It turns out that being an old time strongman has less to do with bulging muscles, leopard skin leotards and handle bar mustaches than it does with carrying on tradition and achieving the seemingly impossible. For Chris Shoeck, contorting bodies of solid steel is more than a niche hobby – it’s a personal relationship in which all of his angst and frustrations are converted into physical force and positive vibes. Director Dave Carroll discovered Shoeck and his throwback obsession when his dog wandered into the aspiring strongman’s dungeonesque practice cage in the basement laundry room of the building where they both live. After an awkward first encounter, Chris, who has spent most of his life avoiding human interaction by either bending, boozing or burying his nose in a book, found Carroll to be incredibly easy to confide in. Shoeck’s inspiring transformative journey that’s solidified within Bending Steel is a bravely personal journey of trust and triumph that nods to sideshow history with solemn respect.
A native New Yorker, Shoeck has never felt at home in the Big Apple, but his lucrative day job as a personal trainer and his love for the sideshow history of Coney Island have kept him at least complacent. His apartment, where we spend much of our time, is elegantly furnished and meticulously arranged with canon literature and framed portraits of metal bending idols lining the walls – a classic space of bacheloric tragedy. Though Chris admits to being a loner by choice, finding conversation cumbersome and relationships plainly just too much work for what their worth, he is in serious need of human connection. His relationship with steel is both physically and mentally rewarding, but they do not provide the emotional support that he first claims it does.
After contacting a local strongman already performing professionally for advice, Shoeck is taken into the local strongman lineage with open arms and is quickly coaxed into the horrifying idea that to progress in his passion he must get up in front of an audience and perform live. Finally, with a healthy common interest and a realistic goal to work towards, he finds that socializing can indeed be fulfilling. It is in this layered realization that Carroll really finds the heart of his story. All the physical feats and personal self reflections make for adequate on-screen allure, but it isn’t until midway into the film that Shoeck’s attempt to change in a seemingly superficial way actually begins to show great potential for an emotional breakthrough.
You see, all his life he’s been under the thumb of his unsupportive parents. When Chris admits his steel bending obsession to them and lays out his intent to become a performing strongman, they react as if it’s just a passing phase like so many other hobbies that have come and gone. Both of them appear increasingly uncomfortable under Carroll’s lens as if embarrassed by their son. What they don’t seem to realize is that they have created Shoeck’s unsociable tendencies by never backing him in his endeavors, but unlike his parents, Chris continues to extend his compassion, opting to use his father’s old suitcase in his act as a nod to his pops and offering them a pair of front row seats to his first professional performance where they could have found themselves more proud of their son than ever before, if only they had shown up.
It is in this brilliant sequence of building suspense the film finds jubilant redemption from the ever-slowing pace that proceeds it. Though strikingly shot and brazenly honest in its storytelling, Carroll’s docu debut begins to feel a bit repetitive in its try and try again approach that’s inherent to Shoeck’s act. To break the tedium of self reflection and bent metal, he smartly investigates the colorful history of Coney Island strongmen that opens up as Chris makes more connections within the field. Despite this, Bending Steel often feels overly familiar (a perfect example is the generic NYC lifestyle intro), but Shoeck makes for a fascinating character who’s talkative journey from solitary down-and-out oddball to exuberant sideshow extraordinaire Chris ‘Wonder’ Shoeck is downright heartwarming. So, step right up, accept the discount carny enticement and enjoy the surprisingly sincere show.
Reviewed on April 28th at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival – World Showcase Programme. 93 min