Friday, October 13, 2006

Walheim's Hands on a Hard Body

Ross’ recent Morgue entry blindsided me. I am well aware that I’ve romanticized the “Hands on a Hard Body” contest, as captured in S.R. Bindler’s perfectly edited masterpiece of the same name. Nevertheless, the knowledge of this tragedy has now forced me to re-evaluate the virtues of my possibly naïve interpretation of that movie. Fact is, I wish I had stayed ignorant of this tragic factoid [Sorry, Don! - RR] because it’s tainted the sacredness that has endowed my understanding of my all time favorite documentary and true life Texas fable. Certainly, the news puts a potential end to my wish to one day take a well-timed excursion out to East Texas and stand in jealous awe at the random, motley group of quintessential Texans two-days-deep in an exhaustive battle of wills. (Here’s hoping I’ve still got some time before someone screws-up the “Lights of Marfa”).

I was recently reminded that it was this very movie that was the impetus for Ross and I forging a relationship with our other movie-freak friend, Kevin Cacy. I had off-handedly mentioned to Kevin (who, at the time, worked at the same Laserdisc rental store where Ross had once worked) that I had heard wonderful word of mouth about this little documentary that was currently playing in Austin at the Dobie. I was taken aback, when two days later Kevin said he took me up on my suggestion and drove up to check out the flick. His enthusiasm for what he had seen was infectious. Ross and I drove up later that weekend and were treated to something…special.

In all the years I’ve known these two, there has NEVER been a movie, before or since, that compelled us, to this extent, to “spread the word” [Not even Ravenswan! - RR]; to get any and everyone we knew to take a chance on this true-life “human drama” (a little in-joke for those that have seen the movie). We were obsessed with it for the simple reason that it kept rewarding us with new insights on each subsequent viewing. This story was, in its own right, fascinating – however it was made doubly so by the virtues of editing. It played with the audiences pre-conceived biases and assumptions that they (me) inevitably made when seeing these contestants for the first time; the filmmakers knew, in advance, how we would assume who would, well, maybe not win, but surely bow-out first.

(The following contains spoilers relevant to the documentary. Highlight and read at your own risk!)

I'll never forget what Ross said to me (in jest, but with a hint of good-natured provocation) after the end credits began:

"Hey Don, what does it say about your “God” that he let the woman who was constantly praying to him throughout the contest come in 2nd place?"

I remember I had a quick response for him precisely because what I found so wonderful about the film was an interpretation that was completely opposite to the implication behind his question, namely, that it was precisely this woman's unyielding faith that so obviously had given her the strength to go as far in the contest as she had. This roughly 200-220 pound obese, middle-aged woman is, at the beginning of the contest, surrounded by mostly young, strong twenty-somethings, and you think, "Surely this woman will be one of the first if not THE first person to bow out." But no - she makes it down to the last two and she had the strength to keep going, but became so moved by her prayers that she accidentally lifted her hand off the vehicle in religious ecstasy. In the words of the wise old man that won the event (the oldest person in the contest by the way) "At that point she cared more about God than she did about winning the car and that's the only reason I won."

To think that, years later, a contestant became so vulnerable by the physical, emotional and mental stress that this contest so obviously administers, that he was driven to such an extreme only minutes after conceding defeat makes me wonder if the type of people that this contest has now come to attract is a fundamentally different kind of participant, with different expectations.

Ross astutely pointed out in his piece that these participants in the documentary were nothing like today’s "reality" contestants. They had no idea they were to be part of a “cult classic” that to date is still the longest playing movie in Austin, Texas history. All they were interested in was winning the car... a car that would economically affect them in ways that this privileged, upper middle class Texan will likely never fully appreciate.

I'm wondering if the very success of that film - a film that has meant so much to “Texans” like Ross, Kevin and me on so many levels - changed the way people henceforth approached and perceived the contest? Infected it even, so that it morphed from something akin to a spiritual right of passage...something that a number of the contestants claimed changed them in a profound and positive way forever, to just another lame attempt for the obligatory "15 minutes of fame"?

At the end of the day, I'm not sure if I agree with Ross that Altman should mention or include this tragedy in his adaptation, at least if he wants to be faithful to the particular story that the documentary made famous. I have the utmost faith in Altman as a storyteller, and even though he’s tackled real people before in his films (Popeye being one of the best), that particular contest that the documentary captured is one of the most beautiful, positive and inspiring stories I have ever seen on the big screen. To infect it with an anecdote that had nothing whatsoever to do with the events in question, seems somehow dishonest - hell, even irreverent.

But to misquote Steve Balderson, "That's just, like, my opinion, man."

This guest column was written by Don Walheim in response to Altman's Hands on a Hard Body. It began life in the comments section of that entry, but was deemed "better" than that...which is a sterling endorsement for the value of posting in the comments sections.