Life is fantastic

"Hands on a Hard Body" director S.R. Bindler on why small-town Texans will spend 83 grueling hours standing around a pickup truck.

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The city is Longview, Texas. The location is a Nissan
dealership, where 24 people are gathered around a brand-new,
$15,000 "Hard Body" pickup truck. The event is a test of
human endurance: Whoever can stand upright the longest, with
his or her hand on the truck, will drive it home. And
capturing the lunacy -- which will last several days -- is
filmmaker S.R. Bindler, in his hilarious and heartbreaking
documentary "Hands on a Hard Body."

Using Hi-8 video cameras, Bindler and crew chronicled the
event, in a film that is less about the prize truck than it is about
the characters who want to win it so badly. With the cameras
rolling day and night, they become cozily familiar to one
another, and to the viewer as well. There's Benny, a
second-time contestant who won the truck in 1992 after
standing for 83 hours, and who takes on the role of the
seasoned sage: "It's like the movie 'Highlander,'" he says
ominously. "There can be only one." Norma, who believes God
has chosen her to win the truck, has the support of the
local church members who form prayer circles and sing hymns
in the parking lot. And Kelli, a young student, is fiercely
determined to win the truck so she can sell it and get

Much to the credit of the 29-year-old Bindler, who grew up
in Longview, what easily could have turned into a cynical
look at life in Middle America is instead an emotional
glimpse into the core of human character. A graduate of New
York University film school, Bindler is working on
two more documentaries, one set in the Middle East and the
other in Texas. From his home in Los Angeles,
Bindler spoke with Salon Arts & Entertainment about making "Hands on a Hard
Body," which has been seen in numerous festivals and is now
playing in selected theaters across the country.

How did you choose this subject?

I saw the contest for the first time in 1992. I was home for
the summer, and the local bar where everyone hangs out is
right across the street from the Nissan dealership. I came
out of the bar late one night and there were a couple
hundred people at the dealership. It's pretty uncommon at
that time of night in Longview for people to be
congregating, so I walked over and saw the contest, was
struck by the absurdity of it, hung out for 15 or 20
minutes, and then I left.

I went back to New York and started to write a screenplay
based on some guys I knew in East Texas when I lived there,
but I kept putting the screenplay away because I was
finishing school. But when I got to L.A. three years later, I
was working with Kevin Morris, an entertainment lawyer, and
I started to tell him about the contest and the script I
started to write years ago, and we decided to shoot the
contest as a documentary.

A film like this borders on parody; it would have been
easy to make fun of these people and the absurdity of the contest. How did you avoid that?

I think it's a very simple understanding that life, as Tennessee Williams said, is fantastic. And because it's fantastic, you don't need to amp it up any more than it
already does for you. It was already a fantastic,
exploitative event and I just didn't think that it needed, on my end, to make it more so.

And I genuinely found the people shooting from heart: very honest, very open, very vulnerable and I'm not just the kind
of person to take advantage of that. By the end of the
contest, I felt a fondness for all these people, and as an
editor, after you watch the footage three or four times, you
catch all their nuances, you get to know all these people. I
felt a responsibility to represent them as they are and how
I perceived them. I didn't think they [deserved to be]
mocked ... my experience there wasn't a parody, it was real
people going through a real situation, even if it was
hyper-realistic. The people had real concerns, real needs,
real wants. I didn't want to make fun of them.

The contestants at the event seemed very open to going on
camera and sharing their lives. What made them so willing to
talk to you?

I think it's a combination of things. Myself and my partner,
[producer] Chapin Wilson, we're both pretty easygoing. We
meet everyone in the eye; we're pretty respectful of people,
no matter where they are in their lives or the positions
they hold. I grew up in the town, and people knew that
immediately, and that put them at ease. And we were using
really small cameras; they were probably better than the
people had even seen, but they were basically home video
cameras -- cameras that people were used to being around and
using themselves, so I don't think they were intimidated.
And these were people who had signed up for a pretty crazy
contest, so these weren't shy people. But the biggest
factor, I think, was that when the contest started, they
were too damn tired to put up any false walls, they just
sort of got annihilated by exhaustion. They were just left
bare, and I think that's why we got some very honest answers.

After watching the contestants for so long and getting to
know them, it was agonizing to see them drop out. Was it difficult to interview them after they had just lost?

It was terribly difficult for me; in fact I missed a couple of post-[contest] interviews because I just couldn't bring myself to
approach the contestants. I didn't talk to Russell Welch, the rancher -- my intention was to give him a few minutes to
gather himself, to compose himself with his family, but as I
started to walk toward him, he caught my eye and intimated
in a subtle fashion that it wasn't a good time and to just respect that. Benny was also very difficult. I think Benny
would have been great to talk to after, and one of the other cameramen, who was also a director, wanted me to approach
him. I was just like, "I can't do it, I think we're getting it anyway." It was tough.

There was really a palpable energy around the contestants --
when they were willing to talk, you felt it, and when they
weren't, you could feel it as well. We were very conscious
of that during the contest, we didn't want to distract them
[and make them] make a mistake.

Did the film screen in Longview?

We showed it and we had a big benefit; the whole town came
out, it was a lot of fun. I had trouble finding all of the
contestants -- I found about half of them -- and they all loved it. I sat in the back of the theater next to Benny and J.D. [another contestant], and I never took my eyes off them
during the whole thing.

Were you surprised that the film was rejected from major film festivals, like Berlin, Sundance and the New York Film

It surprised me, but also, it doesn't surprise me. The [documentary] category in festivals is reserved for traditional fare, very socially aware issues, personal diary-type issues. "Hands on a Hard Body," although I think
it is a very socially aware film, [is] a comedy -- and a
tragedy. I just think the documentary awards across the country are very traditional.

Documentaries have become very PC -- there aren't many
documentaries made by young, white males, nor are there many
made by young, white males about Middle America.

I think it's a certain snobbery: The documentary
establishment has become a very intellectualized area, and I
think it's become more so because of groups like Sundance
and the Academy Awards.

The filmmakers and the filmmaking public have become so
commercialized that they're reserving that documentary
category as the last bastion of importance, because they're
very afraid of something that is entertaining ... but I
think as the technology is changing, and more people become
aware of the craft, I think you'll see more documentaries
coming out of middle America.

Looking back now, is this the documentary that you
originally envisioned?

I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to shoot, and how I
wanted to shoot it. And I planned for that, and shot a lot
of stuff beforehand. But the reality is that it's a
documentary -- you just show up and you're given what you're
given. You can ask for a certain amount of it, i.e., the
questions that you ask, but you're basically at the mercy of
the moment.

I over-planned, so that when things happened, we were ready
to capture it. In all honesty, we were just there to capture
the experience, and it's a different film than what I had
expected. But that's the double-edged sword of a
documentary. We were very prepared, but still [the central
character] Benny might not have been there, three or four
other characters might not have been there. You either get
something beautiful or you don't. You're either given a lot
of gifts or you're not.

By Dakota Smith

Dakota Smith is a New York writer.

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