Monday, October 09, 2006

Altman's Hands on a Hard Body

The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson on Friday wrote that Robert Altman's next movie is to be an adaptation of 1997's S. R. Bindler opus documentary Hands on a Hard Body.

From the article:

..."Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary"... recounted a Texas endurance contest that offered a new Nissan Hardbody truck as the prize. The last person left standing with a hand on the truck got to take it home. Altman has wanted to direct the project for years and now says it will be his next film. He compares it to Sydney Pollack's 1969 film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" which centered on a marathon dance contest...Altman has begun talking to such actors as Billy Bob Thornton and Hilary Swank, though cast availability when the film is ready to shoot will be a factor.

When I read this news, my jaw hit the floor and I giggled and mused for about five minutes straight. Then I decided to write a Morgue item. Then I did a websearch and then - due to my findings - what was to be a fairly straightforward entry, took an unexpected left turn at Albuquerque. Read on...

When Hands on a Hard Body (the subtitle "The Documentary" is new by the way - must have something to do with the upcoming adaptation) came out back in '97, it was one of those flicks that my movie buds and I instantly glommed on to. It defined a certain segment of Texas living, and along with John Sayles' Lone Star, was just one of those flicks that as a Texan, you had to see and love. I'm sure that I've viewed it more times than any other documentary (save possibly for Crumb) and I'm always surprised when I discover people who have not only not seen, but never even heard of it. The DVD has been out of print for several years (and goes for $$ on eBay) and it seems to have attained total cult film status. If you've not seen the film, my guess would be to avoid it until Altman comes out with his version.

I'm sure Altman will unveil a compelling fictitious take (the source material being unscripted gold), but I'll be stunned if he makes a film even half as dramatic, funny, poignant and riveting as the original - although, by all means Bob...more power to you, man. He's on the right track by comparing it to They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - I've been making the same comparison for years.

The documentary was a total crapshoot for Bindler, as he had no way of knowing which contestants would hang in the longest and who would eventually win the truck. He no doubt knew he'd capture some great drama, but he could not possibly have foreseen the ideal fable that would result from simply pointing a camera at 24 people who must keep their hands on the truck.

I love the idea of Hilary Swank as she's a ringer for contestant Kelli Mangrum. Not sure who Billy Bob would play, but if you're going to tell this story, there can be no better actor to add to the cast. Contestant Benny Perkins is the only one of the 24 who was a previous winner (he'd won in '92) and he is in many ways the heart, soul and humor of the film. His one-liners (few of which are intended to be as hilarious as they sound) are a big part of what keep the film moving forward. When speaking of who will win the contest, he proclaims with a Texan drawl, "It's like this movie I saw once - Highlander. 'There can only be one'". Altman must nab the right guy to play Benny - maybe Woody Harrelson?

Seeing the film as many times as I have, the contestants have over the years become true movie characters in my mind, and it's as if I keep expecting the actors who played them to pop up in other movies - which of course never happens. These were not people like so many of today's reality TV "stars". They were not looking for fame or for their 15 minutes or hoping it might lead to a guest shot on a sitcom. They were 24 Texans trying to win a Hardbody pickup truck, likely feeling as if they were being interviewed for nothing more important than the Longview evening news, rather than having a precient awareness of the cult figures they'd someday become. Anytime I watch the film, I wonder where they are, if they still live in Longview, and what they're doing today. Which is the precise sentiment that led me to do a Google search...

Turns out that in 2005, in the middle of last year's contest, Ricky Vega - one of the 24 - walked away from the truck and headed for the K-Mart across the street (the store frequently pops into view when watching the doc), broke into the closed store, grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and fired it into his right temple. Needless to say, the contest was shut down and everyone sent home. Patterson Nissan didn't hold a Hands on a Hard Body contest this year and the future of the event remains up in the air.

Reading this news floored and saddened me. I'm left pondering how this will affect Altman's film. One would think the tragedy might keep Altman from even attempting it, despite it occurring years after the events seen in the documentary...and yet I don't see how this film can be made without mentioning it in at least postscript fashion. However, it's clearly at odds with the original story's ultimate message - the resilient nature of the human spirit and our ability to survive when the odds are against us. If Altman has indeed been wanting to make this for years, perhaps Vega's suicide made it an even more imperative mission for the director? And if so, then what might this story mean filtered through the present? What does he have planned!?!?

Whatever Altman unleashes, I suspect this will be a film not to be missed.

Check out Don Walheim's response to this piece in Walheim's Hands on a Hard Body.