Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary

Director: S.R. Bindler
Photography: S.R. Bindler, Michael A. Nickles, and Chapin Wilson
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1999
Country: USA
"It's more than a contest," one contestant asserts. "It's a human drama thing."

This contestant, a man in his mid-thirties named Benny, won that "human drama" in 1992, and in S.R. Bindler's fascinating documentary, "Hands on a Hardbody," he's back to compete again. The title of the film is taken from the title of its subject: a peculiar East Texas contest where 25 people stand around a fully loaded, $15,000 Nissan pickup truck and see who can last the longest. It's a perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction--you can't make this stuff up.

The contest takes place in Longview, Texas, a mid-sized town of about 70,000 in the deep woods of East Texas about 130 miles east of Dallas, and 50 miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana. It started in 1992, and it was the promotional brainchild of the Jack Long Nissan dealership. The rules are fairly simple: everyone stands around the truck with at least one gloved hand on it (they have to wear gloves because sweat and oil from the contestants' hands might damage the paint), and the last one standing gets to drive the truck home. The contestants' can't squat or lean on the truck, and they get five-minute breaks every hour, and 15-minute breaks every six hours. The event can last for more than 80 hours.

Sound crazy? It is. But, the simple beauty of Bindler's low-budget film is that it draws the audience into this human drama, and makes us--especially those of us who might feel the urge to sneer at these yokels for doing something so silly--feel their pain when they lose and understand the joy of victory at the end. The aforementioned Benny seems to have the strongest grasp on the underlying meanings of this contest since he has competed and won it before, and he emphasizes numerous times that it is both a test of endurance and also a test of one's ability to maintain his or her sanity. When the contest is drawing into its 60th and 70th hours, several of the remaining contestants are forced out, not because they physically cannot stand anymore, but because mentally they are so brain-fried from lack of sleep and simple boredom, that they forget to keep their hand on the truck.

In this way, the film itself begins to subtly underscore the fact that, in many ways, this is more than just a contest. Bindler does a fine job of bringing out the emotions, how these competitors become good friends in the process of standing next to each other for 80 hours in pain and discomfort. It's not particularly tragic when some of the early contestants bow out after 15 or 20 hours, but when we see the final few go down after spending upwards of three days standing around this truck, hoping to win it, you can't help but feel bad for them. One contestant is so physically fatigued and dazed after losing, that she walks off barefoot at 3 a.m., and is found three blocks down the road, wandering aimlessly.

Bindler, a graduate of NYU film school and a native of Longview, sketches his eccentric cast of characters by combining first-hand interviews filmed before the contest, footage of them standing around the truck, and quick interviews conducted during the breaks. Among the contestants are J.D., the oldest competitor; Kelli, whose main motivation is that she doesn't want to go back to waitressing and she doesn't want to see Benny win twice; Janis, a woman missing more than a few front teeth, who declares early on that she always finishes what she starts; Greg, an ex-Marine who believes that his rigorous military training will see him through to the end; and, most memorable, Norma, an overweight, devoutly religious woman who uses gospel music on her Walkman as a source of strength and has her entire 400-member church meeting in constant prayer groups to help her through.

Bindler, who along with two assistants shot the film with archaic Hi-8 cameras, doesn't focus entirely on the contestants. After all, this is something of a community and familial affair, with family members sitting around in lawn chairs, cheering on their husbands, wives, sons, and friends, giving them foot and leg massages during the breaks, and speaking words of encouragement at 4 a.m. when a contestant is babbling about lost sanity. Chief among these is Janis' husband, also missing a few teeth, who sports a hat that appears to be made out of a grocery bag and reads "Go, baby, go." He starts off talking about how he helped Janis prepare for the contest, but ends up talking more about his 20-ton air conditioning unit, which he claims can bring the temperature in his house down to 12 degrees below zero.

It is in moments like this that, of course, there is a strong urge to laugh at some of these people. Bindler, however, shows a great deal of restraint in his portraits--he humanizes this oddball lot of characters by depicting their strengths and weaknesses and by allowing them to simply be themselves. After all, Bindler and his small crew spent the entirety of the contest in the dealership parking lot with these people, and it's hard to imagine that the filmmakers didn't become emotionally involved in the plight. Some of the crew members even began to forsake sleep because they didn't want to miss when someone had to bow out.

"Hands on a Hardbody" was actually filmed in 1994, and completed in 1996. After getting financial assistance from fellow Longview native Matthew McConaughey's production company, it made the rounds at some small film festivals where it picked up buzz, and finally opened in Austin, Texas in July 1998. It has now begun to receive national attention as it has opened in New York and Los Angeles, and for good reason. Bindler's ode to human dedication and endurance in the strangest of circumstances is a rough, unpolished gem of documentary filmmaking. Its low budget is plainly obvious, but it fits the subject matter (dare I saw it?) like a glove. Sometimes the camera is shaking, the picture is often washed out, and the sound is sometimes too low to understand what people are saying, but it gives the film an honest immediacy.

At times, you feel like you're standing there alongside Benny and Janis and J.D., and when they talk about the pain in their feet and the soreness in their backs, it's hard not to feel for them. By the time the film is over, you might be thinking to yourself, "You know, maybe these people aren't so crazy after all." But, then again, maybe they are.

Copyright © 1999 James Kendrick

Review posted
Feb. 14, 1999

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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