Hidden Gems: Hands on a Hard Body
By Dan Krovich
November 30, 2004
“When you go insane, you lose.” These are the words of wisdom from Benny Perkins, a former winner of the annual Hands on a Hardbody competition in Longview, Texas who is back to try to win again. The competition is simple: the person who can stand with one hand on a brand new pickup truck for the longest amount of time wins the truck. Contestants get one five minute break every hour with one 15 minute break every six hours, and they aren’t allowed to lean on the truck or squat. In Benny’s previous victory, he had to last 87 hours to take home the truck.
S. R. Bindler covers the 1995 contest in his documentary, aptly titled Hands on a Hardbody. Shooting on rather low-quality video, it doesn’t look very polished, but that turns out to be irrelevant because the stories he captures are so riveting. In fact, the low-quality nature of the video ultimately adds to the film by stripping away any artificial veneer. It’s like you’re watching someone’s home movies.
In the end, of course, the success of the movie relies on the contestants; will they be interesting enough to watch for 90 minutes? The good news is that a group of people willing to stand with their hand on a truck for three to five days in order to win it is a group that is fairly self-selective to be comprised of colorful characters. Benny is the obvious star, as he is able to speak with the authority that comes from being a previous winner. In a pre-contest interview, he philosophizes about strategy and life in general. There is also Greg, an earnest ex-Marine who is looking to challenge himself; Norma, who believes that God will answer her prayers by giving her the strength and stamina to win the truck; Janis, who is described as determined and stubborn by her husband in between his bragging about his killer air conditioner; J.D., the oldest competitor who wants to win the truck for his wife; Kelli, a young woman who wants to sell the truck right away to pay her bills; and Ronald, who relies on a strategy of oranges and Snicker bars. There are 23 contestants in all, and we get a good sense of most of them.
That’s what clinches the deal. I guarantee that you’ll quickly find yourself rooting for (or against) specific contestants. Some of them fall squarely in the realm of reinforcing stereotypes, and it’s easy to feel some air of superiority for a moment, but in a short period of time Bindler is able to break through pre-conceived notions to allow you to connect with and sympathize with these people. You may laugh at them one moment, but you’re just as likely to cry with them later. The long hours and lack of sleep bring out everything from desperation to compassion to exhilaration to frustration.
Hands on a Hardbody came out before the recent documentary and reality television boom, so it did miss out on riding the current wave of popularity. It did certainly influence the genres, however. The final immunity challenge on the first season of Survivor borrowed the title and was called “Hands on a Hard Idol” and Spellbound used a similar “Ten Little Indians” structure to great success. What Hands on a Hardbody verified was that audiences are willing to watch just about anything as long as they are interested in the people doing it. In the words of Benny Perkins: “It’s a human drama thing.”