A strange sadness and profound hopelessness pervades Strongman (2009), Zachary Levy's unflinching yet amazingly non-judgmental portrait of Stanley "Stanless Steel" Pleskun, The Strongest Man in the World at Bending Steel and Metal. It's a sadness appropriately grouped under masculinity and its discontents because it's about a man who is weakened by his self-delusions of strength and his frustrated attempts to somehow make a name for himself, or even a living, at being able to bend pennies with his bare hands or lift 10,000-pound dump trucks with his legs. An aging strongman without a circus (other than a truly bizarre family), Stanless equates strength with entitlement and only late in life admits to himself that—though he can bend metal and break chains—he can't bend people to his dreams by the sheer force of his will.
This holds especially true for his partner Barbara, whose own story Levy follows as earnestly over the course of the few years his camera trails Stanless and his activities. Barbara's is a different kind of strength—perhaps a different kind of weakness?—defined by patience and co-dependence and a near blind obedience to the image Stanless has of himself. Like Roger Ebert, I found her motivations "a great mystery" and I couldn't understand why she would stay with a man who bullied her so incessantly about her failure to live up to his dreams. Despite his coaching her again and again, Barbara just can't seem to introduce his act with the kind of "shine" he's expecting. At moments, their relationship reminded me of Gelsomina and Zampanó in Federico Fellini's La Strada, though Barbara is a far cry from Giulietta Masina's waif. Irregardless, she seemed just as vulnerable and I worried for her throughout the film, especially in a scene where Stanless—feeling every bit a failure, and dangerously vulnerable himself—forces her to sit with him in the cab of his truck while he drinks himself stupid listening to heavy metal. Barbara finds herself wedged between a drunken self-loathing Stanless and his drugged-out mess of a brother. The fearful worry on her face is painful and horrifying. It's—as Matt Sussman nails it—"straight Arthur Miller" material.
Why watch a film about a man robbed of his strength and masculinity by "time and other thieves"? Call it the allure of the real, which since 9/11 appears to have—as Mark Cousins phrases it—"out Hollywooded Hollywood, image-wise, and made the real world feel suspenseful and unfolding like a narrative, [making] fiction cinema look erstatz." There's no happy ending, not really, to this tale of defeated manhood. Only a temporary gesture of relief from the inevitable gravity of discontent, as Stanless lets go of his own fantasies to announce Barbara as the "strongest woman in the world."
Strongman screens Sunday, February 26, 2:00PM at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as the closing entry in their "Bros Before Hos: Masculinity and its Discontents."