Lens on a Hard Body: Cult Documentary and Class Politics

By Gallagher, Mark | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Lens on a Hard Body: Cult Documentary and Class Politics


Gallagher, Mark, Journal of Film and Video


WHAT DRIVES FILM- AND VIDEOMAKERS to document marginal social groups? In contemporary film and video documentary, representations of marginal groups-recreational, musical, or religious subcultures; those in poverty or among the working class; and the institutionalized or incarcerated, among others-typically emerge from their subjects' participation in events deemed significant by national news media. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Brother's Keeper (1992) enter their rural, working-class milieus to investigate prominent murder trials. Michael McNulty's Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997, dir. William Gazecki) examines the idiosyncratic Branch Davidian group following its violent, nationally televised 1993 standoff with ATF agents. Another subcategory of documentary focusing on marginal groups explores the vibrant rituals, practices, or passions of an existing or defunct subculture. Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning (1990), for example, offers a view of New York City's underground drag subculture, and Stacy Peralta's Dogtown andZ-Boys (2002) offers a history of 19605 and 19705 Southern California skateboarding pioneers, men and women previously unheraided in theatrical-release film or in most mainstream media.

Some documentaries, while not dealing with subjects widely understood as political (e.g., labor disputes, criminal cases, or corporate malfeasance), advance political and cultural arguments both in their choice of subjects and in the manner the filmmakers frame these subjects narratively and visually. In this essay, I argue that the 1997 video documentary Hands on a Hard Body, an account of a Texas contest that required contestants to stand with their hands on a pickup truck for multiple days without sleep, represents the rural working class and corporate space in ways that challenge prevailing conventions of film and television representation.1 The film generates viewer interest in a corporate-sponsored contest through a focus on, and multiple interviews with, its working-class participants. Consequently, the film grants detailed attention to a social group underrepresented in mainstream media texts, cutting across racial and gender lines. Through this attention, Hands on a Hard Body highlights the latent progressive possibilities of so-called cult documentaries of eccentric individuals or subcultures.

Documentary filmmakers have chosen putatively exotic or foreign subjects throughout the history of cinema, from turn-of-the-century actualities such as the Lumières' Promenade of Ostriches or Lion, London Zoological Gardens (both 1895), to Robert Flaherty's quasiethnographic films such as Nanook of the North (1922), to the compilations of transgressive subcultures seen in Mondo Cane (1962) and its imitators. Whether produced with an explicitly ethnographic purpose or not, such films often carry the perspective of the outsider, a filmmaker culturally, economically, and geographically disconnected from the culture he or she (usually he) observes. Misperceptions, distortion, and condescension or idealization may result. Flaherty's insistence that the Eskimo subjects of Nanook don clothing and restage rituals long dormant in their culture, for example, bluntly traffics in noble-savage tropes. By contrast, in Hands on a Hard Body and some other films, the filmmakers' knowledge of or membership in the cultures they chronicle helps to de-exoticize their subjects (although, as evident in a film such as Dogtown andZ-Boys, aggrandizement and mythologizing may result).

Since the 19805, changes in independent-film distribution and the parallel growth of audiences for low-budget, nonmainstream films have led to the production of many documentary films on esoteric subjects or events.2 These films screen at regional film festivals, in urban or university-sponsored film series, in independent media centers mixing art-exhibition and theatrical-venue functions, and on niche cable channels such as the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel. …

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