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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  Strength and decay: One strongman’s quest for the American dream
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Thursday, April 22,2010

Strength and decay: One strongman’s quest for the American dream

By David Accomazzo

New Jersey strongman Stan “Stanless Steel” Pleskun, the “Strongest Man in the World at Bending Steel,” and his struggle to build a career performing feats of strength are the subject of New York filmmaker Zach Levy’s award-winning documentary Strongman, which will be the last film shown at the International Film Series’ spring season on Saturday, April 24. Pleskun is a fascinating gentle giant, a man of terrifying physical strength who is almost New Age in his dedication to positive energy. He collects and sells scrap metal from construction sites by day, and he trains for his show business career by night. He can bend a penny and a horseshoe with his bare hands, but struggles to find the right audience and gimmick that will propel him into stardom.

Levy spent 200 days with Stanless over three years, and the resulting footage reveals a deeply flawed and conflicted character struggling to create an identity in a show business world he doesn’t understand. Last week, we caught up with Levy, who was in New York promoting the documentary.

Boulder Weekly: So how did you meet Stan?

Zach Levy: I met him for a stunt show on television. Stan had an airplane tied to each arm. They were pulling in opposite directions trying to take off and he stopped them from moving. It was just a fabulous stunt.

BW: What struck you about the strong man from New Jersey?

ZL: I was really just struck by his personality.

When we met, we just had this sort of instant connection between us where I knew that he trusted me and I trusted him and that there was lot to explore about his life.

I think it was the combination of gentleness and toughness and all the different parts of his personality that seemed to be in real contrast. There was this fabulously violent stunt he was doing and then there’s this gentleness to his personality. There was this world of physical strength, and then we went back to his house; the sense of physical decay was so great in his home life. All those elements seemed to contrast in different ways.

BW: As the filmmaker, you get involved in some pretty intimate moments with Stan and his family. The film doesn’t feel exploitative to me at all, but how do you approach walking that line between revelation and exploitation?

ZL: When I’m filming something, part of what I’m doing, and part of the reason I’m attracted to a story like this, is because I feel like I’m also learning about myself. I’m there to learn about Stan’s life and to empathize, but I’m also there to really understand myself, too. So it’s not like I’m there to get something or say, “This would make a great scene for a movie”; it’s more like I’m there to just kind of be there and understand something. I think that’s maybe a spirit that enters the film at some level.

I think a lot of filmmakers do just think in terms of the film … but that’s not what I do. I don’t think of the film as something to fit their lives into. I’m making a film out of their lives that’s much closer to how they are.

I think that’s maybe the major difference between what I do and what a reality show does. When you watch a reality show, there’s often an element where what you’re watching has been shaped to fit some sort of preconceived story idea at some level. And that, to me, is exploitative.

BW: One of the things that happens, given all these faux-documentaries in the form of reality TV that are so prevalent, is that viewers now question whether the people on camera are acting or not. Did Stan have any issues with that? Was Stan ever the type that was playing it up for the camera?

ZL: No, no, not at all. … An actor can wear a mask. If Stan wore a mask, the mask would tell you more about him than anything he was trying to hide. With Stan, you would never feel like anything he was doing was trying to put on something he wasn’t. It’s just not who he is.

BW: How’s Stan’s career coming along? Did he ever achieve his American dream?

ZL: It’s not the kind of thing where his name’s in bright shiny letters all over the place, at least not yet. He’s still doing his thing. He’s doing shows in Jersey. And for me, I think that is a real market success.

It is the kind of small success that most of our lives are made out of. The kind of grind, the daily small steps that we all take. Sometimes the big successes are really just to keep on walking, to really keep on taking those steps.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

On the Bill

Zach Levy will present Strongman at the International Film Series on Saturday, April 24, at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $5 for CU students, $6 for the general public.

Muenzinger Auditorium, CU campus, 303-492-1531.

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