The Real Thor

This is a tale of two movies, two directors—and two strongmen.

This Friday, May 6, Thor will be thundering into a theater near you—in 3-D, no less. Directed by a slumming Kenneth Branagh, the film officially opens Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season. In case you don’t have the money for the ticket, which will be jacked up to 3-D prices, let me give you an overview: Muscular hunk from an unimaginative, CGI-created world offers such scintillating dialogue as “I am Thor.” Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins squander their talents in support of the beefcake actor in the title role, because they know if they don’t costar in these types of films, their Q-quotient will decrease among the adolescent set, and roles in commercial Hollywood films will disappear. While there is nothing wrong with the comic-book genre per se, the days of Tim Burton using the genre as a vehicle for personal expression are long gone (see original Batman films). And, before someone accuses me of being a movie snob, I used to look forward to action and genre films back in the day when directors like Burton, John McTiernan, and Walter Hill were in charge. Today’s studio execs are not about to let an auteur have creative control over their franchises aimed at adolescents, who don’t really want to engage in an intelligent interpretation of a pop culture icon lest it interfere with their texting during the movie.
Next Wednesday, the documentary Strongman by Zachary Levy returns to Facets for a limited, five-day run. It also chronicles the tale of long-haired muscleman who wields a sledgehammer, but it is about as far from Thor as a film can get. The real-life story of Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun, Strongman shows us a middle-aged mortal man who can bend a penny with his fingers, hold back two Cessna planes as they roll down a runway, and leg-press a dump truck. And, yet his true heroic strength is his ability to endure the same hardships of many working-class folks—the effects of aging on those who toil at physical labor, family ties that can be as destructive as they are supportive, and the difficulties of keeping a relationship together. On the surface, Strongman chronicles the struggles of one man, but, like all good films, there is more to it. Stanless Steel’s drama exposes universal problems everyone can relate to, while the film’s heartfelt center reflects an honest sincerity—in lieu of the macho posturing and snarky cynicism that oozes from most Hollywood “product”
Reality-TV has turned the concept of chronicling real life into a nonstop freak show of celebrity wanna-bes and narcissists who are manipulated by savvy producers into making complete fools of themselves for fame and money. Audiences accustomed to this version of “real life” should acquaint themselves with a documentary style called cinema verite (“cinema of truth”), pioneered by the Maysles Brothers, Ricky Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker. In direct cinema or verite, filmmakers sought to place viewers into an event or into the lives of their subjects without any evidence of their perspective or judgment; while directorial voice seems to be absent, the smooth, hand-held camarawork and solid compositions are evidence of skill and talent. Levy channels the verite filmmakers with his unobtrusive camera and his thoughtful compositions. 
It took director Zach Levy a decade to shoot and edit Strongman, a commitment to his subject and his art that is impressive. Particularly low on money at one point, Levy produced decks of cards that parodied the “Most Wanted” cards issued by the Bush White House during the heart of the war in Iraq. Instead of terrorists, the cards featured Bush’s administration on them. Whatever your politics, you have to admire Levy’s creative solution to finding enough money to complete the film. Levy, an interesting individual who can quote Evel Kneivel, reference Shirley Clark, and tell anecdotes about Waylon Jennings, will be introducing the 7pm showings of Strongman at Facets on Thursday, May 12, and Friday, May 13. Afterward, he’ll be around to take questions from the audience. Please come and be supportive; artists with Levy’s commitment deserve a couple hours of your time.
And, while Kenneth Branagh will make the round of infotainment shows to offer witty sound bites to promote Thor, you can bet he won’t be available for a Q&A after any screenings. For one thing, he’d be too embarrassed.                             –Susan Doll
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