“It’s a human drama thing.” That’s how Benny Perkins, one of the contestants in the “Hands on a Hard Body” contest, describes this unusual endurance contest in Longview, Texas which was once an annual event that officially began in 1992. I first became aware of S.R. Bindler’s enthralling, hilarious and often moving 1997 documentary of the event during a visit to New York City in 1998. Scanning the film section of The Village Voice for showings of movies unlikely to come to Atlanta, the title Hands on a Hard Body caught my eye and sounded like a softcore exploitation film, possibly set during Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale.
A rave review in the Voice set me straight on what it was really about and I managed to catch an afternoon screening of it at the Quad Cinema on West 13th St. in an almost deserted theatre. Shot on Hi-8 video (blown up to 16mm) and alternating between talking heads and footage culled from more than 100 hours of the contest, Hands on a Hard Body (produced by Kevin Morris, Chapin Wilson & Bindler) may not look very pretty or artful on a visual level (it has the aura of a glorified home movie). Yet it’s the subject matter – what some people are willing to do to win a free Nissan ‘hard body” truck – that is so unexpectedly engaging and American. What is it about our culture that spawns a contest where the contestants are more than willing to exert all of their time, energy and will power toward such a seemingly absurd display of materialism? The documentary is also about a specific regional subculture showing us a cross-section of Texans we rarely see in movies. The reason I’m talking about Hands on a Hard Body now is because the film, which has been out of print for years, fetching prices as high as $300 on eBay at one time, is finally available again on DVD from HOHB Releasing. This 2013 remastered release also includes an additional hour of never-before-seen footage. This is really the only way you are going to see this one-of-a-kind documentary these days because it is no longer available from Netflix and you can only see bits and pieces of it on YouTube. It may very well have inspired Survivor (which first aired on TV in 2000) and other reality television shows about human endurance and determination but nobody could have scripted anything this quirky or written characters as original and colorful as these.
The documentary focuses on the 1995 Hard Body contest at the Jack Long Nissan dealership in Longview, Tx (125 miles east of Dallas and about 60 miles west of Shreveport, La.). 23 contestants are chosen randomly from a lottery and the rules for competition are simple but grueling. You must wear gloves at all times and have one hand always placed on the truck. You can place two hands on the truck if you wish but you can not lean on it or squat down or rest your legs or prop yourself up except during a five minute break that occurs every hour. Every six hours you get a fifteen-minute bathroom break. If you lift your hand off the truck at any time during the contest or forget to follow any of the above directions, you are immediately disqualified. The last person left standing is declared the winner though one previous contest was known to last 92 hours and 40 minutes!
The sight of a bunch of people standing around a new Nissan truck (valued at around $15,000 in 1995) with their hands on it and not moving for hours at a time doesn’t sound like the most cinematic of competitions. Trust me, once you begin to know the contestants you slowly find yourself sucked into the emotional experience of it, rooting for favorites and trying to predict the actual winner. At some point you may even find yourself wondering how you would fare in the contest. The seductive hook of Hands on a Hard Body is Bindler’s intimate approach to this human circus which never resorts to mean-spirited manipulation for easy laughs. Why people would go to such extremes to get a free truck begins to lose its freak show aspect as the finalists began to explain their reasons for entering and what the vehicle means to them. Kelli wants it so she can quit her waitressing job which requires her to bicycle six miles to work every day. And just about everyone else has a reason that represents some kind of escape from their current economic situation or dead-end job. Benny, the winner of the 1992 contest and a formidable current contender, also states that a truck is a Texan’s birthright and something that is bred in the bone.
Benny, who adopts a Zen warrior approach to the competition, citing the film Highlander as a philosophical touchstone, is one of the more unforgettable personalities on display. Equally memorable though are Norma, a devout Christian who believes it is God’s will that she win and has her whole church congregation as cheerleaders; Janis, a determined country woman missing her front teeth, and her husband (equally in need of dental work) cheering on the sidelines when he isn’t discussing his 20-ton air conditioning unit which brings the temperature of their house down to 12 degrees below zero; J.D., the oldest contestant who smokes unfiltered cigarettes constantly while receiving foot and back massages from his attentive wife or Greg, a young, buff ex-Marine who seems the most fit of the lot.
Some fall by the wayside quickly once the contest passes the 24-hour mark. Some succumb to leg and back pain and physical exhaustion; some are disqualified for infractions of the iron clad rules or because they make simple mistakes brought on by delirium; there are several sequences of uncontrollable laughing that seems to come in waves as the hours drag on.
A choice of comfortable footwear, clothing and food and drink options also appear to separate the early casualties from the finalists. We see one fall out after eating too many Snickers bars, another because he constantly ate hamburgers that made him sluggish and sleepy. Some of the disqualified people come back to cheer on the finalists while others feel resentment toward the judges and some of the contestants for trying to distract them or make them lose. It IS a human drama thing as Benny says and as the film gets down to its final four contestants the suspense builds dramatically.
On a first viewing, I never guessed the actual winner and was completed surprised by the last minute turn of events. You may even be moved to tears by the winner’s final gesture. On a second viewing, it’s even richer as you see how Bindler keeps some of the least likely contenders in the background, bringing them forward slowly in the editing process as more hardy and seemingly infallible finalists fall out.
Unfortunately, the Hard Body contest ended in 2005 after a tragic incident occurred during the competition which was originally reported in the Longview News-Journal: “Richard Thomas Vega II had been a contestant in the internationally popular Hands on a Hardbody contest at Patterson Nissan in Longview when he killed himself Thursday morning after leaving the contest at the beginning of its third day. The 24-year-old East Texan walked away around 6 a.m., when he politely excused himself just before a scheduled 15-minute break for competitors, a witness said. According to some sources, Vega walked across the street to the K-Mart which was closed at the time, broke in, got a 12-gauge shotgun from the sporting goods department and shot himself in the head. His wife successfully sued the Nissan dealership for the death of her husband and for failing to provide a safe environment for the contestants who were subjected to sleep deprivation and “temporarily lost their sanity.” As a result, the contest was not continued.
When Hands on a Hard Body went into theatrical release in 1998 after appearing at numerous film festivals in 1997, it won almost unanimous praise wherever it played. Todd McCarthy, writing for Variety, called it “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.” Anita Gates of The New York Times wrote, “These may not be people whom moviegoers think they want to spend time with, but this is accomplished documentary making, finding universal lessons in determination, struggle, planning, persistence and the relationship of mind and body. The experience turns out to be simultaneously primal and complex.”
A great interview with the director conducted by Dakota Smith appeared on Salon.com in 1999 in which Bindler was asked how he was able to avoid turning the documentary into a parody of the event. (It certainly would have been a different film if Christopher Guest or Werner Herzog had directed it). Binder replied, “I think it’s a very simple understanding that life, as Tennessee Williams said, is fantastic. And because it’s fantastic, you don’t need to amp it up any more than it already does for you. It was already a fantastic, exploitative event and I just didn’t think that it needed, on my end, to make it more so. And I genuinely found the people….very honest, very open, very vulnerable and I’m not the kind of person to take advantage of that. By the end of the contest, I felt a fondness for all these people, and as an editor, after you watch the footage three or four times, you catch all their nuances, you get to know all these people. I felt a responsibility to represent them as they are and how I perceived them…it was real people going through a real situation, even if it was hyper-realistic. The people had real concerns, real needs, real wants. I didn’t want to make fun of them.”
Of course, Bindler was also lucky to have ended up with such lively and uniquely interesting participants. Regarding the filming he added, “I over-planned, so that when things happened, we were ready to capture it. In all honesty, we were just there to capture the experience, and it’s a different film than what I had expected. But that’s the double-edged sword of a documentary. We were very prepared, but still Benny might not have been there, three or four other characters might not have been there. You either get something beautiful or you don’t. You’re either given a lot of gifts or you’re not.” After such a knock ‘em dead home run, however, R.S. Bindler didn’t make another film for eleven years and then resurfaced with Surfer Dude (2008), a stoner comedy starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Scott Glenn and Willie Nelson that was either ignored or trashed by most critics who bothered to see it. One critic dismissed it with “I can see it being a NetFlix rental for middle management corporate drones of a certain age who want a fantasy look at what their lives could have been if they had just said yes to pot and sunshine.” Regardless of what one thinks of Surfer Dude, though, McConaughey was actually key to the success of Bindler’s earlier documentary because he paid for the film’s Hi-8 bump up to 16mm so that Hands on a Hard Body could receive theatrical distribution. That’s why you see McConaughey receive a special thanks in the final credits of the documentary along with Benicio Del Toro, a friend of Bindler’s.
During the years between the release of Hands on a Hard Body in 1997 and 2006 there was talk of Robert Altman directing a dramatization of it. That possibility ended with his death in November of 2006 but how fascinating to think of the potential casting with such names as Billy Bob Thornton and Hilary Swank being bandied about! Can’t you see Thornton as Benny or Swank as Kelli? And I can see Altman working in the unfortunate 2005 suicide at the event as a dramatic device similar to the assassination that closes Nashville. A dramatic feature film of the documentary never materialized. Instead Hands on a Hard Body was reborn in 2013 as a Broadway play – a musical, no less (It actually had its world premiere in 2012 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California). The Broadway production had genuine stage creed: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright of I Am My Own Wife (he also wrote the musical version of Grey Gardens), lyricist Amanda Green (the daughter of Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green), director Neil Pepe (Speed-the-Plow) and dancer/choreographer Sergio Trujillo (the 2009 revival of Guys and Dolls). It also had guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio of Phish as the music composer and Keith Carradine was among the cast members. The musical was well received by most critics and it even garnered three Tony Award nominations but it had a short shelf life; It opened on March 21, 2013 and closed on April 13, 2013.
Somehow I don’t think this is the end of Hands on a Hard Body. I suspect it will be revived again in some form. Maybe the contest will even come back. At any rate, it is hard to imagine anyone topping Bindler’s original achievement.
Other links of interest:
Hands on a Hard Body Director S.R. Bindler On His Documentary’s Unlikely Broadway Adaptation
Hands on a Hardbody: Texas Dealership Settles Case Over Suicide in Truck Contest