A Human Drama Thing

Hands on a Hardbody (1997)

illustration by Tom Ralston

The climax of Hands on a Hardbody takes place off-screen. Documentarian S.R. Bindler’s camera has looked away from the tent that’s served as the film’s primary shooting location for nearly 80 hours, conducting a color-commentary interview with a mustachioed man in reflective aviators and trucker cap. But before long, that man’s gaze flicks away almost imperceptibly. “She gone,” he mutters.

Bindler will make some effort in post-production to create the impression that the viewer has not missed the moment they’ve waited 90 minutes—and Bindler was waited three days—to witness, but there’s no concealing it: the most wrenching moment of this torturous endurance test has been lost to history.

“Who’s out?” crew members can be heard shouting. “Who’s out? Who’s out?” And then, as the low-resolution image streaks and blurs with motion, those shouts become, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” But it’s too late. Bindler’s focus slipped, and we’re left to imagine the final moments of the 1995 Jack Long Nissan Hands on a Hardbody competition. And though it may be disappointing to watch, it’s this simple human lapse that embodies the extraordinary effectiveness of this particular no-budget documentary.

The rules of the (now defunct) Hands on a Hardbody competition are as simple as they are brutal: early one September morning, just over 20 randomly-drawn citizens of Longview, Texas arrive at the Jack Long Nissan dealership, where a hardbody pickup truck is parked beneath a small tent. Each entrant places a hand on the truck; the last one to remove their hand will win this brand new vehicle, valued in the vicinity of $15,000. Save for a five-minute break every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours, contestants must keep one hand (sheathed in a cotton glove to spare the paint job) on the truck at all times while never leaning on the truck for support. The exercise, which generally lasted in the vicinity of three days, was a severe test of physical and mental fortitude on the part of the contestants, as well as a PR coup for the dealership—crowds came to gawk and cheer, while local radio provided regular updates to the 80,000 residents of Longview.

“You feel that they’re kind of bloodthirsty,” returning contestant and previous winner Benny Perkins tells Bindler’s crew in a preliminary interview. Benny has managed to make peace with onlookers only after realizing the central truth of this most unusual sweepstakes: “Hey, it’s a human drama thing.”

Gangly and laconic, moustachioed and 10-gallon-hatted, so self-assured that his cocky bluster comes across as simple statement of fact, Benny is exactly the sort of larger-than-life figure that elevates this sort of observational documentary, and Bindler knew how lucky he’d gotten when Benny walked into his life. “We knew from studying documentary that it’s all character,” the director later recalled of the stress his team experienced as they pondered crafting cinema out of such a static and stultifying event. But after meeting Benny, “Someone said, ‘We’ve got a movie!’”

This interview—which apparently lasted 30 minutes, based on just two questions from Bindler—forms a sort of philosophical backbone for Hands on a Hardbody. As the hours of competition pass, the film returns compulsively to Benny’s ruminations on the significance of the exercise. “This is when the big dogs hunt,” we hear him brag as one contestant succumbs to the agonizing physical impact of 45 hours on the truck. “If you can’t hunt with the big dogs, you get up on the porch with the pups. And that’s the way it is.” Later, as another contestant is disqualified for breaking 59 hours of focus and briefly leaning on the truck, we hear Benny describe the “awesome exhilaration” of watching a rival leave the tent. “You just get the shakes. I would compare it to killing a deer for the first time, the first time you kill a really big animal.”

In the film’s first act, as droves of bright-eyed optimists brag of their exceptional fortitude and willingness to do whatever it takes, it’s easy to hear Benny’s claims as a blowhard’s bluster, a bit of self-mythologizing for the benefit of a camera that might immortalize his repeat triumph. But as the hours stretch into days and contestants’ bodies and minds succumb to the effects of stress, his words gather weight. “It’s who can maintain their sanity the longest,” Benny says in the film’s opening moments, and he’ll be proven correct one defeated contestant at a time.

Hands on a Hardbody was shot on Hi-8 film, a format used perhaps most prominently for The Blair Witch Project, and the aesthetics are accordingly cheap—the picture is flat and overbright, the sound plagued by warps, pops, and hissing. Yet what might seem at first like deficiencies to be overcome are instead revealed as assets, allowing the viewer to more fully sink into this filmic reality. With the absolute lack of cinematic gloss—which, producer Chapin Wilson later pointed out, grounds the film as evocatively in the mid-’90s as Technicolor stock does the mid-century—the events on-screen can easily come to feel eerily like unvarnished home-video footage of something extraordinary, and even a bit unseemly. As we bear witness to civilians, many of them living lives of quiet desperation, subjecting themselves to extreme discomfort and often bottoming out physically, mentally, or both, one might be tempted to wonder if this footage is appropriate for consumption. Aren’t we taught to look away from images of torture?

Yet—as with so many classic documentaries—this work of consumer-grade cinema verité paints a portrait as much of the depictors as the depicted. Throughout, Bindler is canny and judicious in fostering an awareness of the sweat and effort that is going into the production of Hands on a Hardbody, allowing us to see the crew hurrying and panting, nearly missing some things and entirely missing others. When a contestant, seemingly driven to paranoid rage by sleeplessness and discomfort, abruptly leaves the truck, Bindler includes the shaky footage taken as he chases her to her car, complete with the distressed sounds of footsteps and breath; later, when the camera wanders afield and misses the moment that one of the few remaining contestants begins mulling an exit strategy, we see other crew members rushing towards the roving camera, and we experience the commotion as everyone grabs their equipment and hustles back to the truck. These in-between moments could hardly be called essential to depicting the Hands on a Hardbody competition; the procedural element could be jettisoned and the story of the contest would remain unchanged. Yet by virtue of their inclusion, we’re primed to root not just for our favorite contestants, but for the anxious strivers telling their story as well.

Bindler intended for his crew to maintain a quality of life at least slightly more sustainable than that of the contestants, planning eight-hour stretches of shooting that would alternate with three-hour bursts of sleep. But as the competition wore on, crew members refused to leave for their appointed rest hours—“I was like: you’ve got to leave,” Bindler would recall telling them. “You can’t just stay here, we’re gonna melt down.” Yet he faced an artistic mutiny from camera operators who wouldn’t risk missing a crucial moment, and so as sleep was whittled down to a handful of catnaps, the effects of exhaustion and stress began seeping into the lens. By the final stretch of the film, the crew can be seen undergoing their own psychological wear and tear: when a crew member attempts to interview one increasingly manic contestant who’s adopted a droning loop of desperate pseudo-song to keep herself going, implausibly insisting that she’s perfectly comfortable, the would-be interviewer loses composure and begins laughing. Soon, he’s dipped into frame, doubling over with wheezing gales in the face of the moment’s desperate absurdity.

In his 2003 article “Lens on a Hardbody,” Mark Gallagher classifies Bindler’s film as a “gawkumentary,” a mode of ethnographic cinema that invites well-off, urbane audiences to ponder the existences of groups they wouldn’t typically encounter. It’s a documentary subgenre that dates back, in Gallagher’s conception, as far as 1922, when Robert J. Flaherty directed Nanook of the North by exhorting his Indigenous subjects to don ceremonial garb and perform long-abandoned rituals in order to provide the material moviegoers expected. With time, documentary techniques came to discourage staged material, and evolving social codes came to question the ethics of ethnographic documentary. As a consequence, the gawkumentary tradition underwent a necessary transfiguration before reemerging for an arthouse renaissance in the 1990s, now shifting its focus to the relatively safe material of white eccentrics: Gallagher places Hands on a Hardbody alongside Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, and Chris Smith’s American Movie, forming a loose collection of indie curios devoted to idiosyncratic dreamers and innovators.

Of Gallagher’s selections, American Movie would seem most aligned with Hands on a Hardbody; it’s easy enough to imagine Wisconsinite would-be auteur Mark Borchardt entering the Jack Long Nissan contest in hopes of raising enough capital to fund his next opus, slotting in seamlessly alongside Benny and the other semi-rural lower-middle-class dreamers whose idiosyncrasies lend Bindler’s film such an enduring appeal. Yet Gallagher sees one crucial factor as distinguishing Hands on a Hardbody from these contemporaneous gawkumentaries: Bindler is a native of Longview, and thus captures this curious local ritual without any of the disbelief that an outsider might bring to the milieu. When contestants chalk up their performance on the truck to the patience they’ve honed hunting big game, or when others speak of the fortitude they’ve gained through military service or the strength they draw from evangelical Christianity, these sociological factors are treated as simple realities. Where some directors might see signifiers ripe for reconfiguration into a grand thesis on the American dream, Bindler sees neighbors, and he offers them up with an according benevolent neutrality.

This isn’t to say that the crew behind Hands on a Hardbody was inured to the intriguing specificity of the characters they encountered. If anything, they were keenly aware of how susceptible these guileless Texans might prove to mockery, and agonized over how to edit the film to minimize that ridicule. Still, some level of sneering among so-called coastal elites was perhaps inevitable. One young man who blithely claims he’ll be able to triumph by eating nothing but Snickers bars for days on end has emerged as an iconic Hands on a Hardbody character, invoked between gales of laughter by Jimmy Fallon when Quentin Tarantino brought the film up in 2020 as a classic go-to video store recommendation. To mitigate the effects of this smug superiority, Wilson and Bindler hewed to a guiding principle in the editing room, as Wilson recalled in 2013: “Can you sit in a room and watch it with [the subject] and then be there to look them in the eye afterwards?”1

It’s been suggested that the appeal of Hands on a Hardbody predicted the onrushing tide of reality TV competitions like Survivor that would subsume network schedules within a few years, and the comparison is an intuitive one. Yet where those programs most often draw exhibitionists hoping for 15 minutes of nationally-broadcast fame, no Longview resident featured in Bindler’s documentary was looking for glory (save, perhaps, for the local bragging rights sought by Benny). When the entrants are surveyed early in the film, their reasons for entering the competition tend towards the coolly pragmatic—one hopes to replace the truck he sold after a particularly trying winter, while more than one intends to sell the vehicle and use the proceeds to return to school and carve out a brighter future—and in this way, the more resonant analogue might be Stephen King’s 1979 novella (published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Long Walk.

King’s story concerns a nationally-televised walkathon in which young men must keep up a four-mile-per-hour pace, with stragglers being shot by a military escort until the last man walking wins a handsome cash prize. The bleak ending of King’s novella finds the last walker unable to stop trudging, having been psychologically broken to the point that he’s forgotten any other way of life, and the finale of Hands on a Hardbody initially isn’t much different, as the victor is too dazed to take his hands off the truck, watching uncomprehendingly as the sobbing runner-up is comforted by supporters. “If you can’t go, I mean—that’s as far as it goes, right?” the winner whispers to Bindler, who’s tasked with convincing this halfway-broken soul that his ordeal is at an end and congratulations are in order.

Like the bulk of King’s Bachman novellas, The Long Walk exudes a poisonous nihilism reflecting the existential dread of the Vietnam war, a funhouse-mirror vision of a world where ordinary Americans are cyclically and violently sacrificed for what seems like no particular reason save for the whims of the idly affluent. The same concerns are at play in the story perhaps most frequently compared to Hands on a Hardbody, Sydney Pollack’s film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? McCoy’s story is a brutal fictionalization of the Depression-era trend of dance marathons, in which those suffering the worst economic hardship could volunteer to dance unceasingly for the amusement of paying audiences, risking annihilation in hopes of winning enough cash to stave it off. Pollack’s film version maintains the period milieu, but having been produced in 1969, the resonance with Nixonian dread is palpable. As the entrants dance for days, then weeks, and then months, debasing themselves in some cases to death, the feeling evoked is a particularly American “elementary sadism,” as Roger Ebert wrote in his review of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? No matter the era or the competition, be it a dance marathon or a NASCAR race, there will always be those eager to savor that “delicious possibility…that somebody [will] die.”

There is a certain alluring uncertainty at play as Hands on a Hardbody shifts into its second half with an interlude of unnerving surreality. On the second night, Bindler’s camera finds the remaining contestants standing around the truck and laughing uncontrollably, exchanging exaggerated looks of confusion and disbelief as the waves of hysteria surge and break with swiftly mounting force. The moonlit fit is less mirthful than bestial, possessed of all the inhuman abandon of a pack of wild dogs, and it isn’t long after that the we witness the first true psychological collapse as one disqualified contestant shuffles alone and unshod into the darkness; though concerned onlookers claim she’s heading home, when she disappears into the late-night haze, she’s exited the story permanently. Here we have the first, albeit minor, payoff of the rubbernecking urge that Ebert suggested draws us to endurance tests, but in practice, the moment is less intriguing than heartbreaking. After watching her journey from optimism to determination to hollow exhaustion, there’s nothing delicious in watching her story end in failure.

Still, to call this outcome a failure relies on the presumption that the full arc of this contestant’s story is bookended by the film’s runtime, as well as the convenient misconception that all relevant details of her life have been shared with us. And for as poignant as it may be to watch her shuffle into the dark, the gawkumentaries of the 1990s tend to be charged by a determined zeal that robs such bottoming-out moments of the despairing punch packed by fictionalized accounts of personal degradation.

If They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? serves as a treatise on dehumanization, then Hands on a Hardbody repeatedly demonstrates the humanist potential in this voluntary suffering, and it may be that the consistent good spirits of the contestants, even as they’re forced to recognize and accept their own limitations, testifies to the distinction between the American spirit of the 1990s and that of the 1970s. In a turn that could hardly be less surprising, the infernal carousel of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is revealed to be rigged, with this specific twist serving as an ideally cynical New-Hollywood metaphor for all the ways the American status quo touts meritocracy while ensuring those in power are benefitted above all. Yet every Texan with a hand on that truck has a glint in their eye that testifies to an unwavering belief befitting end-of-history Americanism: with just one more spin, they’re destined to wrap their hands around the brass ring.

At one point in the proceedings, Bindler cuts away from the competition to interview a psychologist, who offers his perspective on the mental impact of three days spent touching a truck. Rather than catastrophic collapse, he predicts these contestants might experience a collective transcendence the likes of which the rest of us could never hope to achieve. Hands on a Hardbody could even be “a mystical kind of experience,” he ventures. “It’s hard to be ruthlessly competitive when you’re having that kind of experience.” At this point, we’re treated to a repetition of Benny’s thesis: “Hey, it’s a human drama thing.” But if this most outrageous contestant serves as the cerebral center of the film, another one emerges unexpectedly from the anonymous crowd of would-be winners to become the story’s heart.

When Paul leaves the truck after 60 hours, Bindler’s camera finds him weeping in the parking lot. Yet it’s not despair he’s processing, but immense gratitude. “You can make real close friends” through this unique experience, “and you can get real attached to people. One thing that’s probably wrong with the world,” Paul now sees, is that “people don’t take the time to notice who’s right beside ‘em.”

It’s Paul who returns on the last day to witness the final grudge match, two contestants going head-to-head for seven hours before one finally yields. It’s Paul that Bindler is talking to when the contest reaches its startling conclusion, and it’s Paul who’s there to comfort the runner-up, offering support that transcends sympathy and moves into a place of startling emotional intimacy given that these two people were strangers just three days ago. Despite that runner-up being surrounded by family and friends, it’s Paul who supports her depleted body as she moves towards the air conditioned dealership to recuperate—anyone could have provided the sympathetic shoulder, but only Paul can empathize with her ordeal.

More than one contestant compares the 1995 Hands on a Hardbody competition to a big-game hunt, but Benny balances this ruthlessness with a complementary admission: watching a fellow contestant leave the truck can inspire a deep sorrow. Much as these competitors may want to pick one another off one by one, a necessary camaraderie blooms on the truck as well—engaging with each other is essential if one intends to stay mentally alert enough to avoid a disqualifying distraction. Solidarity evolves into affection, and that connection grows only more profound with every layer of mental self-defense stripped away by exhaustion. After the winner has been declared, those final two contestants embrace, clutching each other for what feels like minutes on end. They weep into one another’s matching promotional Jack Long T-shirts and whisper sentiments that we’re not privy to. Instead, we hear one more monologue from Benny, who describes his realization that Hands on a Hardbody teaches its entrants “the very basic human values,” not least among them a respect for others who’d strive towards extraordinary achievement at great personal risk, even if what they’re striving for is the same piece of the pie you are.

In 1997, Jack Long Nissan put the Hands on a Hardbody competition on hiatus, ruling that the potential PR bump failed to justify three days of lost revenue. But the release and cult acclaim of Bindler’s documentary soon inspired the dealership to revive the competition with greater pomp and circumstance, lending the event an atmosphere closer to the absurdist carnival of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Then, in 2005, a contestant left the truck shortly before dawn on the third day, crossed the road to the closed Kmart, threw a trash can through the window, and retrieved a gun. By the time police made it inside, he had fatally shot himself. Hands on a Hardbody would never be held again.

This is the level of outrageous tragedy that Roger Ebert suggested anyone buying a ticket to witness this sort of unusual spectacle is not-so-secretly hoping for, and for as benign—and even inspirational—as Hands on a Hardbody may be, it’s easy to wonder what separates those of us watching at home from the idle Americans milling through the stands in Pollack’s film. As with any gawkumentary, even this most theoretically ideologically neutral one, ethical questions might well nag long after the credits have rolled. In this case, they might be offset by recalling that for these contestants, the documentary is a secondary concern at best. As the film’s epigraph, courtesy of Willa Cather, informs us, The end is nothing; the road is all. And fittingly, when Bindler interviews the prior year’s runner-up, the man cites his failed bid for the truck as the single greatest experience of his life.

In 1982, Jane Fonda—tragic leading lady of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?—introduced a catchphrase to her iconic series of aerobics videos: No pain, no gain. This motivating mantra was absorbed eagerly into the American zeitgeist, and it would seem to testify to some essential national belief in the inherent value of suffering. Fonda’s ubiquitous catchphrase is only a slight variation on an aphorism set down by founding father Ben Franklin in 1758: “He that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains.” 

There’s an undeniable allure to the belief that some unbreakable law of the universe ensures trauma will be alchemically transformed into reward. Yet that soothing ideal can so easily be used by those in power to coax every last ounce of value out of ultimately disposable civilians. In the words of another American sage, poet and veteran of World War II Randall Jarrell: “You can’t break eggs without making an omelette—That’s what they tell the eggs.” Who gained the most from the pain of the Hands on a Hardbody contestants? With one exception, they underwent a physical trial that exceeds military service (at least according to the disbelieving testimony of one veteran of the Marine Corps, who drops out after 58 hours) all for the benefit of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. They pushed themselves to the breaking point, and all they got was a lousy T-shirt.

“How far will we go?” Benny wonders with desperate anxiety as the third day of competition looms. He uses the collective pronoun presumably because using the singular one would give voice to the terrifying possibility that he might not be the one to go all the way. “The way I see it,” he croaks, “the person that wins, they’ll have it goin’ on.” But that unspoken question lingers in the air: And what will the rest of us have? 

They’ll each have to decide for themselves what very basic human value was conferred by this particular human drama thing, but we aren’t privy to their conclusions. The only contestant Bindler visits in the days following the contest is the winner. Sitting behind the wheel of his brand new Nissan hardbody pickup truck, he offers the film’s salty-sweet moral: “If you really want something, keep your hands on it.” And with thatas so often tends to be the casehistory is written by the victor, and he drives off into the sunset.

  1. This 2013 appearance by Wilson and Bindler was linked to the premiere of the Broadway adaptation of Hands on a Hardbody, which featured original songs by Phish member Trey Anastasio. The published script for this dramatized account of the 1995 contest opens with a disclaimer: “Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters…should not be played broadly, or with an implied ‘wink.’ Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles, and core decency.”