Raising the Bar: The Inside Story
of a Life in Bodybuilding
Cover art: Raising the Bar.
Producer: Mike Pulcinella Video Productions
Script, editing and photography: Mike Pulcinella
Editorial assistant: Stephanie Traynor
This is the best narrative film about bodybuilding I've been privileged to see. Hard to believe it's the first film Mike Pulcinella has made, and he did it on a palm-sized camcorder. A natural filmmaker, Mike has the perfect subject in his brother Dave's competition prep for a NPC national qualifier in Delaware. Mike had complete access for five months while Dave, his partner Jennifer Emig (an outstanding figure competitor), and others came down to the wire for the Delaware state show and the East Coast Classic, held together on July 17, 2004. But the film deals with more than contest prep. It uses the Delaware show as a focus to capture what brought Dave to this point in his life, showing his relationships with family members and friends, rivals and competitors, and especially his relationship to the older brother making this film. While Mike isn't often onscreen, his voice-over narration keeps us aware that this is a personal project on a personal issue. Thus the film avoids the packaged slickness of other documentaries on bodybuilding, including the most famous: Pumping Iron, the 1977 film by George Butler and Robert Fiore.
The film has a roughly chronological development, starting twenty weeks out from the NPC event and counting the weeks and months down as Dave and Jenn's training, diet, physical and mental stamina are put to the test. Early on, we get a capsule history of Dave's childhood decision to start working out, because he was being continually beaten up by goons in a southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. He was lucky his father knew how to train and had the equipment at home. By age 16 Dave was no longer losing to Mike's good-natured attempts to wrestle him down; in fact, Dave already had a 42-inch chest. By age 18, Dave competed in his first show (the 1982 Teen Delaware County), which he won the following year. While working as a pianist in clubs and hotels, he competed until 1996, when he officially "retired" after taking his class at the NABBA Nationals. For the next seven years Dave developed Nutrifit Weight Management Systems, offering personal training and nutrition counseling from a "cramped office" (as the film puts it) at the back of a gym in Bear, Delaware (Body Visions Fitness Centre). He is 39 years old when the film starts. Jenn Emig, who has the makings of an IFBB figure pro, is 24. Their highs and lows, while aiming for the same competition, create the rhythm and flow of the film.
Dave is not a follower. Self-possessed and educated, he has a philosophy of bodybuilding that would mystify most outsiders to the iron game. What strikes me, though, is that Dave's goals also mystify the bodybuilders he knows. Few support Dave's quest for a second Delaware/East Coast Classic win, since he'd won both shows in 2003. He qualified for national shows; what else does he want? Dave says he intends to bring the best competitors in the area "out of the woodwork," to make people stop saying, "It's only the Delaware." An NPC judge calls Dave's decision to compete "trophy collecting," and as it turns out, the NPC bans him from competing (although it doesn't bother to tell him till he shows up after a torturous contest prep). No matter; Dave makes a place for himself, sweeping others along with him. Motivated by a fear of losing and a will brooking no opposition -- from injuries, family members, or NPC rules -- Dave beats the odds at a show held in the exhibition hall of a Wilmington gambling facility. If all this sounds a bit like Rocky, Mike avoids that film's clichés by offering a fly-on-the-wall view of everyone involved.
The film mixes a cinéma-vérité style -- the camera is so constant that the people filmed basically forget it's there -- with direct interviews making it appear the person is speaking directly to you. Some rapidly edited montages create background, such as the short review of Dave's scrapbooks that fills in his childhood and bodybuilding career. All this sets the stage for Dave's return to competition after a seven-year retirement no one expected him to end. His mother offers no encouragement, expressing concern about possible lifelong injuries and a diet restricted to six or seven "foods that work," as Dave puts it. His father partly blames himself for getting him involved in the iron game ("I didn't think he was going to carry it this far," he says). In fairness, his father shows up the day of competition to cheer him on. While Jenn is doing the Delaware to compete at the same time Dave does, the strain of training and dieting (where the competitor must face waning energy and depression for weeks on end) keeps them frustrated with each other. Only one thing makes Dave succeed: his sense of humor. Turning everything that comes his way into a joke, Dave keeps the pressure at bay. After facing the fact that his last six months of torture may have been a waste of time, Dave has his humor back as soon as he gets permission to compete. Bouncing back when the chips are down -- this theme runs throughout the film.
Bodybuilders are known for their obsessive pursuit of physical perfection. As Dave says, "I eat the way I do, I train the way I do, to look a certain way. That to me is bodybuilding." Still, it takes as much obsession to pull a film like this together. Mike ends Raising the Bar with "A special thanks to everyone who allowed me to poke my camera into their lives for 5 months." Mike pokes a camera into his own life as well. What happens to us as we age? What of our past is worth clinging to when others have traded their former aspirations for a suburban routine? By taking a brother seriously when others around him do not, Mike shows us the truth of a great man's life. In doing so he has made a brilliant, memorable film.
Michael J. Emery