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Endurance, Resolve at Heart of 'Hands'

Movie Review

October 16, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Hands on a Hard Body" sounds like a porno title but is in fact the name of a contest held since 1992 at a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas. The hard body in question is a fully loaded $15,000 pickup truck, and the person who can stand with a hand placed on the vehicle the longest wins it.

The contest was held on varying dates annually through 1996, at which point the dealership thought the gimmick had run its course. But the filming of the 1995 competition and its subsequent publicity revived the contest, which was held again just two weeks ago (and which lasted 92 hours).

As it happens, Longview (population 70,000) is the hometown of Matthew McConaughey ("A Time to Kill") and he and the filmmaker--his longtime friend S.R. Bindler, a 1993 NYU film school graduate-- produced it through the actor's production company.

Billy Perkins, a lean, shrewd Marlboro Man type, who won the first contest and is competing again, is the one individual who acknowledges the absurd quality of the entire endeavor. Yet he says that it becomes a mystical experience bonding participants with a sense of exhilaration tinged with sadness when anyone drops out.

Inevitably, this competition summons images of the brutal marathon dances of the Depression. On the one hand, the Hands on a Hard Body contest seems a horrible exploitation of needy people as a publicity stunt to promote a car dealership; on the other, the film reveals an endearing piece of Americana.

Perkins is the Clint Eastwood of this movie, the kind of self-disciplined, reflective man who knows himself and his strengths. Perkins held out a whopping 87 hours the first time around, and he seems clearly the man to beat. The rules, by the way, include a 5-minute break every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours.

Right from the start the 24 contestants seem very likable, humble people of modest means who really could use a free truck. They are no athletes, but Perkins and J.D. Drew, the oldest contestant, are pretty rugged guys. Norma Valverde, a deeply religious woman who has an estimated minimum of 200 people praying for her success, is decidedly plump.

Perkins says confidently that the winner will be the person who can hold on to his or her sanity longest, adding that the only type of contender he fears would be a well-conditioned Marine; ironically, such a man does enter only to drop out comparatively early. Sustained by tape recordings of religious music, Valverde believes her faith in God will see her through.

As a fledgling filmmaker Binder displays talent and judgment. Still, his film could be a tad shorter, and it also could use a little more context. What about the health dangers to the contestants? Must they pass some sort of physical exam in order to enter? And who thought up the contest in the first place?

Even though "Hands on a Hard Body" leaves those questions unanswered it also moves us with its celebration of the human spirit.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film may be too intense for the very young.

'Hands on a Hard Body'

A Legacy Releasing presentation of an S.R. Bindler/Kevin Morris/J.K. Livin production in association with Idea Entertainment and Wessex Entertainment Group. Director-editor S.R. Bindler. Producers Morris, Chapin John Wilson, Bindler. Cinematographers Michael Nickles, Wilson, Bindler. Music Neil Kassanoff. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741, and the University 6, Campus Drive, opposite UC Irvine, (949) 854-8811 or (714) 777-FILM (No. 086).

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