Chris Schoeck likes to introduce his act by saying, “I’m interested in things that were done between 1890 and 1910 on Coney Island,” a contradiction in modern times that’s proves to be only one of many for the diminutive strongman in Dave Carroll’s portrait “Bending Steel.” Given to grand statements such as “I get out of this steel what most people get out of personal relationships,” he’s got a long way to go if he wants to be a successful entertainer, as that specific statement would suggest, even without facing the considerable odds of making it as a performer of a bygone artform.
Schoeck isn’t a natural in front of an audience, which proves to be a double-edged sword in Carroll’s feature debut. At once, we’re the ones who have to spend time with Schoeck as he pursues his dream of bending a 2″ inch steel bar around his inner thigh in time for a showcase at Coney Island, hyping himself up with platitudes and appearing to be the greatest appreciator of his own company, often enjoying cigars alone, while “Bending Steel” as a narrative finds its most compelling conflict in the metaltwister’s iconoclastic nature – hoping to forge a future from an activity very much of the past while bringing out the worst in his antisocial behavior when he is required to serve the needs of a crowd. It’s to Carroll’s great credit that Schoeck grows comfortable in front of the camera, if not the spotlight.
Although Schoeck does impress with being able to tear a phone book in half and the film spends a limited if still significant amount of time with other strongmen such as Slim “The Hammer Man” Farman, a legend known for swinging a Thor-like hammer towards his face without letting it touch, “Bending Steel” is most involving when it isn’t about the practitioners, but the act itself. Carroll follows Schoeck as he goes from one lowly gig to another, including a particularly pitiful open mic afternoon at a bar, perfecting his routine, taken under the wing of a far more amiable mentor (Chris Rider). The film is resolutely not cynical about Schoeck’s pursuits, but skepticism that he’ll be able to have a successful career is reflected in his visits to his parents whose complete disinterest in seeing their son put a curve in a piece of metal results in some of “Bending Steel”’s alternately most amusing and dispiriting moments.
Carroll and editor John Hoyt shape “Bending Steel” in a way as determined and precise as Schoeck approaches his steel bars, throwing in an occasional fantasy sequence inspired by their subject’s dreams every here and there, but mostly sticking to Schoeck’s march towards loosening up on stage. While it was wise to keep the focus on Schoeck and the film does a great job of showing the long tradition of the very tight community that’s formed amongst the other strongmen, the slightness of the story and the insular nature of its subject threaten to make it a bit repetitive. Documentary aficionados may also note that this is similar territory to what was addressed in Zachary Levy’s 2009 verite doc “Strongman,” but they will no doubt be pleased to see a glimpse of that film’s main subject Stanless Steel near the end of “Bending Steel,” as well as a very different set of challenges for Schoeck to overcome. By then, Schoeck is lifting a lot more than weights.