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HANDS ON A HARD BODY(director/cinematographer/editor: S.R. Bindler; cinematographers: Michael Nickles/Chapin Wilson; Runtime: 95; A Legacy Releasing; 1997)
“The result is a quirky human interest story about the need for Texans to drive a pickup.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If you want a brand new $15,000 blue Nissan pickup for free, you might consider entering a contest from an auto dealership in Longview, Texas, taking place every spring in their parking lot where contestants are chosen from a lottery. In this filmed 1995 contest, where there were 24 contestants, the winner of the pickup will be the last one standing upright: no leaning or squatting allowed, with the winner having at least one gloved hand on the truck (the glove is to avoid any scratches).

The other contest rules include a mandatory drug test when it gets down to three people. A second prize of $250 and a third prize of a gift certificate at a local store, to appease the contestants who have gone so far but failed. There are 5-minute breaks every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours.

The dealership’s crude advertising gimmick seemingly exploits the blue-collar type of participants undergoing this lunacy, who will go without sleep for days and will also battle exhaustion, the heat, and the mosquitoes. This makes for a different type of documentary, an Errol Morris kind. It is one with a less serious tone than most others making it fun to watch, as the varied contestants of different ages, sizes, genders, and races, each thinks they know what they have to do to win the truck. The thing they have most in common is that they want the truck, the question is how much do they want it.

A previous winner, the cowboy sage, Benny Perkins, who went for some 80+ hours without sleep to win his truck two years ago, offers his view on what it takes to win this endurance test in an interview shot before the contest began and was shown throughout this contest, of which he was again an entrant and was considered the favorite because of his previous experience. He contends that it is mental toughness that is required and maturity, and knowing how to get comfortable and eat light food during the breaks. He doubts if anyone under 30 will win, unless he is a former marine with that disciplined mind-set. He calls this event a human drama thing, rather than a contest.

Bindler’s camera crew was there night and day to chronicle the event, along with voluntary judges and family and friends cheering on the contestants as the documentary became about why and how the participants entered the contest and why they are still in it. Bindler is a native of that Texas city, though the 29-year-old went away to study at New York University film school. He returned to film the event he recalled when living there as something he thought was absurd, but he didn’t know what else to make of it.

Some of the contestants who were singled out for interviews, we saw at different hours in the contest and in different frames of mood and in a physical condition that was rapidly changing.

Norma is an obese Hispanic woman, who is a fervent Christian practitioner. She believes God wants her to win the truck and she has a prayer group of some two hundred members from her church praying for her to win. To keep alert, she listens to gospel music on her radio headphones and sometimes goes into fits of joyous laughter to keep her spirits up. Russell Welsh needs to get a truck to replace his other one after a tough year. Kelly Mangrum is an attractive student, who wants braces and will sell the truck to meet some of her other expenses. Greg is an ex-marine, who believes he has the youth and physical stamina to win. Janis is distinctively missing a few front teeth and says she always finishes what she starts. Ronald is a black country boy, who says he will fast for three days but is seen eating “Snickers” during the breaks. He wishes there was no tent over his head because he loves the heat and he thinks the tent helps the others more than it does him. J.D. Drew is the oldest contestant and is an avid deer hunter, who described how he stood patiently for long periods to get his prey. Angie learns that she didn’t prepare properly for the contest and quits when she becomes disorientated, saying she doesn’t think she would ever do it again, but she comes back next year and wins. Paul Prince feels he is in great condition and thinks he can go the distance. Raul thinks he has what it takes to win and is seen getting a foot massage from his girlfriend.

What is magnanimous about the documentary was that even though it could have gone for the cheap joke and made fun of these people, instead it takes them seriously and lets them explain in their own way why they are there. The filmmaker clearly saw that what the contestants were doing was fantastic and out of the ordinary, so there was no need to embellish the story and by keeping it simple he succeeded in telling their story honestly and in a very human way. These real people happened to also be for the most part likable, manifesting real concerns when others start dropping out; you can see a camaraderie growing between some of these strangers (though some remain critical of their competitors). But despite the competitiveness of the event, most of them realize that they were all put through some ordeal and they went through it together and therefore learned something about human values.

The result is a quirky human interest story about the need for Texans to drive a pickup, as if it was their God given right to have one. And as Benny said, “It is something to see people struggling to get what you want. But, at least, they tried.” He says, “People don’t want to take a risk anymore; they are afraid that if they fail, they will get hurt.” I’ll buy that. The film’s worth a look, reminding me a little bit of that Sydney Pollack film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” but without the cheap sentimentality Pollack threw into his story. It played, for me, more like an offbeat sports story that ESPN 2 would air. The filmmaker didn’t know who was going to win and many times focused on those who unexpectedly dropped out, and part of the lure of the film was choosing who you think will win. It wasn’t that easy picking the winner, but after my first choice went down, I got lucky with my second pick.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”