Published February 1, 1999
Hands on a Hard Body by S.R. Bindler is a documentary about a contest, held annually in Longview, Texas, by the Jack Long Nissan dealership, which gives away a $15,000 pickup truck to the contestant who can keep at least one hand on the truck longer than anyone else, given five minute breaks every hour and 15 minute breaks every six hours. The film teeters on a knife-edge of condescension, if not contempt, towards the likes of toothless Janis Curtis, whose comical but equally unprepossessing husband boasts to the camera of having a 20 ton commercial air conditioner in their home which can cool it to 12 degrees below zero, or pudgy Norma Valverde who has several “prayer chains” backing her claim to the truck with the Almighty and supplying her with invigorating religious music with lyrics like: “Our God is an awesome God.”
Also “awesome,” according to Benny Perkins, winner of the truck two years previously and now again a contestant, is the “exhilaration” of watching the other competitors drop off, exhausted. He compares it to the feeling you get the first time you shoot a large animal, and the sneer of the urban sophisticate at people who wear cowboy hats and shoot things is understood. Likewise, when Bindler interviews the previous year’s winner, together with another contestant from that year, we are invited to laugh when the other contestant calls it “the greatest experience of my life.” The winner then corrects him. “That’s right,” he agrees. “The second greatest. Winning was the greatest”—though of course it was not he who won.
Yet these are real people, and it is hard for us to wish that they had remained in the obscurity from which Bindler has rescued them. Like the man who speaks of the experience of winning when someone else had it, all the contestants seem to draw closely together and identify themselves with each other for what they have been through. One of them, Paul Prince, drops out but then comes back to urge on Norma, insisting that she and the other contestants at their end of the truck had become a sort of “family.” They also have a certain nobility in their striving, even though its object seems so incongruously humble and unromantic to most of those who do not come from the rural South. “You can do things with a truck you cain’t do with a car,” says one of them with rustic understatement.
One contestant wanders off in a scary state of mental disorientation after 68 hours; another starts to worry when his extremities grow numb. Like so many of this world’s vanities, what started by seeming merely laughable and frivolous, soon takes on a serious cast. You can also learn things. The oldest competitor compares the contest to his experience of waiting in a deer blind for days. “If you wait long enough,” he says, “you’ll get one.” It’s not a bad thought to take away with you. Nor is the moral of the story according to the winner: “If you really want something, keep your hands on it.” In the end, though there is much that is funny about these people, no one, including the filmmakers, can think of them as contemptible.