Director Zachary Levy documents the daily clean-and-jerk of Stanley Pleskun, a strength-performer from South Brunswick, New Jersey, who goes by the handle “Stanless Steel” — the self-proclaimed “strongest man in the world (at bending steel).” Stanley is a man of particulars. He doesn’t like the word “practice,” he prefers “test.” He doesn’t like negative energy entering his mindset. He only eats raw, organic foods (corn seems to be a favorite).
But Stanley is a man of contradiction and downright hypocrisy. Despite his overbearing attitude about health, he drinks and smokes a great deal. He compliments a fellow performer in person, only to reveal that he’s “disgusted” with the latter’s “bullshit” in private conversation. Stanley’s dismissive attitude toward competitors is constant throughout the film. Despite his aura of humility, Stanley is insistent about being the best and suffers from a constant need to prove himself.
The performances amount to little more than small gatherings of curious onlookers, those fascinated by the oddly talented. It’s one step above a freak show in a traveling carnival. Stanley bends coins with his bare hands, lifts trucks with his feet, and picks up audience members in a makeshift elevator with his finger. These tricks come off as gimmicky as a roadside magician.
More intriguing than any of his physical stunts, however, is Stanley’s manner of speech — a thick, drawling horn of a voice. He lumbers out repetitive phrases like broken bricks. Stanley is massive in physique but not the classical model of strength — more Bob’s Big Boy than Greek god. And for all his opportunity to appear worldly — such as traveling to London for a TV spot — Stanley comes across insulated and confined. He is perplexed trying to work an electronic hotel keycard: “Sometimes these doors are tricky.”
The movie is shot in an amateurish digital video, and the direction is rather aimless. Levy prefers to trust his awkward subject to make an intriguing document out of whim and wonder. To some extent this is successful. Stanley’s life would not look right in a polished production, and some scenes do have a bizarre attraction. Note the genuine family adoration over an anniversary present Stanley gives to his girlfriend, a hand-bent penny made into a necklace. “It’s so unique,” his mother comments.
Stanley’s girlfriend, in particular, invites the viewer into the more-intimate moments of the film. She serves as Stanley’s announcer (a job that brings her constant scrutiny from her muscular mate), but she is also the peacekeeper, the lightning rod, the self-dubbed “figurehead” of the relationship — in short, the sufferer. Perhaps because of his imposing size, a sense of dread follows Stanley. We are always waiting for him to snap, for his façade of patience to give way to manic rage. There is an undercurrent of palpable frustration between the household players. Stanley is passive-aggressive in his criticism of his girlfriend’s stunted confidence and always at odds with her sister. One often feels a hostage of Stanley’s personality. We catch it in the heavy sighs of his girlfriend — her troubled brow, her trapped eyes peering outward.
Stanley has his moments of misplaced wisdom: “I can bend bars. I can bend chains. But you can’t bend people.” He is part mystic, part self-help bumpkin — a man hopelessly lost to delusion. Though people seem impressed by his fledgling acts, it’s more a sense of fascination with the underbelly of the American dream, the oddity of fame, the prospect of success completely independent of Wall Street or Hollywood.
The reworked title for English-speaking audiences from the Spanish original, Five Days Without Nora, seems arbitrary and unnecessary. The Spanish title at least offers something of a thesis for the affair — five days in the company of an affluent, elderly woman who has just committed suicide, five days in the presence of her body, five days to contemplate memories of her life. Ironically, we find ourselves spending five days with Nora.
Nothing much can be determined of Nora’s wishes, other than a sense of wanting to unite her broken family. The only living shots we see of her take place in a charming opening sequence, detailing her delicate etiquette: a readjusted fork on a dinner setting, an overhead shot of the immaculate table. This is not a meal she will be attending; this is a situation she has devised for all those invited to the party, most notably her ex-husband of 20 years — the amiably frumpy Fernando Luján. The supporting players are credible in their parts, but the movie is Luján’s show, and he nudges his way into the role with relish. We sense a reservoir of feeling in his heavy sighs, his understated glare at the ticking of a sentimental clock, his stubbornness and restraint when dealing with the parade of funeral attendees. The film is remarkably short on exposition, as Luján’s layered performance reveals the sense of what lies beneath (or before).
While not a straightforward comedy, the film does entertain a kind of absurdist wit. What to do with a body that, having passed away at the start of Passover, must remain with the bereaved for five days? Luján’s character (a latter-day atheist) enjoys some playful torments on a young, put-upon rabbi — having a Christian casket delivered to the in-home wake, ordering a ham, bacon, and sausage pizza. There is also a bit of cribbed vibrator humor from Parenthood, the apparatus again mistaken for a flashlight. The jokes never spur more than a chuckle, but that is their intent. Writer/director Mariana Chenillo is content to keep the laughter at a minimum and focus on the family dynamic. There is, after all, a dead body in the house.
Chenillo’s camera weaves through the spacious rooms with a meandering, objective point of view, as if from the perspective of the recently deceased. We gauge the characters from strained angles. We slide past them with measured tracking shots. We wait for their reactions in tidy closeups. There is a pervading theme of preparation, put to no greater effect than in the fading distance of the final shot. The tactic is clever but somewhat uninvolved. We are never invited into the proceedings. We are looking through dead eyes, or at least ghostly ones — a mere observer left to hope that events go as planned or that they have some voyeuristic appeal. To this end, there is some credit due — the image is fine to look at. The photography indulges a crisp, vibrant palette dominated by chocolate browns and frosting whites — a lively presentation of tomblike colors. Overall, the picture is never very engaging, but it maintains a wayward intrigue.
(Opens April 1 at the Gaslamp.)
Opening this Saturday as part of the Ken’s “Midnight Movies” is Black Death, a cobblestone tale of one of the world’s most caustic times: England, circa 1348. The retrospective prologue seems a bit forward-thinking for a period piece, but then very little of the production feels of the period. The filmmaking is undeniably modern: shaky, handheld camerawork, jump-cut editing, stuttering slow motion — a showy bag of tricks. An opening shot of a rat reminds us of history’s iconic (albeit mistaken) hypothesis as to the cause of the bubonic plague.
Beyond this, the connection to the 14th-century pandemic is rather derivative. The film is more concerned with making a bloody mess of things: shoddy pacing, a color palette of cold gruel, and a tirade of primitive banter about divine punishment. At their core, the brutal torture scenes are no more than a crudely veiled image of the Saw franchise.
Reviewed in this week’s movie capsules: Happythankyoumoreplease and A Somewhat Gentle Man. ■