Stanless Steel, aka Stanley Pleskun from South Brunswick, N.J., is one of the strongest men in the world. See him, in film, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, Saturday, Nov. 13, in Zach Levy’s documentary, “Strongman.” Mr. Levy plans to attend the screening and answer questions following the film.
Sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, this touching story of a man’s search for his place in the world involves far more than unusual feats of strength. “Strongman” won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative to Sundance.
The viewer is plunged into the middle of Stanley’s life with no real introduction. We meet him while he’s on the phone, trying to set up an event where he can show off his strength. Stanley’s significant other, Barbara, who has her own notable attributes, serves as his loyal supporter and the M.C. for his performances.
Director Levy met Stan at an airport in Princeton, N.J., where he says the strong man performed a stunt with his hands tied to Cessna Skyhawks moving in opposite directions. They had “a great connection almost immediately.” The contrast between Stan’s strength and his innocence fascinated the director, as well as the way physically handicapped people inhabited his world.
Mr. Levy, who also works as a cameraman, uses an unvarnished, cinema vérité (a point-and-shoot) approach in what is his first feature film. The effect is to reveal Stanley’s humanity and the ordinariness that exists alongside his unique talent.
At 6 feet 1 inch and 282 pounds, 52-year-old Stanley has the makings of a beer belly. He huffs and puffs during his stunts and at times gets dizzy or sees stars. The message that comes across is how ordinary he —like all of us — is, at the same time that he and we are unique.
Stanley has a day job as a wrangler and spends a lot of time visiting his parents and siblings. The viewer meets them all, including grandma — toothless, gape-mouthed, and wheelchair-bound. Fresh vegetables and all-natural foods power Stanley’s talent, while his slacker brother’s accomplishment is to drink a can of beer while hanging upside down.
“I try to get my power from good thoughts,” Stan says. His aura is child-like, almost as if he were mentally handicapped, although he is not. He travels to England to appear on a TV show called “Don’t Try This at Home,” where he lifts up three people on a metal platform from a chain attached to one finger.
Talking afterward to another performer on the show who pulls nails out of a board with his teeth, Stanley trades notes about his skills. When he returns to the U.S., he bends a penny for a necklace that he gives to Barbara as a present on their second anniversary.
The couple is celebrating the occasion at the Pleskun family home, and Barbara brings along photos of herself as a 19-year-old stunner. The problem is that the other family members are too distracted to pay attention, provoking sweet-natured Stan to let loose a string of obscenities.
“There’s no such thing as being cool,” he counsels a group of kids and adults who have gathered to watch him use his hands to hammer nails and bend a horseshoe. Stan’s dad also seems to have been a strong man, since he tells his son that he studied Zen as a young man to improve his concentration.
At a gathering of strong men, Stan can’t get a grip on the coin he wants to bend after drinking a few beers. He and Barbara watch as a Canadian, the “Destroyer,” bends a metal bar, and Stan mutters to Barbara how easily he could pull off the same feat.
Constantly trying to improve himself, Stan badgers Barbara to improve her introductions. Barbara’s sister Linda, who lives with them, is a thorn in his side, along with the members of his own family.
“You can’t have a monkey in the middle,” he warns Barbara about Linda. Later he wonders if he might better grasp the world’s attention and become the celebrity he wants to be if Barbara jumped off a 100-foot crane into his arms.
The cumulative effect of spending time with Stan, and, secondarily with Barbara, is to gain a nuanced sense who this man is, what his dreams are, and what obstacles he faces. Thanks to Mr. Levy, who spent 10 years documenting Stan’s life and raising the money necessary to make “Strongman,” the viewer gains a deep appreciation and fondness for this unusual man.
“Strongman,” Saturday, Nov. 13, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 M.V. Film Society members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards, who divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton, is a regular contributor to The Times.