It is a shame that Ang Lee did not know about actor/bodybuilder Paul DeSimone before making The Hulk as he could have saved a ton of money and had an infinitely better movie by junking the expensive CGI effects and pouring green paint over the personable DeSimone.
DeSimone, rather than wait for Ang Lee or another Hollywood director to put him on screen, has taken the initiative of putting a camera on himself for a film that details the training regimen which gave him the physique that captured the Mr. Massachusetts bodybuilding championship and sponsorship from ProLab. The resulting production, facetiously titled “The Underground Lifting Video,” is not only the best sports documentary since “Pumping Iron” but it is also the most unexpectedly refreshing film to come zooming under the radar in the longest time.
“The Underground Lifting Video” opens at the bodybuilding mecca of Muscle Beach at Venice, California. DeSimone is basking in his shirtless glory in an open-air exhibition workout pen while tourist gawk and gasp at the muscular excess on display. DeSimone happily poses with giggly women who squeeze him into snapshots, and he is clearly enjoying the attention. But suddenly he stops and is looking pensively off-screen. Apparently someone is trying to take his photograph but seems to be having problems with their camera. Stepping totally out of character as the muscle-bound narcissist, DeSimone begins circling a finger in the air and explains how to operate a zoom lens. Patiently waiting for his instructions to be followed, DeSimone observes in calm until the minor photographic dilemma is solved. Then the million-dollar smile comes back and he resumes his posing and flexing for the newly functional camera.
This small scene is typical of “The Underground Lifting Video”–equal parts fly-on-the-wall observations at extreme athletics mixed with subversive humor and genuine human charm. Where this film scores (and too many documentaries fail) is in the raw display of humanity and emotion. DeSimone clearly enjoys being on camera, yet he is man enough to let displays of error and mishaps stay in the final cut. During one grueling exercise, he is pumping oversized barbells with such power that the force of the workout becomes too strenuous, causing him to commit the ultimate gym no-no and drop the weights on the floor, walking away in disgust at his failing. The barbells crash with a nauseating thud that vibrates the immediate area. The cameraman following this faux pas, who had been quiet throughout filming, suddenly pipes up with cynical glee: “As he puts a hole in the floor.”
Watching DeSimone push his body to lift and pull massive weights is the bodybuilding equivalent to watching Fred Astaire dance. It is a mix of athletics and artistry that can inspire the viewer while simultaneously intimidating a laundry list of reality checks. Indeed, at one point in the film a title card comes up warning the viewer not to emulate the extremity of the workout since, as the card explains, “Paul knows what he is doing.”
The hard work clearly takes its toll, and at certain points DeSimone needs to stop with either the pain of cramps or the fear of vomiting. But the intrusion of harsh reality is never allowed to spoil the momentum and inevitably it is soothed with bubbles of absurdist humor. And this is frequently a surprisingly funny movie. In one truly hilarious moment, DeSimone is filmed in right profile, his frame tilted at a 45-degree angle while his right arm swings an oversized barbell with extraordinary power. He is deeply into the motions of the exercise, to the point that his eyes are shut in meditative closure while his breathing takes on the sound of a steam engine at full throttle. Suddenly, without any warning, he stops, stands straight, looks directly into the camera with pedagogical seriousness and states in a calm voice: “Other side.” DeSimone waits patiently as the cameraman circles him, keeping his lens focused on the athlete, until he is at a point on the left side of DeSimone which was directly opposite his previous position. DeSimone makes sure everything is in place and then switches the barbell to his left hand. Without skipping a beat, he continues the pose and motion of his exercise at the identical pace.
In the ultimate display of surrealism, DeSimone strolls into a parking lot on two different occasions, puts his hands under the rear fenders of parked automobiles, and lifts them into the air. The scene is jolting on several levels: the awe of a human acting like a tow truck, the concern that serious injury could come from the stunt, the humor of watching the seemingly impossible happen without any trick effects, and the confusion as to why anyone would want to lift an automobile. Another parking lot is home to an amusing moment when DeSimone, in his posing trunks, attempts to show off his physique in a posedown routine. Unfortunately for him, no one considered the highway just past the parking lot and the unusually high level of traffic going down the road at that particular time. The noise of the cars cannot be ignored and, in the midst of his posing, DeSimone turns around and looks annoyingly at the vehicular disruptions which is mucking up his concentration. A few more flexing shots follow, then he abruptly surrenders to the traffic’s drone and announces the scene is over.
A more serious bit of posing is achieved along the Pacific shore at what appears to be dusk. With the glare of the sun creating bright bursts of light on the waves, DeSimone poses in semi-silhouette against the ocean. It is a beautifully framed scene, with the gifted athlete in physical harmony with the glory of nature. For all the sweat, pain, and clowning in the gym, this moment in the sun and surf offers a startling display of what athletic dedication and hard work can achieve, and it is easy to see why DeSimone is considered a rising star in his sport. Perhaps it is best that Ang Lee and Paul DeSimone never crossed paths; Lee has access to the words “The Hulk,” but DeSimone and his film own the word “Incredible.”