Film at Eleven: “Hands on a Hard Body” Directed by S.R. Bindler
On its way to topping critics’ polls across the country, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was justly lauded as a showcase for the artist’s many skills: her consummate songwriting, her grainy, earthy vocals, her attention to detail. But the album’s secret strength is its sense of place; after a lifetime spent journeying across the South, Williams has internalized the rhythms and values of the region. Her songs give voice to a people and a way of life rarely acknowledged by the bi-coastal culture machine. S.R. Bindler’s masterful documentary, Hands On A Hard Body, is infused by a similar sense of place, its “stars” being the decidedly middle-American residents of Longview, Texas.
The film’s titular subject, 1995’s “Hands On A Hard Body” competition, is an annual event sponsored by Jake Long Nissan. The contest rules are deceptively simple: Each participant (there were 23) must keep at least one hand on a Nissan hard body pickup at all times. The last person standing drives the truck home. In practice, however, the competition proves to be a grueling three-to-four-day marathon, testing the minds, bodies and spirits of its competitors. As Benny, the competition’s de facto philosopher and 1992 champion, notes, it’s “a human drama thing.”
At least in part, Bindler’s documentary treats the competition as a kind of left-field sporting event. After a brief montage, moving from images of farming life to an American flag to a Longview city marker, the film sketches in necessary background material. In a series of short interviews, we meet the contestants and begin to understand their motives: Kerri hopes to upgrade from a bicycle; Greg, an ex-Marine, needs to push himself; Russell’s overworked truck barely survived a tough winter; Norma, a devout evangelical, feels the will of God. As the competition progresses, inter-titles announce the day, hour and number of participants remaining.
The contest’s first day is a festival; competitors size each other up, joke, form friendships. Their families and supporters gather round, cheering and assisting during breaks. We learn of strategies — what to eat, what to wear, the benefits and detriments of age. No one wants to be the first to be disqualified. But by the second day, as the competition’s physical and mental toll becomes apparent, our emotional investment increases dramatically. When a particularly engaging and energetic contestant drops out, we’re relieved to learn that she won the following year’s contest. Later, our hearts sink as we witness another participant, near-delusional, wander off into the lonely Texas night.
As the competition progresses, Bindler examines the significance of the pickup, first addressing questions of identity and image: truck as cowboy hat, truck as symbol of masculinity. One participant, currently driving a VW Bug, hopes to shed his oddball status and “fit right in.” But as Bindler peels the onion, we begin to understand the economic imperatives that drive these archetypes. Cliche or not, the truck is the horse of the modern West, both as symbol and tool. Its durability and versatility are central to these people’s work and leisure, hauling cattle and equipment, incurring crippling mileage over pastures and fields. Put more bluntly, “a truck makes money,” a point driven home by a young woman for whom the pickup (specifically its sale) represents a universe of potential choices: an education, braces, a debt-free existence.
Despite this rich text, the movie could easily have devolved into a dull series of head shots, but Bindler’s crisp editing keeps it moving like a well-paced suspense flick. The director spices the central drama-under-the-tent with quick cuts, dissolves, interview snippets, and dramatic slow motion, devices that never lapse into gimmickry or manipulation. Faced with limited resources, the film crew wrestles virtue from necessity; the shoestring budget and modest production values echo the simple, unglamorous lives of the film’s subjects. As Hard Body moves into its third day, the competition becomes more private and personal. Similarly, the film adopts a more ruminative tone: The soundtrack quiets, the narrative becomes more linear, tension mounts.
The competition’s final moments underscore the film’s greatest strength — the way it makes these people and their lives matter. In a sense, the competition is merely a pretext for visiting and exploring a community whose existence is all but ignored by Hollywood. Bindler’s non-judgmental, neutral tone allows each contestant to emerge as a rounded, wholly-formed individual: You may chuckle at Norma’s spiritual demonstrations, but there’s no denying the depth and power of her faith. Ultimately, the film treats both participant and audience with a rare degree of respect, uncovering a common voice that crystallizes our shared hopes, desires and fears.
Midway through Willa Cather’s episodic novel Death Comes For The Archbishop, Father Latour, enjoying a post-supper banjo performance, reflects upon the people around him, “how each of these men not only had a story, but seemed to have become his story.” By the end of Hard Body, the viewer senses Bindler has similarly absorbed the spirit and life of his film’s subjects. Though the director rarely intrudes upon the movie’s action, his guiding hand and vision suggest a self-portrait: a man deep in empathy, able to recognize the individual dignity of his fellow creatures.
In an interview, Bindler has said, “I wanted to be able to watch the movie with all those people and not feel ashamed.” Ashamed, never; I just hope he allowed himself a few moments of well-deserved pride.