Tribeca Film Festival: Bending Steel Is A Quirky Doc With Muscle And Heart
Chris Schoeck, the Long Island City resident at the center of the niche vocation documentary Bending Steel, is about the last person you'd expect to harbor hopes of becoming an "old time strongman." At 43, he seems a little too old to dream of running off to join The Freak Show at Coney Island. Though muscular, he's small and unassuming, especially compared to his big, burly, and willfully outrageous mentors like Chris "Haircules" Rider, Slim the Hammer Man, and "World's Strongest Man" Dennis Rogers, with whom he shares the stage of this doc.
Most peculiar of all, Schoeck's an aspiring showman who is deeply shy. A loner who spends his free time in his apartment building's storage lockers practicing bending horse shoes, tearing phone books in half and wrapping steel beams around his thighs, he admits, "I get out of bending steel what most people get out of relationships." This sad revelation is given context by a visit to Schoeck's parents out in Long Island. While his mother shrugs off his heartfelt plea to attend the upcoming Coney Island debut, his father dismisses the whole venture as "like a magician's racket." My heart went out to Schoeck when he replied with a smile and sense of wonder, "Expect this isn't magic, it's real!"
But this subdued family drama is just a subplot in this strong man's tale. At it's core Bending Steel is a character piece about Schoeck discovering a community within this subculture of freak shows and machismo showmanship. His conflict is to not only overcome stage fright but also conquer a particularly resistant steel beam that mocks him from a mounted place in his living room. As his debut at Coney Island draws near, he picks up this beam again and again with no sign it'll ever give under his arms. "When you learn to bend steel, it feels like you can do anything," he tells us. And by this endearing doc's climactic Coney Island showcase, we believe it.
At first Schoeck—with his collection of bent junk and offbeat ambition—seems too much an outsider to relate to. But like such engaging oddball docs as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Air Guitar Nation, Bending Steel steadily pulls its audience in to this fringe fascination, building to a stand up and cheer finale. Though there are some curious omissions--like what Schoeck does for a living that pays for his apartment and growing collection of twisted metal--this doc is as strangely engaging as its lovable though eccentric leading man, who draws us in with his unguarded vulnerability and earnest smile.
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