Raising the Bar Series
Raising the Bar 4
Filmmaker: Mike Pulcinella
Chapter 1: Bodybuilding documentary with Kai Greene and Hayley McNeff
Published on YouTube July 18, 2016
Mike Pulcinella is my favorite independent filmmaker and, I think, one of the finest filmmakers in North America. He puts his heart and soul into what he does, bringing to bear a lifetime of training and accomplishment. After achieving fame in the bodybuilding world for his film trilogy, Raising the Bar (Parts 1, 2 and 3, see below), he followed up with short films he collected as Raising the Bar 4 on YouTube in 2016. If the RTB Trilogy was Mikes The Hobbit, RTB4 is his Lord of the Rings, sprawling in every direction, defying any attempt to come to terms with it. But Ill try.
The first episode is mainly devoted to the melodrama of Hayley McNeff, an NPC competitor attempting a pro card at a time the star of womens bodybuilding appears to have set. Her career is complicated by a breakup with Dave Pulcinella, star of the RTB Trilogy. But the McNeff affair is just the ostensible subject of chapter 1, because RTB4 is an autobiographical film with Mike at the center, primarily through his overvoice narration. RTB4 mirrors Mikes concerns, beliefs, and yes, obsessions. Bodybuilding is a maelstrom sucking everyone connected to it into its turmoil. That is how Mike and I got into it: through a connection to a competitor. And once youre in, youre not getting out -- not that you want to.
IFBB pros Victor Martinez and Kai Greene appear courtesy of Mikes work with MHP, a leading supplement company. Dave Pulcinella also appears, and when he does the film perks up, since family is Mikes great subject. As for Hayley, her competitive career unfortunately fizzled after two attempts at the Team Universe in 2010 and 2011. However, the drama of her attempt is well captured in the opening chapter of RTB4.
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 at the same location on July 17, 2004. But the film deals with much 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, based on the 1974 Simon and Schuster book Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding, by Charles Gaines and George Butler (as photographer).
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 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 had 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 Mike 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, competing in the figure category, is 24. Their highs and lows, in preparation for the same competition, create the rhythm and flow of the film.
Dave is not a follower. Self-possessed and well educated, he has a philosophy of bodybuilding that would mystify most outsiders to the iron game. What strikes me 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 on the day of the show). 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 ubiquitous that the people filmed forget it's there -- with 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 filling in his childhood and early 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 torturous prep may have been for naught, 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 the film 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 in their youthful 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.
November 2005, revised February 2013
Producer: Mike Pulcinella
Length 1:49 (plus 8 minutes of bonus material)
Script, editing and photography: Mike Pulcinella
Assistant editor: Dave Pulcinella
Original music: Martin Bailey http://www.myspace.com/powerescape
Additional music: Mike and Dave Pulcinella
Part 2 of Raising the Bar continues the story of Dave Pulcinellas return to bodybuilding competition. While building on the first film, RTB2 has a different focus: it shows Dave competing nationally while facing difficulties from all sides. The stakes are higher for Dave this time (framed by contests in 2005-2006). He is trying to qualify for a pro card with the IFBB by winning a national NPC masters show. He is dealing with frayed relationships. And he is fighting the physical stresses of competing at an elite level of the NPC while over the age of 40.
More than RTB did, this film employs short profiles of others involved in Daves life. From these connections, we learn more about Dave as a competitor and a person.
Daves partner Jenn is the first one profiled. They met in 1999 when she became a client seeking nutritional and training advice. As they start dating and she decides to do NPC figure events, we find out her family doesnt support her desire to compete. One of the advantages of their competing in the same show is that Dave and Jenn can share the experience, but the grueling contest prep strains their relationship. Dave is more committed to competition than Jenn, creating a barrier between them. Dave has given so much to bodybuilding that little in his life relates to anything else at this point. Although Jenn loves going to the beach, her regimented training has prevented her from doing so since 2002. When she decides to take a break from competition, a showdown seems imminent.
Next, the former e-mail hater Lance Shaw (whom Dave defeated at the 2004 NPC Delaware show, as shown in Part 1), swallows his pride and asks Dave to prep him for the 2005 NPC South Jersey show, just the second time Lance will be competing. Dave helps guide him into his best condition, only to find that NPC competitor Craig Torres has entered the same weight class to requalify at the national level. Lances sister sums it up backstage: Lance wont win because he still looks human. This disappointment prefigures the later contests in the film, as Daves fate hangs in the balance between judges and the pain of contest prep.
Health problems beset Dave at this point. At the 2005 IFBB North Americans (his first masters show, having just turned 40), Dave suffers from severe cramps during the contest. The pain is so bad that after he wins his class (masters heavyweights), he cant walk back out for the final comparisons, possibly losing an overall win and pro qualification. During next springs contest prep he tears a right hamstring doing walking lunges, sidetracking him for three weeks. Meanwhile, a dizzying array of workout partners cant keep up with his obsessive schedule of nutrition and workouts. Dave calls upon an old friend, Tim Covert, to help him regain momentum in the gym. Tim, all but a standup comedian, restores Daves sense of humor in a series of funny, tightly edited gym scenes punched up by Martin Baileys brisk score.
The second half of the film concerns the 2006 NPC Masters Nationals in Pittsburgh. From the plane ride to the airport to the hotel, we see it every step of the way. The stress of the competition further estrange Dave and Jenn. Meanwhile, Dave starts cramping again (my most unfavorite part of it, he says). Fortunately he gets through prejudging, and in the evening show makes the top five in the heavyweight class, getting 4th place in the finals. While he achieves what hed hoped to (top five in his class), his relationship with Jenn is over. At home before the 2006 North Americans, after shes moved out, Dave reflects on losing Jenn: I had no idea how good we had it. Theres a touch of the end of Raging Bull in Daves rueful confession. In this brilliant, devastating film, we understand what high achievers go through, and what achievement can cost them.
September 2007, revised February 2013
Script, editing and photography: Mike Pulcinella
This trilogy is one of the best DVD sets I've had the pleasure to view. I suggest having seen the first two films in the series to gain maximum insight and enjoyment from the third in the series. However, it is a tribute to Mike "Fellini" Pulcinella's storytelling and editing talents that this one can be seen on its own.
Dave Pulcinella has had an amazing bodybuilding career on- and offstage. This film pulls no punches, and has same docudrama feel to it that the earlier films had. Dave is seen warts and all as he prepares for his last competition, the 2007 IFBB North Americans. After winning the over-40 masters heavyweight class the last two years, he is out for the overall trophy and the pro card that goes with it.
The prelude to the competition is as compelling as the show itself, emphasizing how difficult it is to get to the contest stage, much less compete so well. Dave's and Mike's cousin, Steve Pulcinella, is an integral part of Dave's preparation, since Dave trains at Steve's gym. Steve is an outstanding competitive powerlifter in his own right. http://www.ironsport.com/
An outstanding segment is Dave's determination to make it to his little nephew's birthday party, in an attempt to mend fences with his sister Christine (not a supporter of Dave's bodybuilding competition). Dave prepares his food and trains early that morning, so he can pick up a gift at Toys?Us and make the party. We also get an update on his former partner, Jenn, and learn how her life has gone since she and Dave broke up. Hopefully, Jen has now found peace and closure.
The pain of winning another class trophy but not the overall and a pro card is wrenching to watch. I was particularly drawn in, since Dave and winner Mike Horn have both been good friends of mine for a long time. I knew it was between the two of them, and whoever won, I would have mixed emotions. But Dave is always a winner. I felt disappointed for him, but never in him.
There is also Dave's current girlfriend, Hayley, who is now on a bodybuilding path. She has won a couple of shows since this film was completed, and I am rooting for Hayley and Dave to have a happy future together.
This film is a rollercoaster of emotions, and worth every minute of its viewing time. The RTB Trilogy should be required viewing for anyone contemplating competition.
September 2009, revised February 2013
Please see our exclusive interview with Mike Pulcinella at http://bodybuildingreviews.net/interviews/.