Hands on a Hard Body
1997, PG, 97 min. Directed by S.R. Bindler.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., July 10, 1998
As engrossing as documentaries about manifestly “big” subjects (Triumph of the Will, A Brief History of Time) can be, I've always found even more delight in the ones about picayune-seeming phenomena and pursuits that gain an improbable aura of significance from the passion people pour into them. A classic example is Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, with The Endless Summer, Pumping Iron, and Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey also popping quickly to mind. So, if surfing, bodybuilding, or mole rats can commandeer souls and spawn whole new schools of philosophy, why not a publicity stunt staged by a small-town car dealer? That's the premise of S.R. Bindler's marvelous little film, Hands on a Hard Body, winner of numerous festival awards including the audience award from the 1997 Austin Heart of Film Festival, that's just now seeing theatrical release. (The movie launches its world theatrical premiere in Austin this Friday.) Hands documents the 1995 edition of a yearly contest in which Jack Long Nissan of Longview, Texas, gives a new hard body pickup to whomever can keep his or her hands on it the longest. Apart from short breaks at one- and six-hour intervals, contestants stand in place for up to four days at a time, often lapsing into hallucinations, laughing jags, and other erratic behavior around the 50-hour mark. Now, as a small-town native who's had his fill of specious, smirking “tributes” to down-home culture, I found this premise depressing as hell: a bunch of poor rubes suffering in 100-degree heat for a modest set of wheels that Michael Dell or Jim Bob Moffett could cover with glovebox change. Yet the wonder of Bindler's film is the way this random ensemble's foibles, quirks, and artless declamations work to ingratiate the contestants with the audience, not set them up as a geek show for urban hipsters' delectation. Interspersing live action at the contest with staged interviews held beforehand, Bindler and crew let the people who are the story tell the story. And a roomful of Hollywood screenwriters stoked on espresso and ginkgo biloba couldn't have dreamed up this cast. Former champ Benny, a self-styled Dalai Lama of hardbodyology, reels off malaprop-laden -- though often surprisingly insightful -- commentary. (“It's absurd, very absurd… it's a human drama thang.” “I'm gonna just wait out the night and see what transgresses.”) Ethereal Jesus freak Norma grooves blissfully to her stack of gospel tapes. Mellow J.D. sucks down unfiltered cigarettes and beams like a shitkicker Buddha. Gap-toothed Janice seethes with righteous fury at unpunished rule violations. Further obviating any doubt that we're meant to laugh with, not at, these people is the filmmakers' direct involvement in the drama. Speaking with obvious empathy to contestants, cracking up at their jokes, underscoring their powers of endurance with frequent shots of the sun and moon crossing the sky, Bindler's affection and respect for his subjects is unimpeachable. As with Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, the documentarian's receptive spirit makes us collaborators in -- not just observers of -- the peculiar quest we're seeing. We've been blessed with an amazing run of great documentaries over the past couple of years, and Hands on a Hard Body ranks with the very best. The cost-cutting measures endemic to DIY filmmaking are clearly reflected in bare-basics production techniques and the rather dodgy look created by blowing up an original Hi-8 video print. Yet a nigh-miraculous blend of high spirits, poignancy, gentle satire, and unpretentious insight into the nature of human aspiration make this one of the most impressive films you're likely to see this year.