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BY TRAV S.D. | “Bending Steel” is an unexpectedly moving documentary by director Dave Carroll about a guy with the quixotic dream of becoming an old-time circus strong man.
Chris Schoeck, the film’s subject, is a 43-year-old physical therapist and self-professed loner who literally spends all of his spare time in a storage room straining to bend pieces of metal. To be more precise, he actually accomplishes this seemingly impossible feat routinely.
Before the camera, we watch him twist horseshoes straight like taffy, bend a pipe wrench over double and transform a thick steel bar into a “U” shape. When he says “That’s a good kind of nail to work on,” he’s not talking about carpentry — it’s either for bending in half or driving into a board using only his fist. And when he gets tired of metal, Schoeck tears phone books and decks of playing cards in half with his bare hands. Schoeck, by the way, only weighs about 150 pounds.
It turns out that accomplishing such feats of strength is not only a matter of brute force, but of willpower. To help him realize his dream, Schoeck hires a Pennsylvania-based consultant, Chris “Haircules” Rider — so named because of his long, flowing mane, and the fact that he is able to pick up heavy weights that have been tied to it using his mighty scalp-strength. It’s Rider’s job to help Schoeck build his confidence by teaching him about performance, inspiring him and psyching him up.
The film follows the two as they make a pilgrimage to the home of a legend in their field, Slim the Hammer Man (whose specialty is lifting sledgehammers). Slim’s garage, in turn, is a shrine to the memory of sideshow star The Mighty Atom (Joseph L. Greenstein). At a gathering of a club called the Steel Nuts, Schoeck is encouraged by one of the members to attempt to bend a quarter on his teeth — and he does, chipping one in the process.
This is a group of friends founded on machismo, yet Schoeck is able to find more sensitivity, acceptance and understanding with them than he does from his own parents (whom ironically, are the only thing holding him back). Dismissive, truly horrible people, they can’t be bothered to support him or even pretend to take an interest in what he does, gazing unimpressed when he bends a steel bar an inch and a half thick in front of them in their back yard. (The father suggests that it might be a trick bar, and then points out that the son is out of breath).
The climax of the film is Schoeck’s debut at the Coney Island Olde Time Strongman Spectacular, where he hopes to surprise everyone by bending a steel bar that is two inches thick. Even the experts tell him he won’t be able to pull it off. In the front row are two empty seats reserved for his parents.
You won’t get any spoilers here but I will reveal that the outcome affected me greatly on an emotional level. Far from a silly topic, this is one man’s existential journey, and it packs a punch — right to the solar plexus.
Directed by Dave Carroll
Runtime: 93 minutes
Screening at the Tribeca Film Festival
4/24 at 3pm and 4/27 at 10:30pm, at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
For tickets & info, call 646-502-5296 or visit tribecafilm.com/filmguide