Hands on a Hardbody
This truly is the most threadbare time of the year for new film releases. Yet I find dependable entertainment value in a headline that invariably appears in the Times in late January. It reads something like "Documentaries Are the Surprise Favorites at This Year's Sundance."
Granted, documentaries at Sundance and in general these days occasionally start from some p.c. premise that makes them as yawnsome as any first feature made with credit cards and Dad's dough. Yet it's my impression that nonfiction films have claimed an advantage in recent years largely because they've seen the wisdom of letting subjects speak for themselves, rather than telling the viewer what to think about them (which in practice usually means telling the viewer what the filmmaker assumes he already thinks). This trend is most striking when the subjects reflect American life outside NY/L.A. In dramatic features, it's fairly stunning how regularly perceptiveness and subtlety are traded for condescension and caricature. Instead of nuanced, astute renderings of life in the heartland, we get the numbingly reductive formulas of "neo-noir," Kitsch Appreciation 101 and so on. Happily, documentarians often leave aside such lazy, patronizing thinking on the sage assumption that life outside the media metropolises is more interesting than any cartoonish, superior attitude that might be applied to it. The result, in many cases, is something that we get too seldom from nominal movie "art" these days: an invitation to see things afresh, free of preconceptions and media-conditioned stereotypes. S.R. Bindler's low-budget, shot-on-video Hands on a Hardbody, a documentary that debuted last year at Sundance and is now getting theatrical release, is a great example of this kind of no-attitude doc. People will tell you that it's about?yuk, yuk, get this?an endurance contest wherein a bunch of Texans try to win a pickup truck by standing with their hands on it until all but one of them poops out. But the film's real claim to fame is its complete lack of condescension toward the world and people it portrays. Though he attended NYU, Bindler is a native of the place he depicts: Longview, TX, pop. 70,000. The film supposedly originated when he was leaving a bar one night at 2 a.m. (the press kit doesn't say after how many beers) and saw people gathered in a brightly lit car dealership parking lot across the street. The occasion was the dealership's annual "Hands on a Hardbody" contest, a promotion that is, to say the least, highly popular. Every year thousands of people apply for the privilege of standing for days on end with one hand on a $15,000 Nissan pickup, in hopes of winning it by being the last one upright. Twenty-four lucky folks are chosen by lot to participate in the ordeal, and Bindler?filming 1995's version of the contest?wastes no time in getting to the details of their competition: Everyone gets a five-minute break every hour and 15 minutes every six hours. Simple rules for a grueling challenge. The contestants are black and white, male and female, ranging in age (apparently) from 20s to 60s. Since the event takes place under a large tent outdoors during the Texas summer, weather is a factor. One guy says he's afraid of lightning and will definitely drop out if a storm erupts. Yet the main thing that determines the outcome is something more elusive than the obvious physical and even psychological factors. You might think that a young man would have the best shot. Not so. When the contest is finishing off its third day (the record for length is slightly over 100 hours), half the remaining contestants are women and no one is under 30. You might also assume that watching people doing nothing but standing next to a truck for several days would be, shall we say, slightly deficient in entertainment value. Wrong again. Nothing's more watchable than human obsession, and this obsession not only has the advantage of being fully public and visible, its static nature also makes it easier to observe the quirks of character and behavior that end up comprising the film's drama, comedy and object lesson. This being Texas, the dramatis personae aren't lacking for color. The '95 contest has an extra element of competitiveness in containing one Benny Perkins, who, having won the event a couple of years before, is the man everyone's gunning for. Benny knows he's a target and he's more than happy to throw that back in his competitors' faces. Sporting a cowboy hat in the interview footage that Bindler intercuts with the contest proper, Benny, rather like a refugee from Lonesome Dove, dispenses homespun proclamations like, "If you can't hunt with the big dogs, get up on the porch with the pups." Unlike the dramatic movies it obviously recalls, Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist, Hands on a Hardbody doesn't use the endurance contest it observes as a ready metaphor for social distress. On the contrary, the fact that nobody's engaged in the competition out of need serves to highlight the elements of joy, whimsy and idiosyncrasy underlying the contest's mounting hardships. And that inevitably keeps you flashing on how irreducibly American the whole thing is. Its contestants aren't like the crew of strangers in Hitchcock's Lifeboat, trapped by imposed circumstance; they're more like the everyday adventurers in Ford's Wagon Master and Stagecoach, pursuing a quest that embodies their freedom to dream, to aspire. The film is with them in that (like every indie film, it is its own longshot gamble), and its embrace is remarkably inclusive. Next to Benny, its most memorable character is Norma, a down-home Christian who has hundreds of friends and fellow church members praying for her. She imbibes inspirational tapes on her walkman, and her competitors swear that she comes back stronger after every listen. When the original 24 contestants have dropped down to four, she's still there, beaming with faith. Laughing uncontrollably is said to be one of the signs that a competitor's mental grip is faltering, but Norma laughs effusively and calls it a help, "the joy of the Lord." And no, you virtually never see people like Norma in movies or on tv, which indicates how barren and reality-deficient both remain. Her spirited presence, though, admirably testifies to the encompassing humanity that distinguishes Hands on a Hardbody. You'll hear how crafty, insightful and amazingly entertaining Bindler's film is. Let it also be noted that it succeeds because of an air of indigenous generosity that leaves other, more fashionable attitudes in the dust.
"BritDoc: A History of British Documentary Film"
The series' esthetic range mirrors its historical reach, which includes everything from Frank Hurley's South, a tinted-and-toned 1919 feature chronicling Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, to Peter Watkins' Culloden (1964), which brings the up-close-and-gruesomely-personal techniques of Vietnam tv reportage to a reenactment of the 18th-century battle that shooed Bonnie Prince Charlie from the British Isles. Like other works in "BritDoc," the latter film bends the definition of documentary in ways that provocatively, valuably challenge the way we regard the form. "Realism," the supposed hallmark of British docs, is a tricky concept, and it may be one reason why films like Culloden often wax paradoxical in employing a realistic look for rhetorical ends. Indeed, in screening four of the series' films from consecutive decades (20s to 50s) the other day, I was struck by the contrasting attitudes that obviously shaped the documentarians' views. Grierson's straightforwardly lyrical Drifters (1929), a handsome silent industrial about fishermen going to sea and returning with holds full of herring, shares with Jennings' upbeat, propagandistic WWII ode Listen to Britain (1942) an unstressed faith in the hardiness of the British character when tested by the elements or wartime's adversity. In sharp contrast, Cavalcanti's Pett and Pott (1934) and Anderson's O Dreamland (1953) both look at Britons amid material prosperity and find cause for gnawing dismay. Pett and Pott, which uses actors in what turns out to be an elaborately contrived commercial for the use of telephones, contrasts two families, the virtuous Petts (kids, picnics) and the decadent Potts (Mrs. has a French maid and reads trashy novels), who live side by side in what seems to be the real cause for concern in the film: a novel phenomenon called the suburbs. O Dreamland, meanwhile, looks at a flashy new amusement park and sees only bourgeois grotesquerie. The dominant attraction, a torture chamber featuring mannequins being hacked and racked, seems to fetishize an elaborately sadomasochistic fantasy of guilt and discomfort, as if postwar prosperity immediately called forth visions of punishment. Anderson's self-evident disdain for these odd distractions embodies the sort of supercilious snootiness that British filmmakers too often visit on middle-class subjects. Yet "BritDoc" ends up being fascinating because of, not despite, such overlays of attitude: You get to see not only the nation's outward development but also the evolving obsessions and enthusiasms of its filmmaker class.
"BritDoc" runs Feb. 5-March 22 at MOMA, 11 W. 53rd St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 708-9400.
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