As contests go, this sounds easy: Just compete with two dozen other folks to see who can keep his hand on a pickup truck the longest. The promotional event known as the "Hands on a Hard Body Contest," hosted by Jack Long Nissan every year in the east Texas town of Longview (125 miles east of Dallas, 60 miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana), turns out to be a surprisingly grueling event.

You get a five-minute break every hour, a fifteen-minute break every six hours. If you lift your hand for an instant, you’re out. If you’re two seconds late in getting your hand back on the truck after a whistle ends the break, you’re out.

Only one hand on the truck is necessary, but you must be sure to put down the other hand before moving the first. You are not allowed to lean on the truck or prop yourself up on it, and you cannot squat or rest your legs except during the breaks. Judges and supporters of the other contestants are always watching.

The makers of this 1998 film recorded the 1995 competition. Although the participants are chosen by random drawing, you could hardly ask for a better mix of characters.

Young Kelli Mangrum intends to sell the truck the minute she wins it. One or two other folks talk about having had a hard year financially, and you notice they’re missing most of their teeth. "If I don’t get it, I’m gonna have to get another job, and I don’t want another job," says an ex-waitress. Kerri Parker is tired of bicycling six miles to work every day ("I’m in need of wheels bad"). There’s a young buck fresh out of the Marines. Buxom Norma Valverde and her husband "been prayin’ for a truck," and enjoy the support of prayer chains at their church and other congregations across Texas.

Trim, thoughtful Benny Perkins, who won the contest three years before, is sure he knows all the proper strategies to take the new truck home, and serves as a kind of commentator. He gets more screen time than anyone, describing (probably before the 1995 contest) his experiences, knowledge, what it feels like at each stage of the game.

Although director and producer Bindler shoots the film in a mostly deadpan style, there is an occasional arty shot, such as a nearly full moon framed in the axle hole of a spinning truck wheel—nice! At one point the film flashes from one brief shot to another with a couple loud snaps, like the sound of a bug zapper. A brief cut of two bulls butting heads lacks subtlety, however. Good natured steel guitar and bowed string bass constitute much of the soundtrack.

Turns out a bit of strategy could be crucial. Perkins sniffs at people who eat burgers during their breaks because it takes work to metabolize all the fat: "Eat something heavy like that, it’s gonna take you down." Several people make the mistake of packing candy bars. The oldest contestant, J.D. Drew, smokes cigarettes during his breaks.

Contestants are required to wear gloves as well, because perspiration "could deteriorate the paint." The gloves prove to be another of the many irritants as the competition wears on.

One veteran contest judge picks Kelli to win because she’s got comfortable, loose clothing and tennis shoes (as opposed to the guy who just couldn’t compete without wearing his cowboy boots), and takes "smart breaks." She eats bananas, fish, juices, has a lawn chair to prop up her feet. Is the strength and flexibility of youth more apt to win, or age and maturity?

Twelve hours pass before one man’s hand slips off the truck. By 25 hours, 20 minutes, 16 of the original 23 contestants are still in. Ten contestants are left at hour 48 (the third day). During hour 54, feisty contestant Janis Curtis gives up, complaining of cheating that goes unnoticed by the judges. When it’s down to the final three, the contest requires them to take a drug test during their break. The 1995 contest will end up lasting 77 hours.

Despite your tremendous weariness when it gets to the last five people, Perkins says, every time someone drops out there is "awesome exhilaration, and you feel like you could jump to the moon…. I would compare it to killin’ a deer, the first time."

There is remarkably little animosity in this tournament. Contestant Paul Prince drops out at 60 hours, but returns the following day to support the remaining players. A judge is terribly apologetic when she has to disqualify someone for absent-mindedly taking both her gloves off to scratch her hands.

Though often quite funny, the film drags a bit toward the end. Pacing turns slow and woozy, and viewing becomes something of an ordeal, which may be a conscious tactic to mirror the behavior of the subjects or just unavoidable, given that nothing much is happening and the people are not that inherently interesting.

When it’s down to the last two participants, Perkins explains, that’s the hardest. Both contestants’ families and friends are looking at you. The other person’s supporters give you hard looks, and you think: "Don’t they realize that we’re sufferin’, that we’re hurtin’? And you feel like they’re kinda bloodthirsty. It seems so absurd, very absurd. It’s a human drama thing; it’s more than just a contest, and winning a truck."

Among others, the credits give thanks to Matthew McConaughey and Benicio Del Toro. Like Bindler, McConaughey is a native of Longview and agreed to help produce the film. I don't know the story on Del Toro, who's hotter than hot now that it's 2001. Does anybody remember him in the films that preceded this one, such as The Usual Suspects, Swimming with Sharks, and especially Big Top Pee-Wee?

David Loftus


Unlike a Texan, whose truck is said to be "kind of like his hat," David Loftus has never driven a pickup, let alone owned one. In fact, he refused to get a driver's license at all before the age of 28. Loftus and his wife, Carole Barkley, are a one-car family in Portland, Oregon, and are trying to figure out how to do without even one car. He does own a couple of fedoras, however. David Loftus, Writer -


S.R. Bindler—Director/Editor/Producer/Photography
Kevin Morris—Co-Producer/Co-Director
Chapin Wilson—Co-Producer/Photography
Julia Wall—Associate Producer
Michael Nickles—Photography
Neal Kassanoff, Guy Forsyth—Music
Lev Vertov—Sound

1998, 94 minutes


1999 Best Documentary, Boston Society of Film Critics
1997 Special Jury Award—Editing, Florida Film Festival
1997 Audience Award—Best Documentary, Los Angeles Int’l Film Festival

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