If showbiz is tough at the top, it's sheer agony at the bottom, a shadow realm explored in this doc, a probing, often maddening slice of gritty vérité.
The subject is a tormented dime-store Hercules named Stanley Pleskun, who performs uncanny feats of strength under the stage name "Stanless Steel." Though he can lift three people with one finger, bend pennies and leg-press trucks, Stan's a piece of human wreckage, a shambling hulk of middle-aged muscle, every bit as twisted and mangled as the steel bars he deforms with his mighty paws. Stan ekes out a living hauling scrap, between demeaning gigs doing stunts at gymnasiums, school parking lots and kids' birthday parties. Fame eludes him, and though he lands the occasional plum job, like a spot on a British TV show, his alleged "act," or lack of one, leaves him one step beyond carnival sideshow. His strength is legit, and his displays of power are impressive, but he's got no sizzle to go with that steak, and no earthly clue how to market himself. He employs his beleaguered wife Barbara as a barker, but her cigarette-ruined wheeze is a long way off from Michael Buffer.
There isn't all that much call for a circus strongman these days, but the real weight holding down his career is his exhausting personality, a bizarre mix of passivity and simmering anger.
Though he drinks and smokes, he keeps insisting on clean living and spiritual purity, a false piety that dovetails with his paranoid conviction that he's the one true strongman, everyone else is charlatan, an underachiever or a fraud.
Stan needs every ounce of his great strength to tote all the personal baggage around him, complete with a shiftless, crack-smoking brother, ailing grandmother, hostile sister-in-law and a hopeless talent agent. Barbara is his bedrock, a faded beauty with deep reservoirs of sorrow buried just beneath her eyes. It's hard to assess the extent of her damage, because she has a natural sweetness, though it finally sours after prolonged exposure to Stan's passive aggression. Director Zachary Levy sits back and lets it all just happen, though the lack of context is frustrating. Strongman is so emotionally naked, so damn raw, that it borders on exploitive. But it's always fascinating. More impressive than any stunt is the spectacle of a man battling his own soul.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27; one show only; call 313-833-3237 for info.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].