Hands on a Hardbody

Made on the most modest of means, "Hands on a Hardbody" is a classic piece of Americana, a down-home documentary that not only produces gales of laughter but also manages, by the end, to come together as a highly unlikely metaphor for the rigors of human existence.

Made on the most modest of means, “Hands on a Hardbody” is a classic piece of Americana, a down-home documentary that not only produces gales of laughter but also manages, by the end, to come together as a highly unlikely metaphor for the rigors of human existence.

With a physical package that looks no better than a home movie, this incisive satire ideally should be technically upgraded to be acceptable to paying customers. But its great humor and quality carry the day, and resourceful marketing efforts should be able to locate appreciative audiences in theatrical, campus, video and alternative TV arenas.

The subject is one that the cinema’s most dedicated chronicler of eccentric human endeavor, Errol Morris, would no doubt have seized upon had he heard about it: an annual contest in Longview, Texas, in which the person who can hold a hand on a new Nissan pickup truck the longest gets to keep it.

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At first, this seems like one of the silliest, and most inconsequential, things imaginable to command one’s attention. The folks in this out-of-the-way town mostly seem like yokels, and initially it’s hard to suppress the superior notion that people who would stand around in the boiling sun for days on end in the distant hope of winning a truck must have a few screws loose and too much time on their hands.

Some of the contestants’ comments tend to support this view. As the hopefuls gather in the car dealer parking lot to begin their ordeal, several utter windy pronouncements about what it will take to prevail, with a couple of military types intoning about testing your limits and having the requisite “mettle,” and some putting their faith in the Lord. Others, though, talk about how they’ve been through tough times and how much it would mean to them to have a vehicle.

Then the 1995 Hands on a Hardbody contest gets under way, with 23 entrants facing the challenge of keeping at least one (gloved) hand on the truck day and night, with a five-minute break every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours. One may not lean on the truck for support, and the adversities supplied by the heat, aching feet and nocturnal swarms of mosquitoes are nothing compared with the psychological obstacle. As one contest veteran puts it, “You go through the day being extremely bored. You’re standing in one spot doing absolutely nothing.”

Nobody wants to be the first to drop out, but after 24 hours six have done so. Participants have various strategies for passing the time and maintaining the proper spirit: An overweight, devout woman endlessly listens to religious-music tapes, a black contestant devours Snickers, while a previous winner brandishes a gunslinger attitude about being the best.

But there is no human resource available for fending off the eroding effects of sleeplessness and the attrition of time. By the 59th hour, hallucinations are setting in, rational determination among the remaining few is turning into dementia, and the world’s record of 102 hours is still looking a long way off. At this point, as former winner Benny says, “It’s who can maintain their sanity the longest.”

By the 70th hour, only two contestants remain, and regardless of the personal sympathies one might have developed by now, one can only feel pity for the person who will come in second, and receive only a $250 consolation prize for the trouble. By the end, despite the heavy competition involved, a tremendously close feeling has developed among those of long endurance, who are something akin to the survivors of a war or other catastrophe. However obscure their ordeal, they have definitely been through something together.

The bumpkin personalities of many of the participants would have repped easy targets for a mean-spirited filmmaker, but director S.R. Bindler has adroitly managed to make light of their folly without condescending to them. After spending a little time with them, some become quite engaging, and one comes to respect their sense of endeavor while still enjoying the fundamental goofiness of the whole contest.

Technically, docu is rough but energetic and observant. Shot on Hi8 video, it has been transferred to film in crude fashion, and it’s a tribute to the film’s fundamental strength that the content easily overcomes the visual shortcomings. Nonetheless, any distrib who takes this on should make all efforts to enhance the visual component as much as possible.

Hands on a Hardbody

Production: Produced by Kevin Morris, Chapin Wilson, S.R. Bindler. Directed, edited by S.R. Bindler

Crew: Camera (color, Hi8-to-16mm), Michael Nickles, Chapin Wilson, Bindler; sound, Lev Vertov; associate producer, Julia Wall. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, March 8, 1997. (Also in Boston, AFI/L.A. film festivals.) Running time: 95 min.

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