I believe that the definition of definition is reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.
That’s how Henry Rollins begins the essay “The Iron,” which is all about how he got into lifting weights and what lifting taught him about life. Certain activities taken seriously and done often enough come to define a personal philosophy. The essay was the first thing I thought about at the end of Bending Steel.
In the documentary, the material is obviously different: steel is iron, carbon, and other materials refined for extra durability. The aim is still the same, though, since it’s about self-improvement through effort. Chris Schoeck wants to be an old-time strongman, and even though there’s so much working against him, the act of bending steel is something potentially transformative — horseshoes get straightened, nails become u-shaped, and a rudderless life is given a sense of direction.
[For the next few weeks, Flixist will be covering the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 17-28 in New York City. Check with us daily for reviews, interviews, features, and news from the festival. For all of our coverage, go here.]
Director: Dave Carroll
Release Date: TBD
It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything. That’s the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.
— Henry Rollins, “The Iron”
Chris Schoeck seems like an unassuming guy, or at least not the sort of person you’d expect to be a strongman. There’s a certain picture in the mind of the old-time strongman, one linked to the Coney Island boardwalk of the past: waxed facial hair, tall, imposing, and a with a personality to match. Schoeck’s mentor, Chris “Hairculese” Rider, fits the bill better. I actually ran into both Schoeck and Rider between screenings during the festival, and the contrast is pretty fascinating. Schoeck is about my height and weight, and yet he’s able to turn crescent wrenches into pretzels.
There’s an awkwardness to the beginning of Bending Steel that seems strange at first. It begins quiet, hesitant, maybe even withdrawn and at a distance. But the movie loosens up as Schoeck gets more comfortable as a strongman. It’s the peculiar match of form, content, and subject in a documentary. The thing about bending steel as mentioned in the film is that heat is generated when a metal becomes malleable; the film itself warms up as we learn more about Schoeck.
According to Schoeck’s parents, he’s never really seen anything to the finish. He’d get enthusiastic about something for a while and then just drop it, and it might be the case with being an old-time strongman. Schoeck’s first performances reveal a deep shyness and social awkwardness, even a sort of endearing ineptitude. At one demonstration of strength, be bends metal like taffy in just a few seconds, but he doesn’t take a moment to show his handiwork to the people who are watching. Just as he puts away the bent object — I believe it was a wrench — a kid heckles off-camera, “We can’t see it!”
There’s a sense that Schoeck is very critical of himself, but he doesn’t know what to do to get over his performance anxiety. He has the ability, and his size makes his feats of strength seem even more remarkable, but if he wants to become a proper strongman he needs to work on his stagecraft. Rider does his best to mold his protege, but it’s really up to Schoeck to change himself. That may be a more difficult feat than tearing phonebooks or ripping a deck of playing cards. Schoeck’s such an easy person to root for since he’s an earnest underdog who’s been holding back all his life. This is his shot at breaking free.
Schoeck’s not in this alone, thankfully. There are people to help him along the way in addition to Rider. Director Dave Carroll takes time to show how Schoeck fits into the community of modern-day old-time strongmen. It’s a niche group, but niche groups tend to be extremely enthusiastic and more supportive. Schoeck’s a talented bit of newblood, but he’s severely shut in and isolated, and he has been for much of his life. By joining the strongman community, there’s a sense that this brotherhood of lifters, benders, and breakers can give Schoeck the extra strength he needs to do the impossible. Sometimes all it takes to make a person excel is finding someone who actually believes in their potential. When someone genuinely believes in you and lets you know it, it becomes a convenient excuse to finally start believing in yourself.
Even though I used the word “impossible” above, what strongmen do is not impossible. Improbable sure, and unbelievable definitely, but it’s no illusion. It is the ultimate example of mind over matter — the will makes the body exert strength which forces another object to bend to the will. It takes work, though, but it’s an odd reminder of human potential in the most rudimentary of ways. Sure, there are levers, pulleys, and other machines that can exert this same amount of effort and more, but we’re still capable of impressing ourselves.
Schoeck and the strongman community go beyond pain and push themselves always, and it’s that ability to withstand and to endure that allows them to do incredible feats of strength. Hearing Schoeck describe what the sensation of bending steel is like is both unique to what he does and yet applicable to any goal people set out to accomplish.
I think that’s what I love so much about these stories about people pursuing a vocation and finding a life lesson in it. The act of bending steel is a bit of a MacGuffin since it could be any act that results in some form of self-actualization and personal growth, but the act of bending steel is also a great metaphor for anything a person wants to achieve no matter what it may be. Things that seem impossible can be done, it just takes enough passion, enough effort, and enough will channeled properly into the moment. Think of that Flaming Lips song, “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat),” and now apply it to all things. No task is too imposing.
Well, okay. Maybe not always. There are still imposing tasks in the world, I suppose; impossible things too.
For Schoeck, the impossible is mounted on the wall of his apartment: a steel bar that’s two inches wide and 3/8 of an inch thick. He can bend thinner and narrower steel bars no problem, but just a bit more matter is enough to make him consider giving up (again). The mind is beaten by steel, and the body allows itself to be defeated as well. Schoeck strains and strains on the two-inch wide 3/8-inch thick bar, the steel pressed so hard against his thigh I was afraid his femur would snap in half. Just a few eighths of an inch means the difference between success and humiliation, but that’s the nature of dealing with metal. Steel simply is and will never lie about a person’s limitations.
Like Rollins says at the end of “The Iron”:
The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.
Steel — iron refined — is an even more merciless son of a bitch.
Whether Chris succeeds or not at being a strongman, the most important thing is that he’s coming into his own. It may be the first time in his life, I don’t know, but the way Carroll captures Schoeck on stage and at home, it really seems like it. Whatever happens, there is always the certainty of steel and the personal drive to make it do whatever he wants; 3/8 of an inch is always 3/8 of an inch, and two inches is always two inches, but Chris Schoeck is finally becoming Chris Schoeck.
[For more info on Bending Steel, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]