Monday, February 3, 2014

#1,267. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Steve Liptay, Scott McKain, Ralph Wade

Trivia: Herzog used two of the featured auctioneers as actors in his later film Stroszek

As he often does, Werner Herzog travels well off the beaten path to bring us yet another unique documentary. For 1976’s How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, a 44-minute film produced for German television, Herzog takes us to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home of the Amish, for the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship, an annual event in which auctioneers from all over North America compete for the honor of being called the best.

Unlike his later documentaries (Grizzly Man, The White Diamond), Herzog doesn’t narrate How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck; the only time we hear him is when he’s tossing out questions to the various contestants (which he does off-camera), asking how they got into auctioneering and what they do for practice. Steve Liptay says he’s dreamed of being a champion auctioneer since he was six years old, and practices by spouting off tongue twisters (one of which served as the inspiration for the film’s title), whereas Ralph Wade received breathing lessons from a high opera instructor, and when driving, stays sharp by pretending each telephone pole he passes is another bidder. The championship itself takes place during an actual auction, so we get to see Steve and Ralph, as well as all the other contestants, doing their thing. And it is something to behold. How anyone can understand these auctioneers is beyond me; they talk so quickly that their words all smash together, making them damn near indecipherable. Yet there is a rhythmic quality to it all, an almost hypnotic beauty in what they do, that immediately draws you in. Even if you can’t understand them, you don’t want to stop listening.

I was fascinated by livestock auctioneers”, Herzog once said in an interview, “and always had the feeling that their incredible language was the real poetry of capitalism”. Comparing what the auctioneer does to “a ritual incantation”, Herzog added it was his dream to get all these fast-talking men and women together to stage a production of Hamlet in “under 15 minutes”. “All of the champions of this livestock auction speaking Shakespeare. That would have been great poetry”.

Yeah, I’d have loved to see that.

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