Bending Steel


Movie review by Greg Carlson

It doesn’t take long to realize that the quiet, introspective Chris “Wonder” Schoeck lives with a fire inside. In his early 40s, the native of Queens, New York is the subject of director Dave Carroll and producer/co-writer/cinematographer Ryan Scafuro’s “Bending Steel,” a biographical portrait of Schoeck during his quest to join the ranks of the “oldetime” strongmen who once astonished crowds at the sideshows of Coney Island. Articulate, thoughtful, and unfailingly polite, the physically slight Schoeck looks and sounds nothing like the stereotypical bar-bender. One of the first things that comes to nearly any viewer’s mind is an acute sense of the seemingly Sisyphean odds against Schoeck and his ability to find gainful employment doing something that presumably faded from popularity decades ago.

Carroll practically stumbled on Schoeck’s story when he realized his apartment building neighbor was tearing phone books and twisting horseshoes in the storage area cages near a basement laundry room. Carroll soon introduced himself and pitched the documentary. Schoeck mostly keeps his own company, with the small circle of fellow strongmen as the notable exception. Running parallel to Schoeck’s deeply personal story is the movie’s discovery of a unique subculture of devotees committed to unusual displays of human toughness. Schoeck is trained by Chris “Haircules” Rider, who uses his lengthy locks to break #8 jack-chains as part of his stage act, and the contrast between the two men is immediate and striking.

One of the film’s most welcome components is the acknowledgment of the colorful history and practice of oldetime strongmen, and “Bending Steel” treats figures like the iconic, chain-chomping, vaudeville-era Joseph “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein and Greenstein’s student Slim “The Hammer Man” Farman with the same reverence and curiosity demonstrated by Schoeck. In his late 70s, Farman performs his signature “hammer lever” feat on camera, and Carroll and Scafuro trace the tradition of one-on-one mentorship in the strongman community all the way from Greenstein to Schoeck.

While “Bending Steel” contains many scenes in which Schoeck’s passion appears to far outstrip his ability as a performer – in terms of both showmanship and muscle power – Carroll never mocks or ridicules the man, even though it may have been easy to do so. In one painful scene, Schoeck’s banter with the audience at an open mic opportunity fails miserably, and time and again Schoeck is encouraged by his fellow strongmen to develop some kind of interactive rapport with the people watching him. Schoeck’s own parents, confused by their son’s dreams, display cruel indifference to this desire in their child that they have no capacity to understand.

Schoeck’s inanimate opponent, a kind of forged bête noire, is a flat steel bar two inches wide and three eighths of an inch thick. The cold gray metal functions at least on one level as the film’s Macguffin, taunting Schoeck with its promise of either ruination or glory. That bar, which Schoeck hangs on his wall as a constant reminder of his mission, comes to represent much more than a person’s demonstrable tenacity, courage, and grit, and the filmmakers know it. “Bending Steel” builds to a performance during which Schoeck will make his first public attempt at the bar, and that moment, with its uncertain outcome, unfolds with excruciating drama and anticipation.

“Bending Steel” will open the 14th Fargo Film Festival on Tuesday, March 4 at the Historic Fargo Theatre. Subject and star Chris “Wonder” Schoeck will talk about his experiences making the movie and take questions from the audience following the screening.

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