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Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Do not attempt this at home...
Back in the late 60’s, a friend of mine’s older brother spent some time in Europe before being shipped over to Vietnam. While traveling through Italy on a train, he shared a cabin one afternoon with a professional strongman and his manager, who were on the road putting on shows. The strongman went by the name of “The Pistor Killer,” a stout, extremely muscular young man sporting a uniquely distinctive uber-Pompadour hairdo resembling the horn of a rhinoceros. Their limited-but-friendly English was enough to start a conversation, during which the manager pulled out a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings documenting the Pistor Killer’s many feats of strength.
At the time, this story sounded like a scene straight out of a Fellini movie. It still does.
I’d forgotten all about it until watching a documentary called “Strongman” the other night. Produced and directed by Zachary Levy, “Strongman” won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2009 Slamdance Festival. I’m no film critic, so I’ll leave the intellectual heavy lifting of critical analysis to others, but I can't argue with Variety’s John Anderson, who begins his review like this: “ 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.”
Stanley Pleskun’s story is more complicated than that, but it’s also quintessentially American -- an otherwise ordinary man from humble circumstances blessed with one extraordinary talent: the ability to bend steel and lift absurdly heavy objects with his bare hands. “Strongman” takes the viewer deep into a strange carney-like subculture lurking beneath the glossy plasticized surface of modern American life, a world where sheer physical strength is prized above all else. It’s not a bad place, and these are not bad people – like the rest of us, they’re just human beings doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
“Strongman” put me through the wringer. I couldn’t help pulling for this essentially decent, likable man to achieve the success he so badly wants and feels he deserves -- but time and again the detritus of his life and the sheer gravity of his own over-amped expectations drag him back into a dismal swamp of frustration. Through it all, Stanley Pleskun somehow manages to bounce back thanks to his deep well of indefatigable optimism. Despite his otherworldly strength, Stanley's struggle to achieve remains a very human story, and something most of us can relate to on many levels.
Levy’s omnipresent camera records it all as it comes – the good, the bad, and the ugly -- steadfastly refusing to turn away from or sugar-coat the messy life of this American Dreamer, a deeply flawed man who in the end just might find it within himself to see what really matters in the march we all make from birth to death. “Strongman” is a gritty, compelling film. Some of it can be tough to watch -- the darker passages had me squirming in my seat -- but I could not look away.
I have no idea whatever happened to the Pistor Killer (a google search came up blank), or what will become of Stanley Pleskun’s dreams, but thanks to Zach Levy, this modern day strongman will at least have his day in the cinematic sun.
And that's a good thing.
"Strongman" premiers in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent Theater, where it will screen from Nov. 27 until Dec. 3, 2009.