Hands on a Hardbody

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Hands ona Hardbody directedby S.R. Bindler
Thistruly is the most threadbare time of the year for new film releases. Yet I finddependable entertainment value in a headline that invariably appears in theTimes in late January. It reads something like "Documentaries Arethe Surprise Favorites at This Year's Sundance."
Granted, documentaries atSundance and in general these days occasionally start from some p.c. premisethat makes them as yawnsome as any first feature made with credit cards andDad's dough. Yet it's my impression that nonfiction films have claimedan advantage in recent years largely because they've seen the wisdom ofletting subjects speak for themselves, rather than telling the viewer what tothink about them (which in practice usually means telling the viewer what thefilmmaker assumes he already thinks). This trend is most striking when the subjectsreflect American life outside NY/L.A. In dramatic features, it's fairlystunning how regularly perceptiveness and subtlety are traded for condescensionand caricature. Instead of nuanced, astute renderings of life in the heartland,we get the numbingly reductive formulas of "neo-noir," Kitsch Appreciation101 and so on. Happily, documentariansoften leave aside such lazy, patronizing thinking on the sage assumption thatlife 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-conditionedstereotypes. S.R. Bindler's low-budget,shot-on-video Hands on a Hardbody, a documentary that debuted last yearat Sundance and is now getting theatrical release, is a great example of thiskind 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 wina pickup truck by standing with their hands on it until all but one of thempoops out. But the film's real claim to fame is its complete lack of condescensiontoward the world and people it portrays. Though he attended NYU,Bindler is a native of the place he depicts: Longview, TX, pop. 70,000. Thefilm supposedly originated when he was leaving a bar one night at 2 a.m. (thepress kit doesn't say after how many beers) and saw people gathered ina brightly lit car dealership parking lot across the street. The occasion was the dealership'sannual "Hands on a Hardbody" contest, a promotion that is, to saythe least, highly popular. Every year thousands of people apply for the privilegeof standing for days on end with one hand on a $15,000 Nissan pickup, in hopesof winning it by being the last one upright. Twenty-four lucky folks are chosenby lot to participate in the ordeal, and Bindler?filming 1995's versionof 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 blackand white, male and female, ranging in age (apparently) from 20s to 60s. Sincethe event takes place under a large tent outdoors during the Texas summer, weatheris a factor. One guy says he's afraid of lightning and will definitelydrop out if a storm erupts. Yet the main thing that determines the outcome issomething 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 thecontest is finishing off its third day (the record for length is slightly over100 hours), half the remaining contestants are women and no one is under 30. You might also assume thatwatching people doing nothing but standing next to a truck for several dayswould be, shall we say, slightly deficient in entertainment value. Wrong again.Nothing's more watchable than human obsession, and this obsession not onlyhas the advantage of being fully public and visible, its static nature alsomakes it easier to observe the quirks of character and behavior that end upcomprising the film's drama, comedy and object lesson. This being Texas, the dramatispersonae aren't lacking for color. The '95 contest has an extra elementof competitiveness in containing one Benny Perkins, who, having won the eventa couple of years before, is the man everyone's gunning for. Benny knowshe'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 intercutswith the contest proper, Benny, rather like a refugee from Lonesome Dove,dispenses homespun proclamations like, "If you can't hunt with thebig dogs, get up on the porch with the pups." Unlike the dramatic moviesit obviously recalls, Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don'tThey? and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist, Hands ona Hardbody doesn't use the endurance contest it observes as a readymetaphor for social distress. On the contrary, the fact that nobody's engagedin the competition out of need serves to highlight the elements of joy, whimsyand idiosyncrasy underlying the contest's mounting hardships. And thatinevitably 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 adventurersin Ford's Wagon Master and Stagecoach, pursuing a quest thatembodies their freedom to dream, to aspire. The film is with them inthat (like every indie film, it is its own longshot gamble), and its embraceis remarkably inclusive. Next to Benny, its most memorable character is Norma,a down-home Christian who has hundreds of friends and fellow church members prayingfor her. She imbibes inspirational tapes on her walkman, and her competitorsswear that she comes back stronger after every listen. When the original 24contestants 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'smental grip is faltering, but Norma laughs effusively and calls it a help, "thejoy of the Lord." And no, you virtually neversee people like Norma in movies or on tv, which indicates how barren and reality-deficientboth remain. Her spirited presence, though, admirably testifies to the encompassinghumanity that distinguishes Hands on a Hardbody. You'll hear howcrafty, insightful and amazingly entertaining Bindler's film is. Let italso be noted that it succeeds because of an air of indigenous generosity thatleaves other, more fashionable attitudes in the dust.
"BritDoc:A History of British Documentary Film"
Theterm "documentary" was famously coined by John Grierson, one of thegreat examplars of a tradition that has arguably been the richest and most authenticcurrent of British filmmaking from the beginning. This Friday, MOMA salutesthat tradition by kicking off "BritDoc," a six-week series containingmore than 60 films made from 1906 to 1986 and representing various anonymousmakers of industrials and advertising films as well as the celebrated likesof Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Humphrey Jennings, Carol Reed, Lindsay Anderson,Tony Richardson, Paul Rotha and Basil Wright.
The series' estheticrange mirrors its historical reach, which includes everything from Frank Hurley'sSouth, a tinted-and-toned 1919 feature chronicling Ernest Shackleton'sAntarctic expedition, to Peter Watkins' Culloden (1964), which bringsthe up-close-and-gruesomely-personal techniques of Vietnam tv reportage to areenactment of the 18th-century battle that shooed Bonnie Prince Charlie fromthe British Isles. Like other works in "BritDoc," the latter filmbends the definition of documentary in ways that provocatively, valuably challengethe way we regard the form. "Realism," thesupposed hallmark of British docs, is a tricky concept, and it may be one reasonwhy films like Culloden often wax paradoxical in employing a realisticlook for rhetorical ends. Indeed, in screening four of the series' filmsfrom consecutive decades (20s to 50s) the other day, I was struck by the contrastingattitudes that obviously shaped the documentarians' views. Grierson's straightforwardlylyrical Drifters (1929), a handsome silent industrial about fishermengoing to sea and returning with holds full of herring, shares with Jennings'upbeat, propagandistic WWII ode Listen to Britain (1942) an unstressedfaith in the hardiness of the British character when tested by the elementsor wartime's adversity. In sharp contrast, Cavalcanti's Pett and Pott (1934) and Anderson's O Dreamland (1953) both look at Britonsamid material prosperity and find cause for gnawing dismay. Pett and Pott, whichuses actors in what turns out to be an elaborately contrived commercial forthe use of telephones, contrasts two families, the virtuous Petts (kids, picnics)and the decadent Potts (Mrs. has a French maid and reads trashy novels), wholive 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, looksat 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-evidentdisdain for these odd distractions embodies the sort of supercilious snootinessthat 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 evolvingobsessions 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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