The $1 VHS Film Festival

Documentary Spotlight: Hands on a Hard Body

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Hands on a Hard Body
Directed by S.R. Bindler—1997—94 minutes

It’s hard not to enjoy an earnest indie doc about aspirational Americans and I would be hard pressed to find anything objectionable on the surface of 1997’s “Hands on a Hard Body.” This film about an East Texas endurance contest, in which the last person standing with one hand on a Nissan pickup truck wins the vehicle, won an audience award at the L.A. Film Festival the year it came out and was later made into a musical co-written by Trey Anatasio. That play eventually made it onto Broadway for a month and garnered three Tony nominations.

I had long been interested in this cult film, whose scant availability on home video kept it from inclusion in my reference book “Documentary 101.” I recently chanced upon a DVD of it for a dollar at a library book sale, making me glad I was far too sensible to ever shell out they $84 they were asking on Amazon. I must admit to a bit of an inner smirk when I saw the printed legend on the box that read “You lose the contest when you lose your mind,” presumably a quote from one of the competitors. My initial reaction to an event I would consider inherently demeaning would be more like “You lose your mind when you enter the contest.” Below that quote, critic Todd McCarthy enthused “A classic piece of Americana… produces gales of laughter.” While I don’t remember laughing once, I did come away from the film with much respect for the contestants while still bemoaning the chronic fragility of an American economic system that would make such a contest viable.

Movie fans of a certain age may well recall Sydney Pollack’s 1969 feature “The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy. It depicts a particularly humiliating Depression-era dance marathon as dramatized by McCoy, who had worked as a bouncer at such events. Flash forward six decades later and while there may not be a widespread depression, there are still people who will go to great lengths either to win badly-needed money or a commodity they could otherwise not afford. Gone are the up-front exploitations of the callous marathon MC played by Gig Young in “They Shoot Horses.” In fact, the folks at the Jack Long Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas couldn’t be any nicer and the co-sponsoring radio station plays it up as a wholesome community event.

And it gives every indication of being so. The contestants don’t feel they are being played and it would be an ungenerous viewer who would begrudge them for being there. It’s easy for me to be all high-minded and say to myself that I would rather walk to work for the next hundred years than to be there. But many for the 22 people lined up around the pickup at the start, this here is for real. Not having to make payments on a vehicle can mean the difference of not having to get a second job or whether or not you can afford night classes. Moreover, in workaday East Texas, “cars don’t make money, trucks make money” a worthy observation that is fleshed out in the video clip from the musical at the end of the post.

So the willing participants gamely join in for a few days of sleep deprivation, boredom, back strain, mosquitoes and, eventually, contagious laughter and delirium. But through it all, they keep their spirits positive and graciously answer the questions of the filmmakers, while either at the truck or during the breaks (five minutes an hour, thirty minutes every six hours). An intrepid few keep their stamina up to last past the 75-hour mark. By this time, whoever is left has earned much respect and those who had to drop out are not bitter but have found a valuable takeaway. Paul, one of the older entrants for whom this can be particularly difficult says the contest showed him that “you don’t pay attention to who’s right beside you (in life) and that they could be your good friend.” After a recuperative sleep, he’s back the next day to support the remaining standers.

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It’s too bad that this magnanimous outlook can’t extend to the greater economic and social framework, as the hardbody contest betrays a harsher reality where everyone “wants the same thing but only one can have it.” Instead, that system only seems to abide to an increasingly dumbed-down blame game full of “welfare cheats” and “one-percenters.” This is a worthy film but it doesn’t really drill down to the deeper implications at hand. Interestingly, no less a director than Robert Altman had plans to make “Hands on a Hard Body” into a feature film before his death in 2006. With his great skill at ensemble casts and keen sense of American discontents, that would have been a highly interesting project. Instead we are left with a likable document and an appreciation of its persevering subjects. I still wouldn’t enter the contest, though.

I Saw a Film Today, Oh Brother! The 1978 “Sgt. Pepper” Film Folly Re-visited

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The $1 VHS Film Festival continues with 1978’s misbegotten Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I first got interested in the film (I had only seen bits of it on TV) after a lengthy and absorbing look-back piece by Clark Collis in a 2001 issue of Mojo magazine (discussed below). At the time it was unavailable on home video and down to its last couple of prints. So I figured if I ever came across a used tape it would be priced at either fitty cents or $30, depending if the seller knew what he had. So I when I spotted it for a buck at a used record store, I did not feel hard done by. It has since been issued on DVD and is available on Amazon for $6.66, a perfect price point for that company, if you catch my drift.

At this late date, it doesn’t seem that the status of Robert Stigwood’s white-elephant film musical of the Beatle’s most famous album will ever change much. Sgt. Pepper the movie seems forever suspended between being a forgotten fiasco and a potential cult classic, with little momentum left to nudge the needle either way. The Mojo article tracked the utter hubris of impresario Stigwood and his top-drawer clients who were recruited to star in the film and sing most of the numbers: Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. In 1977 these were musical artists who were riding very high, the former with his blockbuster live LP Frampton Comes Alive and the latter with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

All involved apparently believed that Beatles’ generational game-changer (all of ten years old at that point) was already forgotten by younger kids and that their film version would replace it in the minds of future generations. Moreover, Frampton said at the time that his role would likely lead to his becoming a movie star on the level of a Robert DeNiro. Along with this unearned arrogance, this work also comes across as a by-product of a sort of collective cocaine psychosis that gripped certain sectors of the movie and recording industries during that era. It didn’t seem like anyone was straight enough to have a coherent vision about the final product, instead they just rode the Beatles’ military-style coattails right down into a ditch.

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If you think these clothes are painful to look at, just try prancing around in them!

With its candy-colored costumes, overstuffed production numbers and fructose-encrusted goodies-vs.-baddies storyline, Sgt. Pepper is so icky-sweet that I felt a tummy ache coming on before the end of the first act. But once your eyes adjust to the gaudiness and your brain dials down to the film’s bottom-scraping sensibility (Mean Mr. Mustard is stealing the original Sgt. Pepper heart-shaped flugelhorn that ended World War One!) it’s not all bad. After all, you have a bumper crop of stellar Beatles tunes (mostly from Pepper and Abbey Road), many sung by a trio of brothers who, before their disco phase, were bona fide purveyors of 60s progressive pop. And the wacky visual effects are a guilty pleasure, even if they look like they were conceived by someone who was dosed with some of that bad brown acid left over from Woodstock.

Problem is, aside from the ongoing narration of Heartland mayor Mr. Kite (an amiable George Burns) it’s all music. Somewhere, a decision was made that the Brit and Aussie accents of the four stars made dialogue a no-go. That leaves them to otherwise mug and mime between singing parts and Charlie Chaplin these guys are not. Without any speaking lines, what plot there is gets cobbled together by creating scenes to fit the lyrics of disparate songs, a tricky task that the hapless director Michael Schultz is not often up to.

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Tonight you did not swing successfully.

Watching Steve Martin applying his wild-crazy-guy shtick to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or Alice Cooper over-enunciate “Because” from inside a God bubble are one-and-done experiences. Obscure R&B singer Diane Steinberg does fine with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But various songs by squeaky-clean newcomer Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields, the girlfriend of Billy Shears (Frampton) fall completely flat—she croons “Here Comes the Sun” and her namesake tune to little effect. (The utter lack of romantic chemistry between her and Peter doesn’t help matters).

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As soon as they let him out of the bubble, Alice headed back to the golf course.

Nowadays, the only songs from the soundtrack you’ll hear on the radio are Aerosmith’s “Come Together” and Earth Wind and Fire’s slinky funkification of “Got to Get You into My Life.” George Martin, the film’s musical director and only real connection to the Fab Four (unless you count Billy Preston), regretted afterwards that they didn’t take more chances with the material. They had the Bee Gees play it too safe, though there are some occasional treats, like Robin Gibb’s pensive “Oh! Darling.” But after our heroes have dispensed with a succession of silly-ass villains (whose brainwashing motto “We Hate Love, We Hate Joy, We Love Money” was later purchased by a Wall St. consortium) and we get to a “Sgt. Pepper” reprise finale featuring dozens of movie and music stars brought onto the Hollywood backlot, many filmgoers must have been wondering why they didn’t just stay home and play a few Beatle records instead.

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By this time, it was too late to call the whole thing off.

The movie opened to a withering volley of contemptuous reviews (Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone: “a film upon which every major decision is wrong”) but did make back it’s $18 million production budget and then some, largely thanks to foreign distribution and impulse purchases of the soundtrack album. While Robert Stigwood did end up making a profit, the film’s pariah status with the press and US/UK audiences set him back as a producer until 1996’s Evita. Sgt. Pepper also effectively ended the “acting careers” of Frampton and the Gibb brothers, while poor Sandy Farina never ate lunch in that town again. A similar cinematic exercise, Julie Taymoor’s 2007 Across the Universe, may have had a more talented director and a more plausible look, but also suffered from an awkward literalism and left behind a trail of mixed reviews and red ink. Consider this as an object lesson to “leave well enough alone,” a favorite old adage of mine that seems to have fallen out of favor in modern times. Fact is, the Beatles’ music is so vivid and timeless that it carries its own inner-eye visual legacy in the minds of both baby boomers and many others in generations that followed. Just “Let it Be” already.

Have you heard about my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey”? It’s an alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll, seen through the prism of non-fiction film, with over 170 titles reviewed. You can check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
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Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Now in Exciting VHS Format!)

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A great recent find to kick off my hypothetical $1 VHS Film Festival, as over the summer I’ll be going through the stack of videotapes that I’ve picked up for short money at various library book sales and thrift stores over the last couple of years. Although clips from the Pythons’ celebrated four-night stand at the iconic venue in 1980 have shown up in compilations, documentaries and online, the full 78-minute film (briefly released theatrically in ’82) has had a history on home video that has been sketchy at best, no pun intended.

Live at the Hollywood Bowl was a treat to watch all the way through for the first time, to get a fuller sense of the event that was the visceral highpoint of Monty Python’s popularity in the States. The troupe was met with rock-star adoration by the extremely enthusiastic southern California audience and many fans dressed the part as well—lots of them are seen sporting the handkerchief headgear of the show’s dim-witted Gumby men and one is even done up as the Pantomime Princess Margaret.

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A pensive Python group shot from back in the salad days (no, not the one directed by Sam Peckinpah). From left, Terry Jones, the late Graham Chapman and his famous pipe, John Cleese, a squished-in Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

Another plus is that they had released a few records since the TV show had ended in 1974 so there was material that was new to me or that was only vaguely familiar. Sure, you get your Silly Walks, your Argument Clinic and your Lumberjack Song. But they also perform a pair of naughty tunes from their then-current Contractual Obligation Album (“Never Be Rude to an Arab” and “Sit on My Face”) and skits where John Cleese’s pope chastises Eric Idle’s Michelangelo for a muck-up on The Last Supper (he’s painted twenty-eight disciples, three Christs and a kangaroo) and that great bit where self-made millionaires sit around with cigars and champagne trying to outdo each other on who had the toughest upbringing (“A cardboard box? You were lucky; we lived in a rolled-up newspaper inside a septic tank”).

There are also several fun segments where the group takes their act out into the audience, as when Cleese’s roving waitress tries to peddle seabird-flavored snacks during intermission.

Considering Python’s enduring popularity, maybe this concert flick will eventually get a proper release for the digital age. Does anyone out there have a copy of the short-released DVD “Live at Hollywood Bowl and Aspen”? That may be the original film plus some extra bits from the same era, because after 1980 the guys (which here also included Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes) wouldn’t get together for a proper string of live shows until (wait for it)… next month!

Their recently announced ten-night run of shows coming up in July at London’s O2 Arena will be the last time the legendary troupe will perform together (according to themselves) before they all eventually “bring down the curtain and join the Choir Invisible.” A live simulcast in over two thousand movie theaters worldwide is planned for the last of these ten shows, scheduled for July 20th. Keep a look out for details, sounds like a must-see event for us diehards.