THAT'S DEDICATION Muscle and bone meet cold, hard steel
Chris Schoeck is a true loner in the nation’s biggest city. A lifelong New Yorker with the high-pitched, slightly neurotic tone of voice to prove it, Schoeck spends his days as a physical therapist, but most of his nights pass in the basement of his apartment building. There, he rips telephone books and decks of playing cards apart with his bare hands, but spends most of his time indulging in his true passion: bending nails, horseshoes, and metal beams of increasing thickness.
Dave Carroll’s documentary, Bending Steel, began in January of 2011 when the director — another occupant of the same building — ran across this unassuming, taciturn workhorse toiling in the basement, and decided to film his attempt to become a performing, old-fashioned strongman on Coney Island that summer. This goal isn’t all that dissimilar from those of other recent artisanal documentaries, but Carroll’s approach to Schoeck’s trials definitely is; Bending Steel barely mentions Schoeck’s goal for about half of its running time, and certainly doesn’t glorify it. The film’s aim is modest and powerful: to focus on the physical and psychological hurdles Schoeck must overcome not only to become a true strongman, but also to become an engaging performer, and by extension a more outgoing human being.
What sets Bending Steel apart from other films of its ilk is its earnest psychological investigations, and how the filmmaking process both clearly and invisibly assists Schoeck in realizing his goals. “I have very little attachment to anyone else,” Schoeck says. “I find getting involved to be sort of onerous.” Instead, Schoeck develops relationships to hunks of metal, which eventually warm to his anguished, punishing flexes and twists. But Carroll’s interest seems to spur Schoeck to action: he hires a trainer and becomes ingratiated amid the region’s community of contemporary and old-time strongmen. These men suggest that Schoeck can find both liberation and unexpected support in the face of an audience, but he — struggling to warp a two-inch-thick beam of industrial steel in time for the summer — cannot seem to bear to be an entertainer. Paradoxically, it strikes him as both beneath and integral to his artform. “Show-business is ancillary to me,” Schoeck says. “I’m there to prove something.”
The psychological chasm Schoeck needs to overcome is textbook Psych 101 — his parents are tragically unsupportive, if not outright embarrassed; he is constantly, poignantly upfront about his fear of judgment and failure — and this lends a sober universality to proceedings that could merely be rendered quirky. Carroll underlines Schoeck’s isolation visually, in compositions both clever and innate: we watch him from a distance in a narrow hallway as he rehearses his scripted performance, attempting to make it sound more charismatic; and when he performs for small crowds, his modest stature (5’7”, 155 pounds) speaks for itself. Amid a crowd of seasoned veterans, Schoeck looks like a teddy bear with the eager eyes of a college freshman, hoping to soak up advice and inspiration.