Levy’s Strongman drops us without warning or preparation into the life of his subject; we don’t even know the man’s given name unless we’ve read the movie’s press materials. Just for record, it’s Stanley Pleskun, but in the movie the only name we hear is the one he’s taken for himself: Stanless Steel. We see him sitting at a kitchen table on the phone to some landscaping business.
“Do you have a 9-foot rack truck that you use?”
“No, I don’t have a 9-foot rack truck. What do you need it for?”
“I’m puttin’ together a stunt for a date comin’ up. This is Stanless Steel calling.”
When the landscaping man abruptly hangs up, apparently having decided that this must be some kind of do-you-have-Prince-Albert-in-a-can prank call, Stanless shakes his head.
“Shit. That was so close.”
Close? From this first scene, and throughout Levy’s movie, we’re never sure how to take Stanless Steel. Is this guy irrepressibly optimistic, or just willfully self-deluded? When he performs his feats of strength in parking lots, at community centers and at elementary schools, he wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with his picture and slightly awkward slogans: “Power beyond what is normal,” “The unlimited natural strength of Stanless Steel.” Like the perplexing semi-non sequitur of his professional name, and his self-styled sobriquet “strongest man in the world at bending steel and metal,” the slogans hint at a man searching for just the right combination of words, groping for that perfect hook that will distill his personal and professional essence for an unknowing world.
Levy’s camera follows Stanless without comment or annotation. The press materials say that Levy filmed over a period of about three years from 1999 to 2002, then had to put his footage on a back burner for several years while he gathered the financing to edit it into the hour and 53 minutes that is Strongman. Watching the movie, the time frame could be months or even weeks. We watch Stanless as he goes from gig to gig; we see him practicing his unique craft in his cluttered yard and chatting, arguing and even fighting with friends and family. Stanless—and other participants—occasionally glance self-consciously at the camera, as if to say, “See what I put up with?” or “Do you really have to film this part?”
We even see Stanless break up with his girlfriend Barbara while her sister Linda tosses her two cents in (“I didn’t like him from day one three years ago. … I knew you were no good; I felt your vibe, and you’re garbage.”).
It speaks well of Levy’s tact and diplomacy that he is able to capture these moments. One scene is particularly hair-raising. Stanless, drinking beer with Barbara, his brother and a friend, drunkenly describes a stunt he wants to perform: Barbara will jump from a 50-foot podium, and he will catch her by a tether attached to one of his fingers. We see a look of helpless terror flash across Barbara’s face before Stanless’ brother blurts out, “No way!”
It’s almost comical—but only almost, because the scene quickly collapses into a red-hot confrontation between Stanless and his brother: “Don’t push me around,” Stanless bellows, “’cause I’ll tear you to goddamn pieces!” At this point, Barbara apparently tries to get the cameras to stop, but they grind relentlessly on, recording a long, jangling moment of harrowing anger.
In the next scene we see Stanless sitting and lamenting, “I guess I got a little bit knocked down, y’know? It’s hard to be a champion all day long.” Is he referring directly to that confrontation over his outlandish stunt idea? Maybe not, but the juxtaposition links the two scenes in our minds.
In the end, we may still be unsure just what to think about this strange and obsessive man who can lift pickup trucks and cages full of people and bend pennies and horseshoes with his bare hands. His frustration fascinates and frightens us, even as his extravagant self-image strikes us as both foolish and oddly dignified. He rages against a life of quiet desperation even as his own desperation slides now and then into noisy bluster. “You can bend steel, break chains,” he says as his relationship with Barbara hits the skids, “but you can’t bend people.”
Zachary Levy doesn’t try to bend Stanless Steel, either; he gives him to us straight.