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Hands on a Hard Body: The Texas Documentary Tour

By Jerry Johnson

JULY 13, 1998:  It is 2 o'clock in the morning and yet the parking lot of the Jack Long Nissan dealership in the deep East Texas piney woods of Longview is awash with lights and crowds. The attention is focused on a brand-new, fully loaded Nissan truck, and more specifically, on the 25 individuals circled around it, each keeping a gloved hand placed firmly on the truck's body. They are of all shapes and sizes; male and female; white, black, and Latino; and they have been standing there for over 24 hours without sleep, knowing they will have to go at least another 60 or so for a shot at glory. Some are laughing and yucking it up, others are mute examples of sheer concentration, and still others are bordering on the edge of emotional and physical collapse. It is the annual "Hands on a Hard Body" contest and the rules are simple - last person standing wins the truck. Texas documentaries, more so than most, have had to fight an uphill battle to gain national recognition. Part of it is sheer distance - we're located 1,500 miles from most distributors, which are located either on the East or West coasts. It can also be attributed to a lack of funding sources in our home state, leading to lower "production standards" than most markets will accept. And part of it may be that them New Yorkers and Calis just don't like Texas content. Luckily, the struggle of content and geography is not so great that aesthetics can't overcome it (else, Texas documentaries might never see the light of a projector). The good news is that a true and talented visionary can break through at any time.

Hands on a Hard Body just may be the Texas documentary that breaks through. I first began to hear intermittent rumblings about it a year ago, and as it made the rounds of the festival circuit (it played locally during the Austin Heart of Film Festival in October 1997) and racked up one award after the next, the murmurs turned into bona fide buzz. When I finally saw Hands on a Hard Body, I knew this was it: the best chance a documentary from Texas has had in a long time of achieving national recognition and status, Sundance or not. Not only because of the intelligence-to-be-reckoned-with of its execution, but also of the concept it was founded on; a concept both remarkably subtle in its potential for the purest drama and magnificently audacious in its uncompromising Texana. And it came from a belief by a 28-year-old Longview native named S.R. Bindler that everything you might want to know about community, competition, race, politics, religion, gender, and death can be found hanging around a pick-up truck.

Early in the wee hours of one summer morning in 1992 as he was leaving a bar, S.R. Bindler saw the contest for the first time across the street. "I walked over to check out the contest and stayed awhile," says Bindler. "I left not really thinking much more about it other than what was obvious: What an insane event!" Thus began the modest seed (even by independent documentary standards) of what would eventually flourish into Hands on a Hard Body. It wasn't until 1995, while in Los Angeles and working on a narrative screenplay about East Texas, that the memory of the competition came back to him. "I wanted to use the contest as a vehicle - no pun intended - to articulate within the script some ideas I had." Knowing he needed some more of the gritty detail that he couldn't get unless he was there, he thought about going back to Longview with a video camera to shoot the contest as research footage for his screenplay. He talked with Kevin Morris, an L.A.-based independent producer and entertainment lawyer with whom he was working, about the prospects. "We decided, why not shoot it as a real documentary feature?" Bindler remembers. "If it came out, great. If it didn't, I would have enough material to continue writing my screenplay. So we decided to put it together and within a month we were down there shooting."

Needless to say, it was a no-frills affair. Bindler called on Chapin Wilson, a buddy from his days at NYU Film School, to serve as co-producer and help out during the month before the contest by shooting b-roll and pre-interviews of the contestants. Morris, who provided the initial funding and served as producer of the film, came down from L.A. a few days before the contest with Michael Nickles, another filmmaker who would lend a hand. They recruited another Longview native, Julia Wall, to serve as associate producer. Also on board as a producer was J.K. Livin', the production company of Longview native Matthew McConaughey, who happened to be a friend of Bindler's from way back.

Add to this congregation of talent hardware that simply included a couple of Hi-8 cameras ("that archaic medium," as Bindler refers to it), a few microphones and lights, and there you have it: a film crew and equipment. "Our one major acquisition for the shoot was a Steadycam Jr., which cost around $600," laughs Morris. "And so of course on the first day of the shoot, Rob [Bindler] comes and tells me that the tripod with the Steadycam on it had been knocked over!"

This low-budget, low-impact approach helped invest the film with a naturalism that's rare in documentary. There is not a single instance in which any contestant appears put off or self-conscious by the presence of cameras or crew. Of course, many of them are often performing, but as the documentary proves, performance is half the battle in winning this contest anyway. "That's Longview, Texas," Bindler says. "People there are very open, very giving, very friendly. And then, coming from there myself, being able to speak the language, and having that vibe and energy of being a local, really helped." In the hands of an outsider (can you say Michael Moore?), the "redneck" atmosphere of the contest would surely have been exploited for cheap laughs, easy humor, sarcastic condescension; instead, an honest and quiet dignity buoys the surface - the touch of the insider.

As the film progresses, and we watch the contest continue on past Hour 26, past Hour 49, past Hour 65, there emerges an even more remarkable integrity in the connection between the filmmakers and contestants. It's in every single frame - as if the camera is sagging and lurching in unison with the contestants, sharing their giddiness and exhaustion, their hopes, their desperation. Slowly, it becomes apparent that there are actually two contests of endurance being recorded by this film. "Chapin and I spent an entire day designing this really intricate 'motherboard' of shifts that would allow each member of the crew time to sleep during the shoot," says Bindler. "Everybody started on this rotation, but by the end of the 15th hour or so no one paid it any attention anymore because you'd leave for your break and by the time you got back a contestant would have dropped out. You would be so heartbroken that you had missed the moment! So all of us were pretty much there the duration of the contest. Took a few catnaps, drank a lot of coffee, ate a lot of sugar, smoked a lot of cigarettes. By the end of it all, we were as demented as the contestants."

Says Morris: "It was the time of our lives and we had no idea what we were getting into. Our biggest fear was that a thunderstorm would develop and force the contest to be called off, in which case everything we did would have been a complete waste of time! That was the great thing about this - until the very end there was just as good a chance as not that the film wouldn't come off. But there was always the hunch that we could catch lightning in a bottle."

"And it worked," adds Bindler. "We got a documentary out of the deal."

There's an undeniable freshness, an easy bravado and confidence, in this type of off-the-cuff mode of production that would make most other filmmakers envious. But to assume that the ultimate success of Hands on a Hard Body can be attributed to a lucky stroke or one-hit wonder would be a mistake. There lies a rigorous intelligence behind the structure of the piece, courtesy of one S.R. Bindler (it's not often that you run across a contemporary documentary filmmaker who references Dziga Vertov, Abel Gance, and Anton Chekov as influences as easily as he does Errol Morris). While Bindler's shooting methods left room for the arbitrary structures of fate, his editing strategies were guided by very strong ideas and formal concerns about the documentary process. "What attracted me to this contest," says Bindler, "was that it had something that most documentaries do not: a beginning, a middle, and an end within an isolated space ... and so I wanted to approach it with the narrative three-act structure of pure drama, which Syd Field [the scriptwriting guru] didn't come up with so much as Aristotle."

Indeed, another remarkable thing about Hands on a Hard Body is that it does unfold in a three-act structure. While many documentarians make the mistake of thinking that characterization and subject matter alone can or should carry the mantle, Bindler's piece shows that a strong and purposeful, even arbitrary, structure gives a spine to the characterization, strengthening it that much more. And as his colorful cast of characters (as colorful as I've seen in a documentary in quite a while - after all, who else would you expect to sign up for such a contest?) endure through their moments of suspense, fear, and heartbreak during the contest, we are able to accompany their every emotion via almost purely visual means, thanks to some wizardry in the editing room. "I'm a big fan of the early Soviet Russian avant-gardists - Eisenstein, Vertov, Kuleshov," says Bindler. "They came up with these great theories on how to build suspense, momentum, rhythm, and pacing just through the juxtaposition of images. I tried to apply that." The result is fascinating: In a single space covering a period of 80 hours, we are able to glean the deliciously diverse ideals, beliefs, and emotions of an entire community - all without leaving a parking lot.

The physical and financial logistics that Bindler had to navigate just to get the editing done will be familiar to most independent filmmakers. After shooting the film, he spent three months in L.A. trying to raise completion funds. During those months, in a stroke of mind-boggling resourcefulness, he decided to start editing the film without any editing equipment. "Julia Wall and I just started going through and transcribing dialogue and images of the 100 hours of footage that we had. Then I pulled out the shots I thought I wanted to use and she would storyboard them. So I had this huge book of dialogue and this huge picture book, and spent the next couple of months cutting and pasting a "novel" of my documentary together. When I finally gained access to an Avid [editing facility], I was really able to whip it out quickly."

Unable to raise the completion funds in L.A., Bindler located a 3/4" editing system in Longview and returned to his hometown. The system broke down soon after he started and, unable to fix it himself (Longview's not really a place where you can call a local editing system repairman to come out), he found a local company that actually owned a state-of-the-art Avid. The owner allowed him to edit his piece at night in exchange for being an errand boy by day. "It's an interesting twist of irony," say Bindler. "I shot it in Longview, went to L.A. to complete it, and had to come back to Longview to finish it. That's editing: the best and the worst of the whole experience ... and in the end, I just want the audience to share that experience as we did."

The battle to get Hands on a Hard Body distributed is the stuff that makes us root for underdogs. From the beginning, the film had several things going against it: 1) Its subtle rather than bombastic treatment of Texas subject matter that does not posit itself as a "grand theme" on the surface; 2) The Hi-8 format which today most regard as obsolete; 3) Its feature-length running time in a television market (both here and overseas) which demands a rigidly fixed length of 58 minutes; and 4) The fact that it was self-financed rather than parented by a foundation or corporation, which would have given it instant validity.

"This is a grassroots film," says Morris, "and the plan all along has been to find its audience organically. Many people, hearing about the idea of it without having actually seen it, will often scratch their heads. It was just a bunch of friends getting together and doing something. This is not a grant movie, not a movie paid for by anybody with distribution in mind. It was an idea that filmmakers found irresistible and wanted to apply their craft to." And the film has found its niche organically, winning awards and the hearts of audiences at film festivals across the nation in as unanimous a fashion as has ever been seen on the festival circuit.

Now the filmmakers have picked Austin as the spot for Hands on a Hard Body's theatrical world premiere. (Following this Wednesday's screening as the showcased film in the monthly Texas Documentary Tour, Hands on a Hard Body will open for a regular theatrical run on Friday, July 10 at the Dobie Theatre). This is the all-important step to a nationwide theatrical release (that rarest of rare birds in documentary filmmaking). "The strategy we've devised is to use Austin as our launching pad," says Morris. "It's a fantastic market, so hopefully we can do some business there and show the other theatres around the country that the film is viable, that the people really do want to see this kind of film."

I would love to go into detail about all the wonderful elements within the film itself: the roller coaster of suspense I felt as I rooted for one character only to have to switch my allegiance to another after an unexpected forfeiture; the spine-tingling metaphors that would take me by surprise and tie loose ends of meaning together; the themes of religion, camaraderie, and death that rise luxuriously to the surface like cream; the rare and complete satisfaction, as a Texan, that I was seeing a real Texas on the screen. But to do so would ruin the experience for anyone who hasn't seen it. And that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Hands on a Hard Body - that spoilers could indeed harm the purity of its drama. After all, says one competitor in the film, "It's a human drama."

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