It’s an ordinary piece of steel, 2 inches by 30 inches by 3/8 inch. And for Chris Schoeck, the protagonist of the improbably moving new documentary “Bending Steel,” it’s the entire measure of his worth as a human being.

Is that a ridiculous way to evaluate a life? Of course. Except that the film, showing Sunday at Space Gallery (, reveals that for Schoeck, a 43-year-old guy from Queens, that steel holds as much mysterious meaning as a climber’s Mount Everest or Ahab’s whale. In its cold implacability, that hunk of metal stands in for the often eccentric individual goals we set for ourselves – and that we invest with crushing significance only we truly understand.

When we first meet Schoeck, a physical therapist by trade, the idea that his secret dream is to be an old-time Coney Island strongman seems impossible, even laughable. An unimposing 150 pounds, with receding red hair and a boyish, vulnerably open face, Schoeck also is painfully awkward, living alone in a neat little apartment and adjourning daily to his basement storage unit to practice all the old-timey strongman feats – tearing phonebooks and decks of playing cards, straightening horseshoes and twisting giant nails. And bending flat steel bars, one after the other, always with an eye towards that one 3/8-inch specimen that he mounts carefully on his wall after innumerable failed attempts.

In Dave Carroll’s directing debut, that bar – mockingly straight despite the would-be strongman’s best efforts – stands as a mocking counterpoint to the driven Schoeck’s ongoing narration of self-motivational pep talks.

The bar’s not Schoeck’s only obstacle. He’s deceptively strong, but his feats rely on decidedly unphotogenic leverage rather than stereotypical brawn. Coupled with Schoeck’s innate social awkwardness and a seeming complete lack of showmanship, his undeniably impressive accomplishments simply evaporate in front of a crowd. (At one low-rent exhibition, a little kid can be heard yelling, “I can’t see it!”) Teaming up with a more seasoned performer and seeking the advice of older, more established strongmen, Schoeck’s efforts find encouragement – and a lot of skeptical looks.

Gradually, we’re given hints as to how he became who he is now – awkward conversations with his elderly, doubting parents, references to a troubled childhood – but they only underscore how unsuited Schoeck seems to his chosen vocation, and how badly we imagine it will turn out for him as he prepares for a big exhibition alongside his more accomplished showmen. (His videotaped performance at a bar’s open mic night is almost too painful to watch, and when he sits alone in his apartment and says things like, “This bar successfully bent will be a step towards a much more fulfilling life. A life which I previously avoided. Once I bend this bar, there will be no judgment,” the viewer’s mix of empathy and anxiety is just as painful.)


Like a Werner Herzog documentary, “Bending Steel” examines a man who has decided to pit himself against a seemingly immovable force of nature – in this case Chris Schoeck’s innate physical and emotional limitations. And an unforgiving piece of cold metal. As the film goes on, this odd man’s idiosyncratic quest against his selected test of self-worth takes on an improbably moving gravity.

When his big test comes, Schoeck’s appeal to the gathered crowd is as riveting – and affecting – as anything I’ve seen in a movie all year. And nope, I won’t tell you what happens. I’ll tell you I was in tears by the end, though.

The screening of “Bending Steel” at Space Gallery at 7:30 p.m. Sunday will be followed by a Q&A with Chris Schoeck and filmmakers Ryan Scafuro and Dave Carroll.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.


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