Standing up for what they believe: Two of the lucky contestants of Hands on a Hardbody

On the Ropes
Walker Art Center, Friday at 7:00 p.m.

Hands on a Hardbody
U Film Society, starts Friday

It's not fair: Nonfiction has nearly supplanted the literary novel, and documentary work has taken over cable TV. Still, most documentary films are the pathetic efforts of kamikaze visionaries who never receive the exposure or the financial returns that they deserve. Meanwhile, mainstream filmmakers like Rob Reiner, Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater have all made their names using verité techniques; and this summer, both The Blair Witch Project and Drop Dead Gorgeous employ faux documentary methods to tell their stories. Someday a charismatic young gun with the attitude of a rock star, the vision of a painter, and the mind of a novelist (and some very rich friends) might just blow everyone's notions of what documentary can and can't achieve. Until then, documentarians like the makers of On the Ropes and Hands on a Hardbody must consider themselves absurdly fortunate to be getting any big-screen play whatsoever.

Telling the story of three young boxers in the Bed-Stuy ghetto, On the Ropes (screening as part of the IFP/North co-sponsored Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival at Walker Art Center) is a fine film that, like Hoop Dreams, overcomes the potential shabbiness of having been shot on video. Filmmakers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen don't have to try too hard to capture compelling visuals: The neighborhood and gym are sadly photogenic, and both Tyreen Manson and Mike Tyson look-alike George Walton have a magnetic presence onscreen. Alas, we don't get much background on these fighters. (It is briefly suggested that all have dabbled in crime and/or drugs.) Mostly we watch them train for the Golden Gloves, cope with shifty promoters and self-doubt, and, in the case of Manson, the injustice of the court system. (Just before her Golden Gloves fight, she is arrested for crack possession--wrongly, we're led to believe.) The figure at the middle of all this, trainer Harry Keitt, serves his boxers as a father, mother, teacher, counselor, and trainer; this former drug addict is also living his dreams vicariously through the young boxers.

The difference between this film and the superior Hoop Dreams is that we don't spend as much time in these people's private lives. Because the context for their struggles is not as overwhelmingly clear, their losses don't seem quite as weighty. One also wonders about the filmmakers: How does the presence of a video camera affect the badgering prosecutor in Tyreen's case--or the jury? How does it impact one stressed-out boxer who loses his nerve before a fight? (One is reminded of the mole-rat researcher in Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, who obsessively studies a creature that lives in darkness; he'll never know how the light he requires affects its behavior.)

Far giddier is Hands on a Hardbody, a doc that seems vaguely inspired by Morris in its look at a bizarre, rural-Texas ritual of absurd banality and surprising dramatic scope. A car dealership holds a contest in which 20-odd people stand alongside a pickup truck, with one hand on the truck, for as long as possible. Whoever can stand there the longest wins the truck. Hardbody isn't as visually eloquent as On the Ropes, but it has a much more difficult narrative task: to compel us with a story that has no central character and no real action. Somehow it succeeds, in part because these wackos turn out to be fairly interesting people--particularly the know-it-all cowboy who speaks in serious tones about the "human drama" of it all, and the Jesus freak who bursts into divine laughter every 20 minutes.

Best of all, director S.R. Bindler resists the temptation to paint this endurance contest as an obvious metaphor for life; the film is more concerned with the practical details of the competition, which ends up lasting over 70 hours. (Yes, the participants get bathroom breaks.) Paradoxically, by keeping its feet on the ground and the microphones on, the film tells a much larger tale. It is somehow poignant that the contest's outcome is nonsensical, and that the winner seems to have learned less than anyone from the experience. It's the losers (which is almost everyone) who ponder the big questions: the reasons we choose our battles, the ways we choose to fight, and the often beautiful reasons we surrender.

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