Bear with me, docuphiles. We’re about to dig really deep into documentary lore. Hands On A Hard Body was a documentary I had heard about for a while, but haven’t had much luck in finding more about it. Originally filmed in 1997, it was out of print for a long time before finally being released on DVD last year. There’s still only the docuphile elite few who know of it, and in the weirdest twist of events, inspired the incredibly short-lived show on Broadway last year, with music co-written by Trey Anastasio of Phish. Yes, you read that correctly.
At face value, the documentary is simply a story about people in a small Texas town trying to win a truck. The Longview, TX Nissan dealership has an annual contest in which people compete to win a hard-body truck by being the last one standing with one hand on the truck. It’s a game of stamina, mental manipulation, and survival. It’s also about The American Dream: if you want something enough, you’ll get it. It’s about a descent into madness, what happens to people when they go three, four, even five days without sleep. It’s about people having an experience together and the bond it forms, even though its very existence depends on manipulating the others to lose.
It’s easy for me, the sophisticated and well-read West Coast city woman, to see these people and stereotype them as southern hicks with nothing better to do, but that is not fair or not helpful when viewing this film. Sure, the nineties fashion aesthetic doesn’t help things, but this is a simple documentary about people. There’s no overall message or agenda by the filmmakers; it simply lets you get to know the people who enter this contest and what it means to them. There’s the smug previous champion, the woman who relies on prayer, and the familiar archetypes of the underdog and the villain.
I was actually surprised how invested I was in who would win and how tense I actually felt towards the end. I don’t know why, but there’s just something so fascinating about watching ordinary people.