Strongman: Pitch-Perfect Cinema Vérité


Strongman (2009)
Directed by Zachary Levy
113 min.

A day after I posted my How To Watch a Film essay, I received an email from the director of this film. He reached out because loved the essay and he’d gone through, with his own film, exactly what I described going through with my film, Rehearsals—people that were ambivalent about it when watching a screener and then blown away in a theater setting.

For a long time, he avoided releasing his film on DVD because he felt that a theater was the ideal setting to see it, and he wanted to do whatever he could to make sure as many people as possible could see it properly. However, he’s recently decided to finally take the plunge and release it on DVD and Digital, and it’s due out this month.

Zach was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the DVD in the mail, which I watched this past week, and let me tell you—this thing is plenty powerful on an average-sized flatscreen. I don’t know that I could even handle this thing in a movie theater. This is one of the most gripping vérité docs I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s no surprise at all that it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was on Roger Ebert’s Year’s Best list, and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick.

Strongman follows the day-to-day life of Stanless Steel, the self-proclaimed strongest man in the world at bending steel. Zach filmed him for ten years, chronicling his struggles trying to make it as a strongman, as well as the struggles in his personal life. An early scene catches Stan watching The Honeymooners on television and enjoying it thoroughly. Stan himself is certainly a Ralph Kramden-esque character, a big guy with big ambitions, as sensitive as he is brash.

There are a plethora of documentaries that follow unique individuals around as they try to conquer their own personal version of the impossible. Some of these docs play the goings-on up as wholly comedic and absurd, some play them up as an epically inspirational, some play them up as a train wreck horror show. Each of these angles are despicable in their own way, because the worst thing a doc can ever do is impose a subjective angle over the goings on, skewing them in editing to distort reality. (I covered this topic a while back in my essay, Documentaries: The Most Repulsive Genre.)

Thankfully, Strongman takes the admirable route, staying objective the whole way, never telling you when to laugh, cry, feel inspired, or feel disturbed. Don’t get me wrong, you will likely have all of these reactions  and more over the course of the film; however, they will be natural reactions, not forced ones. That’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking that stays objective. (And documentary filmmaking that doesn’t can be as grating as a superimposed laugh track.)

The best way I can describe this film is a twisted hybrid of Cassavetes, Herzog, and of course, the aforementioned Honeymooners. Again, Zach hasn’t superimposed these vibes over the story, though. This very real tale simply harkens these organically. Life imitating art, so to speak. It’s a beautiful and refreshingly pure thing. One of the best films I’ve seen in many years.

So why the fuck am I just now hearing about it?

It shouldn’t take an out-of-the-blue email from the guy who made the dang thing for me to hear about a thing this good, whereas I hear about dogshit movies all day long. And every time I’m on Netflix, I’m scrolling through countless dogshit movies. Constant exposure to that conditions one’s mind to think that great movies aren’t really out there, because if they were, you’d of course hear about them; they’d rise to the surface quite easily, amidst such paltry competition.

This ain’t no meritocracy, though. Things get on Netflix, or in lots of theaters, or in big festivals, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with quality of the work. And that means even major critical darlings like this one can slip through the cracks (which certainly doesn’t bode well for filmmakers damn near nobody has heard of, such as myself).

But honestly, I don’t care. The fact that I live in a time where I can make movies for a song is a beautiful. So what if that time currently coincides with a time where dogshit is prevalent and lots of great art is barely seen? These things change. Just because nobody watches a movie right now doesn’t mean nobody will ever watch it. It’s art, it exists forever, it’ll get out there. As I’ve said before, great art has no shelf life. In twenty years, Strongman will still be one of the strongest documentaries ever made, and nobody will remember that throwaway junk like Gabe the Cupid Dog was on Netflix instead of it.

That doesn’t mean you should simply wait around for great art to have its day, though. That day can come way sooner if whenever you see something that’s great, you make sure to tell people about it. Don’t just assume they’ll hear about it somewhere else. That’s irresponsible. Situations such as the onse in Searching For Sugar Man or A Band Called Death where great artists simply never take off and nobody really knows why, aren’t the exception. They’re the rule. That’s a sad reality, and a reality that the film Strongman shows us: both by introducing us to a fascinating man going through that very struggle, and by being a fascinating film going through that same struggle as well.

4 1/2 out of 5 Codys.

Order Strongman on DVD (ships Oct. 15th) or iTunes (available Oct. 15th)!

2 thoughts on “Strongman: Pitch-Perfect Cinema Vérité”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *