Film

The Mind Is the Only Limit in 'Bending Steel'

At 5'7" and 155 pounds, Chris Schoeck is an unlikely strongman.


Bending Steel

Director: Dave Carroll
Cast: Chris Schoeck, Chris Rider, Lawrence Farman, Dennis Rogers
Rated: NR
Studio: Documentart
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-01-13 (The Doc Yard)
Website
Trailer

Professional Strongman Chris Schoeck is running. He wears an orange jacket and black wool cap, the camera close on his bobbing head. The sky is grey and for a moment, as Chris pauses before he turns back, the river stretches before him. "I've lived in New York all my life, 43 years," he says in voiceover, "But I don't feel like I belong here. There's a part of me that has always felt extraterrestrial."

The moment is beautifully composed, a series of mobile frames that reflect Chris' resolve as well as his isolation. As he turns around, jogging back from where he came, the city appears at a distance in the smudgy morning light, at once home and another planet. It's the sort of contradiction that shapes Bending Steel, a documentary that follows Chris' efforts to become a strongman, the sort of performer who used to wow crowds on Coney Island back in the day. At first, this ambition sounds exactly right, an apt occupation for someone who feels "extraterrestrial". But as Dave Carroll and Ryan Scafuro's film reveals, Chris sees in his dream a means to feel less alone, more connected, more human. "There's no feeling like feeling that steel give, nothing like it," he explains, "When you learn to bend steel, it feels like you can overcome anything."

Screening on 13 January at the Doc Yard, Bending Steel shows Chris' complex circumstances, his work with mentor Chris "Haircules" Rider, as well as his visits with other members of the strong man community. As these role models demonstrate their techniques and offer advice, Chris listens intently and claps appreciatively at the end of stunts. Even as all strongmen perform remarkable and legitimate feats ("What I'm doing is not magic"), each also tends to have a signature: Rider lifts weight with his long red locks, Slim The Hammerman Farman wields massive hammers, most sensationally just over his forehead. Chris means to bend steel.

The importance of the signature stunt underscores a key component in being a strongman, which is to say the performance per se. "I feel that in order to engage the crowd," Chris says, "You have to be a little self-deprecating and have to sort of show a little humility, a little vulnerability, in order to invite them into my arena." His own forays into such engagement need work, you see from early on. As you watch him watching 76-year-old Slim the Hammerman, Chris' face lights up, impressed not only by the stunt but also the veteran's serenity and patience ("You know when you're ahead, you're the best thing that's gonna hit that stage," Slim advises, "I don't know if I have it or not, but that's what I try to project").

For his part, Chris is Nervous and awkward on stage, he mistimes jokes and speaks too personally. But then, as strongman Dennis Rogers observes, this seeming naiveté has its own appeal. At 5'7" and 155 pounds, Chris is an unlikely strongman. "We have to take him as different from the rest of us," Rogers tells Rider as Chris struggles and grunts during a stunt. "You wonder how the heck this guy does what he does. Look at Opie Taylor bending steel bars!" Even as the guys come up with a stage name for the newest member of their community -- Chris Wonder Schoeck -- the film reveals other facets of Chris' experience, his efforts to overcome his fears and doubts.

These efforts shape Chris' performances. Rider instructs him to position himself as a show ("Turn now, the crowd can see what you're doing, they see your face, they can see your arms straining") and also suggests that he use a camera to tape all his training and also, to rehearse his patter. Chris positions a camera across the room, surveillance-style, in his apartment: he sits with cigar in his hand and ice pack on his shoulder, developing his Wonder affect. At the storage facility where he keeps his steel (horseshoes, bars, nails), Chris records his rehearsal, the camera again above and apart from him, the storage cage providing a narrow frame as he formulates the lines he'll use on stage and blocks out how he'll rip a phone book in half or bend the steel bar.

These solo self-performances are alongside scenes at his parents' home. When he and Rider visit for dinner, Chris' mother Julia chops vegetables in the kitchen, then sits mostly silently as her husband Bernard wonders whether his son's is hoping for a career that's "a little like the magician racket." Well, Chris suggests, "It's the same grab, but it's real," hoping to impress on them the effect of seeing "a little guy get up there and then bend some serious stuff." Bernard appears unimpressed by Chris' demonstration ("Take it slow, get your breath back"), and in this, you see how Chris might have come to feel "extraterrestrial." As he puts it, not so abstractly, it's difficult to have "somebody close to me for a long time that I feel is rooting against me."

In such complexities, Bending Steel reveals Chris' strengths. For as uncomfortable and uncertain as he can feel and also appear, sometimes painfully, he finds support in the strongman community. Rider and Rogers and Slim the Hammerman encourage him and also see in him aspects of themselves. Now that he's in "the breaking free stage", says Rogers, "He's discovered something in himself that he never knew was there, and he sees others who have discovered this and he sees them at different levels and he sees the path where he can go." It's a family for him, Rogers observes, and so do you.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image