The pickup artist
There are two words guaranteed to cause mainstream movie audiences to avoid the box office--OK, two words besides the "The Avengers"--"low-budget" and "documentary."
That's exactly what Hands on a Hard Body is, a low-budget documentary, but oddly enough, it's also one of the most mainstream films to play Dallas this year.
The movie, shot on home video cameras, is an account of the 1995 Hands on a Hard Body contest, an event put on by the Jack Long Nissan dealership out in Longview, Texas. The competition is simple, or so it would seem. Twenty-four contestants from all walks of life are drawn to compete for a brand-new, fully loaded $15,000 Nissan "Hard Body" pickup truck. The winner is the person who can keep his or her hand on the truck the longest. Considering that there are five-minute breaks every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours, the challenge appears nonexistent. But the contest usually drags on for several days, the finalists trying to outlast not just each other but boredom, exhaustion, and eventually hallucinations, all just so one person can drive home in a new truck.
S.R. Bindler, the 28-year-old Longview native and first-time director, says, "Of course, the audience goes in assuming the same thing that we did as filmmakers. This is a crazy, ridiculous stunt. It's just going to be a gas. I mean, what a hoot--a bunch of rednecks standing around a truck for days on end."
"Rednecks" is generous. At first peek, the cast of characters sounds like a roll call for a Jerry Springer Show family reunion. Russell, a farmer from head to boot, had a rough winter and sold his trusty--and much needed--pickup to make ends meet. Kelli, a twentysomething student, hopes she'll win just so she can sell the thing so she won't have to hold down two jobs anymore. Greg is a former Marine, primed to be the best he can be. Ronald doesn't like the look of those storm clouds brewing overhead, and that may be enough to make him drop out before he even starts. Kerri just wants to win so she doesn't have to ride her bike all the time; she rode 12 miles into town each day just to make sure her name was entered for the drawing as many times as possible. Raul can barely speak English, and Jane is literally a gap-toothed, slack-jawed yokel with a gap-toothed, slack-jawed husband in tow. Norma is some sort of Jesus freak, with a pocketful of gospel tapes and prayer circle engulfing her, demanding God's help.
But the standout contestant, and the film's star, is undoubtedly Benny Perkins, a good-ol' boy who won two years before in a time of 83 hours. Benny spins poetry out of drawls and wisdom out of malapropisms. From time to time his observations about the contest wash up as if carried on some invisible East Texas tide. "It's really quite absurd...It's a human drama thang."
That thang is what's so right about Bindler's film. It's why this movie is truly, once you get down to basics, as pure and compelling mainstream entertainment as you can get.
Forget the print, harshly blown up from video to film. For that matter, forget the basic--or utter lack of--camera style. Of his skeleton crew of friends and volunteers, though many were "film people," Bindler, a graduate of New York University film school and a onetime bartender at Chelsea Corner on McKinney, was the only one with professional cinematography experience. Not that shooting a personal project for Benicio Del Toro (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)--whom, incidentally, he met in a bar his first week in Hollywood--fully prepares you for working around the clock to get 100 hours of footage in the can for only two grand, using borrowed cameras, rented microphones, a pre-interview stage hand-built out of plastic pipe, and buckets and buckets of coffee. Don't worry that Bindler spent months transcribing every scene to work out a written "novel" edit of his film until he could figure out how he could afford to cut it together. It shouldn't even matter that the only reason you have a chance to see this movie is because Bindler was best buds with Matthew McConaughey back in high school in Longview, and he called Matthew and said, "I need some cash, man. Write me a check." And McConaughey simply asked, "How much?" Nor do you really need to know that the film has won a bunch of film-festival awards, including the audience award at Austin's Heart of Film Festival last October.
All that stuff might simply prod folks who don't usually take a gamble on small documentary films. Then again, you may be thinking, "See, it ain't mainstream at all. It is some sort of art film."
Not quite. Though set against an unusual backdrop with unusual--or are they simply average?--people, the story plays out as conventional and traditional as, say, a Sunday-afternoon football game or an extreme version of The Price is Right. But the movie has a strange, inescapable pathos not found in most documentaries. To Bindler's credit, instead of merely giving us freaks on parade, he levels the playing field. Instead of taking the easy way out, becoming a Michael Moore (Roger and Me, The Big One) and propping himself up on the catbird seat so he can ridicule and mock, Bindler makes himself and the audience part of the contest. In one scene, a bunch of the contestants fall into a laughing jag. In trying to get an explanation, the camera catches Bindler, as delirious as the contestants, losing it himself.
You lose it too. Any pretense of elitism or social differences or feeling that you're at least smart enough not to do something so preposterous falls away as you bond with the contestants. Unconsciously, you pick your favorites, side with them against the others, and suffer a tug of disappointment when they can no longer continue. Although the movie clocks in at just over 90 minutes, it feels longer, though not in a bad way. The contestants are worn out, and fittingly, you're a bit tired as well.
But also fitting for a movie made by a guy who in conversation references the master Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, the great documentarian Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control; The Thin Blue Line), story arcs, the power of catharsis, as well as classic literature and music theory with artless aplomb, Hard Body carries subtle insight and natural poetics. The movie ruminates on all sorts of things: man vs. man and man vs. himself; the ultimate unknowable nature of faith; the power of minutiae over our lives; what won't Texans do for a pickup truck.
But Bindler never pounds you over the head. And, refreshingly, at no point does Hard Body seem terribly perfected.
In fact, the filmmakers miss critical moments of the contest--for instance, the ending. But the film is better for it. Panic swells as the crew hears that something big has happened, races to the scene, and tries to piece together the truth.
Ultimately, the movie feels like a fevered dream, part mythology, part reality.
"That's the trip," Bindler says with amazement, even after living with this film for three years. "And why I can still watch it every time it shows. It's real life."
And when dealing with a documentary, the best advice for the audience is to follow Benny Perkins' lead. "I'm gonna just wait out the night and see what transgresses."
Hands on a Hard Body.
Directed by S.R. Bindler. Opens Friday.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.