Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Bending Steel

The central figure in Dave Carroll bending steel is an awkward person. He does not relate well to other people. When he speaks he puts emphasis on the wrong syllable, leaves too long empty spaces when responding to a question and tends to look down to the ground when engaged in a conversation.

Chris Shoeck exists on the edge of society.  He is a New York City personal trainer by day and spends a lot of time by himself when he is not working.  His fortunes start to change when he begins to bend nails in his cramped basement storage locker area in his attempt to become strongman. He first meets up with Chris Rider a Pennsylvania Strongman nicknamed Haircules known for his long hair and stunts like ripping a phone book or a full deck of cads in two.  Rider teaches Shoeck the proper pacing of his act. To make sure that the audience can see clearly as he works and the key part to display the bent item  to the crowd upon completion of the act. Through Rider Shoeck enters the strongman community and meets some of the legends in the sport and gains the stage name Chris "Wonder" Shoeck due to his ability to bend iron bars despite his small stature.

Director Carroll mixes in old black and white footage of the old master strongmen from the early twentieth century. Showing that at their peak Strongman shows sold out Madison Square Gardens and were a regular feature on Coney Islands.  Most of the filming is a one camera shot with questions coming to the subjects from off camera.  Carroll shoots Shoeck mostly in the corner of the frame and in the shadows. This shooting technique serves to amplify his isolation and loneliness.

Chris does fit in with the Strongman group and becomes one of the performers on a return to Coney Island show that he promotes by giving away flyers on the boardwalk and appearance on an independent radio show that appears to be run out of a store front.

An ongoing sub plot is Shoeck's battle to bend a 2 - inch thick iron bar. He starts to work on the bar in the first act but is unable to budge it at all and continues to try new techniques and angles as the movie progresses. His colleagues encourage him pointing out that bending steel is not about strength but more mind over matter. The bar becomes his holy grail as it's mounted on the wall in his home to be looked at and studied.

The most uncomfortable moments of the Documentary are the two occasions when Chris goes to visit his parents the second of which accompanied by Rider. By they way they speak to each other one would think that they were total strangers. They also show no support of his new activity and when he leaves them tickets for the upcoming Coney Island show it's clear that they will not attend.

Bending Steel is an original story with a quirky protagonist. Carroll lets his subject be himself and the audience can see Shoeck grow as the film progresses and he gains more confidence in is skills. He relaxes as the piece unfolds often conducting his interviews with the director in his favourite was chair smoking a cigar. Director Dave Carroll tells a different kind of story and it is one that I can recommend.

*** out of 4.

Bending Steel | Dave Carroll | U.S.A. | 93 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags:  Introvert, Carnival Performers, Strongman, Coney Island, Loneliness, NYC

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