How long can you last? Did you wear the right shoes? Eat the right lunch? Are you with the right partner? Can you sleep standing up? Did you bribe the right judge? Are you prone to insanity? Are you desperate? How desperate? What will you do to win? And come to think of it—what is winning? Is winning winning? Or is winning losing?
Tricky questions, but gosh, at least we’re not asking them of life. Heck no! We’re merely talking contests. You know, for prizes and stuff. Nothing relevent in there to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, and your seemingly endless struggle to answer it while you run, ceaselessly, on the treadmill of existence, as eager as everyone else to collect your winnings. If only you could run just a tiny bit faster, you could beat these punks!
Endurance contests. That’s what this week’s Mind Control Double Feature is about. And I don’t mean playing Monopoly with your in-laws or watching every Michael Bay movie back to back. That’s child’s play. These movies are serious business.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
In those heady, drug-addled days of 1969, this is the sort of movie nominated for a boatload of Oscars. Today, you couldn’t pay a studio to make this movie. It’s based on a book of the same name written in the ‘30s about dance marathons, a nationwide fad during the Depression in which couples would dance for literally days on end, with short breaks, for a cash prize. Some of the marathons lasted as long as two months. Two months. Of continuous dancing. Needless to say, with people desperate for money, the situation was wide-open for charlatans running the shows to abuse their power.
Because in the end, that’s what the “contests” were: shows. Entertainment. The well-being of the contestants was a concern only insofar as it helped or hurt the take. And fairness? Not high on the list of concerns.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is set in ’32, at the height of the craze, at a dance marathon near L.A. The characters cover a wide range of types, of course, from the old sailor to the young couple, the wife pregnant, the wanna-be glamorous movie star, various seedy men, and the meanest, most cynical one of the bunch, Gloria, played venomously by Jane Fonda. It’s a great part and she plays it to the hilt, never once softening Gloria’s edges.
In terms of plot, there’s little to reveal. There are contestants. There is a dance marathon. There is a nefarious MC, Rocky (Gig Young). Trouble ensues, as does exhaustion. The metaphor of the movie isn’t exactly subtle—life! The biggest marathon going! And we’re all dancing!—but it’s not harped on, either. The movie just kind of rolls along in a slightly surreal fashion. It’s not flashy but it’s not boring, either. It’s funny and cynical and in every way a little bit odd.
There’s also some ‘60s style flashbacks and flashforwards edited into the proceedings, giving us a little background on Gloria’s dance partner, Robert (Michael Sarrazin), whose childhood included a horse, and whose future looks rather troubled, shall we say.
I guess you could say that any movie is a study of humans, but They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, an early directorial effort by Sydney Pollack (and one of his best), studies them with a greater sense of the anthropological than most. Watching it I felt like I was being treated as a possibly alien creature who’d asked, “So, what’s it like being a human on Earth?”
What better way to find out than to push people to physical extremes and see how they react? Whatever they do, you know it’s going to be revealing. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? presents a fictionalized version of an endurance contest, with an ending I’m not about to spoil. It’s surprising, it’s what it has to be, and in its own way, it’s very satisfying.
Hands on a Hard Body (1997)
The Hands on a Hard Body contest was one begun by a car dealership in Texas in the ‘90s that continued until ’04, when a contestant, immediately after losing, bought a gun and shot himself. Why would a contestant disillusioned with an endurance contest kill himself? Frustration? Depression? The effects of sleep deprivation causing dangerous hallucinations? One can only guess. Maybe he just wanted to be put out of his misery. I mean, they shoot horses, don’t they?
Hands on a Hard Body, the movie, chronicles the contest held in ’95. It’s brilliantly simple. Twenty-four contestants place a hand each on a new truck. The last one touching the truck wins it. You have to stand. You can’t lean on the truck. And you can’t remove your hand for even a second. Short breaks every hour, longer breaks every six. The contest (the year of the movie, anyway) lasts for twenty-seven hours. And during it, people lose their minds.
It was directed by a young filmmaker, S.R. Bindler, who’d gone to film school but was definitely making it up as he went along, thus giving the movie a casual, unpolished feeling that fits right in with the cast of characters.
Most notable among them is Benny Perkins, in the contest for his second time after winning the inaugural competition in ’92. The man gives a good interview, that’s for sure, and he’s full of heady theories on the meaning of it all.
The other contestants are less philosophical, but at least as eager to get their hands on a new truck (and never take them off!).
It’s the simplicity of the contest that’s so compelling. What could be simpler than not taking your hand off a truck longer than some other guy? From that beginning, people are driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance.
Like They Shoot Horses, we are once again faced with a silly little contest standing in for life and how we face it. Some are stoic. Some go mad. Some won’t shut up. Some wear bad shoes. And some bring nothing but candy bars.
This little doc is so compelling that somehow it’s never quite gone away. Last year a Broadway musical based on it ran for about a month (with music by guitarist/composer Trey Anastasio of Phish, no less). For years the movie was unavailable on anything but old VHS cassettes, but recently it’s been remastered for DVD and streaming, and should be readily available.
It takes no endurance to make it through this double feature. These are two entertaining flicks. But in light of this topic, for our next double feature, we will be proud to present: Pearl Harbor & The Hobbit Trilogy. Good luck, contestants!
I just happen to stumble upon this double feature of yours being totally aware of the fact that I am guilty as charged of reading in a very disorderly manner, but that’s what gives me most pleasure about your blog: the reading randomly back and forth and discovering wonderful, wicked, weird and worthy flicks and reviews of those.
I well remember watching ‘They shoot Horses Don’t They’ way back in my hay days as a student in Germany, where the film came into cinemas under the title ‘Pferden gibt man den Gnadenschuss’. By then I had just watched Klute and Cat Ballou and I was convinced that I had to watch every flick that was out there featuring lovely Jane.
By then, They Shoot Horses Don’t They somehow felt as exotic a notion as any flick about Krakatoa, Papua New Guinea or Rapanui might prove to this Middle European lass, for I could not fathom that there actually might exist anything like those marathon dance tournaments in a modern day country like the US. I watched the film with changing emotions, mostly dread, often bemusement, sometimes outrageous laughter, but most of the time a sense of unbearable embarrassment. What stuck with me was that “moderator” exclaiming frequently Yowzer Yowzer Yowzer while urging half-delirious zombies to keep dragging their feet over the dance floor. I dreaded the whole experience but somehow had to endure the very ending to learn what one gets from reaching the finish line in a marathon “dance” tournament.
Well, the final deliverance of the film on that subject felt so implausible, so absurdly conceived through pure and abstract psycho-analysis, that I didn’t buy it for a second: Someone who had dragged their exhausted bodies in zombie trance across a dance ground reminiscent of Roman games of “panem & circenses” just to win a meager amount of money probably lasting long enough to drink yourself to oblivion, would now beg for a final bullet to their head? The notion seemed result of a prolonged philosophical debate about human failings, for practically Fonda never managed to convince me of that plea of hers as something resulting as the emotional last straw.
Anyway, and may my verbose waxations” be forgiven, I am glad to be reminded of that flick after so many years. I did what I had to do: getting a DVD and you know what? After all these years it still feels as alien a thing to watch as it did in those years. And the acting didn’t get any better with the dust of oblivion …
In terms of the believability of the ending, you might want to reread the opening paragraph of the Hands On A Hard Body section, and give it a thought or two.
Granted, it’s delivered philosophically, as you point out, but it’s done so in terms of the movie’s philosophy; it’s consistent with all that comes before. For me, it works.
So, yes it’s a movie very much of its era, with all the indulgences such movies went in for, and if that’s off-putting, and I see how it can be, the movie could feel too fake and stagey to work. On the other hand, if you’re able to just go with the slightly surreal vibe surrounding it, you might fall under its spell.
And by the by, we absolutely encourage randomly stumbling through the blog at your leisure. One never knows what might turn up…