A Historical Review

In 1967, Sol Worth, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania (His bibliography and a selection of his publications can be found at this site) and Jay Ruby conceived of a long term research project that would explore various aspects of visual communication in a homogenous small, rural Pennsylvania community within driving distance of Philadelphia. Our colleague, psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher, on staff at the Dental School of the University of Pennsylvania informed us about a research project exploring dental education in Juniata County, PA. The demographic data the project had collected indicated that this place might be just what we were looking for. I traveled to Juniata County with Katcher in the early summer of 1977 and discovered that it very much fit our demand characteristics.

Sol Worth
Jay Ruby
Bob Aibel
Chris Musello

During the Spring of 1977, Worth and I wrote a preproposal entitled, "An American Community's Socialization to Pictures: An Ethnography of Visual Communication" and started circulating it among various funding agencies with the intention of formally submitting a full proposal in the fall. Sadly, in August, 1977 Sol Worth had a heart attack while attending the Flaherty Film Seminar and died. Needless to say his death prevented me from immediately continuing.

One year later (1978), I obtained a Temple University Summer Research Grant and spent a week in Juniata County with Bob Aibel, one of Worth's graduate students.It had been our original intention to involve as many of our graduate students as possible in this work. Upon returning with the assistance of Chris Musello,nother of Worth's graduate students, we wrote a multi-year research proposal for the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was rejected.

I then applied for a study leave from Temple University (It provided one-half year's salary) for the academic year, 1980-81 and to the National Endowment for the Arts for the additional funds. I received both. In addition, filmmaker and philanthropist, Gei Zantzinger, contributed sufficient funds to make it possible for me to spend 14 months in the field. Both Aibel and Musello were also able to fund their own dissertation field work in Juniata County. Aibel concentrated on a group of women who painted; Musello on how family houses communicate their owners' identity and I studied the various uses of photography and film in the community.

To move ahead slightly, we published a number of articles and books as a result of this research (link to Juniata County Publications). As we all progressed in our separate studies, the idea emerged that we should make a film that would somehow manifest some of the core values of the communities we were studying. During our field research all of us attended public auctions that were estate sales. This is a custom that has been a part of English and German culture since before there was a United States. One can find estate auctions throughout the U.S. today from small estates in rural communities to those offered by places like Sotheby's in Manhattan.

The sales became a major form of entertainment for all of us and a place where we could see local values enacted. An estate auction is a complex of economic and social interests. Some come to find a bargin. Others for a memory of the deceased. We observed these auction and sometimes we bought. Aibel became so enamored of antiques available that he eventually left academia and became a highly successful antiques dealer in Philadelphia at Moderne Gallery which features "vintage 20th Century furniture, lighting and accessories."

The following is an update on the three ethnographers of the production team. Chris Musello runs Sightworks in Albuquerque, N.M which "provides curation, design, fabrication, marketing and distribution service for museums and other organizations.". I continued as a professor of anthropology at Temple University until I retired in 2003 (My bio).

It was oblivious to all of us that an estate auction would make an excellent subject for an ethnographic documentary film. We decided that we need a fourth member of this team, someone who did not know this community but was an accomplished filmmaker. Ben Levin was an obvious choice. He had team taught an ethnographic film course at Temple University with Ruby for years and had produced a number of well regarded documentary films. His role was to function as the "outsider." The three of us knew the communities in Juniata County very well and as a consequence could see nuances in peoples' behavior that others might miss. Levin did not know this place and functioned as someone who questioned what we were seeing. In addition, he was to serve as the film editor again placing the rest of us in the position of explaining what we were seeing that he did not. (Today Ben is a professor of film and director of Graduate Studies at University of North Texas. See Ben's bio)

Ben Levin

We wrote a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for funds to produce an ethnographic documentary about an auction of an estate (July 1981). As it turned about the hypothetical description of the "ideal" estate sale closely resembled the one was actually filmed. To our delight, NEH funded us. In addition, we received supplimental funds from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

Over the next months we met once a week over supper to discuss how to proceed. At the same time we compiled a bibliography of scholarly writings about auctions and estate sales. We decided to attempt a somewhat unusual and at times awkward method. We would act as a collective and only reach a decision when there was consensus. By the time we finished these meetings, we were able to work well in this manner and continued to do so through the entire production and editing processes. I found that through time I realized that I was restating the same old argument over and over and without success. Eventually I learned that it was futile to try again. I think the others arrived at the same conclusion. (Link to a series of preparation documents.)

Now came the wait. We needed to find an estate sale that would display the characteristics we knew were present in most sales and a family that was willing to put up with a film crew as a time when emotions and a sense of loss were running high. We found ourselves in the strange position of having to wait for someone to die. The wait was sufficiently long that we had to ask NEH for an extension of our grant. Finally, we found a sale that looked very promising. Paul V. Leitzel of Richfield died.

Paul Leitzel in WWI uniform

He had been the propitiator of the last General Store in Richfield. According to his daughter, Lura Leitzel Sollenberger, he first worked in Garman's Store.

In 1916, he bought the store.

Leitzel store in the 1920s

Earlier Bob Aibel and I had visited the store when we noticed some old photographs in the window. We inquired if they were for sale. They were not. Mr. Leitzel was sitting around a stove with some of his friends which is known locally as "loafing." While our research had not been in Richfield, the homogeneity of the various Juniata County communities meant we knew a lot about this place in advance of our filming.

The store in 2007

We contacted Paul Leitzel's son, Celo, a Lutheran minister in nearby Selinsgrove, PA to ask his permission to make the film about his father's estate sale. As executor of his father's estate, Celo had the authority to grant permission without consulting anyone. Instead he discussed the idea with his sister, Lura and other family members. They all agreed to allow us to film. The sale was scheduled for June 11, 1983.

Click to Enlarge

Ben Levin suggested two of his former students as crew members - Tom Ott as cameraman and Jan Krawitz as soundperson. They proved to be an excellent choice. As the sale was a complicated event we needed to add other members to our crew - additional camera work was handled by Wayne Paull and Arthur Goodell while Richard Stobach and Rhonda Richards served as additional sound people. Bruce Litecky doubled ad a sound person and did the lighting of the interior of the store. We used Francis Cox, a still photographer, to cover the sale. Finally we hired Jonathan Mertz as security.

Country Auction Film Crew

Tom Ott filming ChrisMusello interviewing Lura Shellenberger

We arrived in the community several weeks prior to the sale to discover as much as we could about the activities we wished to film. For example, we knew that a large apple butter kettle was to be sold.

The Leitzels was able to tell us that it would probably be bid on by the granddaughter of the original owners.

And indeed it was and we were able to follow the kettle to its new home and interview its owner.

 

As we wished to illustrate the idea that things take on various meanings according to where they are located and who owns and uses them. We planned to follow several additional objects from the sale to where their new owners placed them (See Arjun Appadurai's book, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1988 for an excellent exploration of this idea). Perhaps the most successful of these explorations was with the "loafer" benches. They were purchased by Joe Herman, a "notorious" antique dealer who became a major personage in the film.

He outbid a local man who had sat on the benches as one of the "loafers." He wanted them as a remembrance of his loafing days.

At Herman's an antique dealer from Kansas purchased them. In turn they would bought by another dealer who sold them to an interior decorator for a fraternity house waiting room.

Our filming began with the cleanup and preparation for the sale. The store had not been cleaned up for a long time and there were literally hundreds of items to be examined . The family, with the assistance of the auctioneer, had to decide what was to be sold and what was to be discarded.

Watching this process was difficult, It became clear to us that the auctioneer was oriented to a local market and was unaware that "country store" items such as stationary or old bills brought a high price in areas like New York City.

As we watched them sort out things and place some items on the burn pile we faced a real moral and intellectual dilemma, should we intervene and tell the family that they could realize a much greater profit if they kept those things and notified antique dealers outside the area or simply observe what they were doing. If we intervened, we decided we would be making a film about us intervening in their lives. As uncomfortable as it made us, we remained silent. This is the kind of conundrum that field researchers often face and never feel good about their ultimate decision (See Robert Aibel's article, "Ethics and Professionalism in Documentary Film-making. In Image Ethics, edited by Larry Gross, John Katz and Jay Ruby. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. pgs. 108-118 for more discussion of these sorts of problems).

With the initial filming of the "redding up" of the store (a local expression which means to clean up and place things in their proper order), we found that because we did not discusswhat we wished them to do while we were filming, they were unclear as to how they were to behave when the camera was on them and thought they were to remain silent. At the end of the first day we had corrected this misunderstanding and for the remainder of the filming the family and others were able to play the accepted role in a documentary film and pretend the camera and crew were not there.

The Friday night preview exceeded our expectations. Many people came even though there was no formal announcement of the event. In addition, to examining what was to be sold, locals recalled their memories of being in the store.

As one of our intentions was to explore how objects get their meanings, these conversations strongly supported our notions. On a technical note, I was very pleasantly surprised at how the lighting crew lit the interior of the store in such a way that it did not look like it was lit. The illusion of realism is a tricky business.

Our filming of the day of the sale started shortly after sunrise and continued until the early evening. With two crews filming, the four of us were hard pressed to decide what should be filmed. Very early that day it became obvious that the antique dealer Joe Herman was to become a pivotal character in the sale.


One film crew sensed that before any of the producers did. We discussed/argued about what to do and fortunately the crews' notion of following him more than we had planned prevailed. As you can see in the film, Joe Herman is a character hard to forget and one whose actions are very supportative of our thesis.

 

 

As we came to know the content of the sale, some of us really wanted to purchase a "souvenir" of the event. Another moral dilemma! Clearly we were all too busy to stop our work with the film to bid on items. So we waited until the Sunday after the sale and went to Joe Herman's establishment to film him selling some of the items he had acquired and to buy things for ourselves (See the last scene in the film).

 

I

bought the desk that Paul Leitzel made for this son, Celo from an old pump organ. It sits in my house today.

As it was impossible to auction off everything in the store, it was decided to sell the small remaining items the following Friday evening. What was sold were literally the dregs - wire coat hangers, cans of partially used cleaners, etc. The result became a short film "Can I Get a Quarter?" which we conceived of as an suppliment to the Auction film.

 

No one was willing to distribute this short film and it languished until now. The film clearly demonstrates that in a socio-economic system like this one even the smallest things are recycled. These "junk" auctions are joined by the very common yard sales where family recycle their children's' outgrown clothes and other usable but discarded objects.

Our initial editing actually began while we were still shooting with screenings of our "rushes" at the house Chris Musello and Ben Levin had rented. And then later that summer, we began in earnest. We made an arrangement with Gei Zantzinger, our benefactor and fellow filmmaker, to use his editing machine. That meant we would be editing in the basement of his lovely country home in Great Valley, PA instead of the sterile editing suites that are normally available. As we were all academics, the editing had to be truncated in order to fit with our teaching schedules. We first worked until the fall semester began and then met periodically over the academic year 1983-4 and then again fulltime during the summer of 1984. I suppose that the editing took longer than it would have if we have been a traditionally hierarchical group with one person having the final say. Instead we discussed, debated and at times fought over every decision - great or small. There were times in which the fabric of this collaboration was sorely tested. Here is one example. Aibel, Musello and myself wrote the voice-over narration that begins the film. We had a very difficult time agreeing upon how much we could generalize about estate sales. I wanted to say they were commonplace throughout the U.S. and Musello argued for a much more geographically narrow generalization. Aibel was fairly neutral. In the end, the narration was very limited as to how much this estate sale is similar to others. This argument took longer than it should but we still managed to continue our cooperative model. In addition I was constantly frustrated with the limits of established documentary customs. There were times when I wished to point out things that an audience could not know but if they did it would enhance their understanding of the event they were watching. An example of this would be the scene in which Joe Herman attempts to convince an auction goer to buy a basket he has just bought. To know that the auction goer was a local minister would make this scene has much more meaning. Today we can make these comments available through this document.

 

 

By the beginning of the fall, 1984 the film was complete. We decided to have the world premiere at Paul Leitzel's Lutheran Church in Richfield, PA on October 27, 1984 and at Juniata High School the nest evening. We circulated an invitation. The afternoon of the 27th, we had a private screening for the family. The response was, by and large, very favorable. Doris Leitzel, Paul's daughter-in-law, was a bit surprised as she thought the film would be more of a biography of her father-in-law but in the end she came to appreciate it. Perhaps the most awkward moment came with the family who bought the store. Because of a scheduling problem, we asked the family to let us film them during an important family gathering. They had to stop what they were doing to accommodate our needs. The resulting footage was unusable. It is often the case that the subjects of a documentary film do not understand the idea of a shooting ratio. We shot about 20+ hours and used only 58+ minutes of it.

Our agreement with the National Endowment for the Humanities required that we make the film available for public television. This meant that we had to make the film a television hour in length. While I cannot be certain I think we might have produced a different film with a different length had we been free to do as we wished.

We selected the PBS station closest to the site of the sale - WPSX-TV, University Park, Pa. They scheduled the premiere public television broadcast on May 14, 1985. Subsequent to that over sixty PBS stations elected to obtain and screen the film through The Independent Program Service for broadcast as the film was made available to them at no cost as per our agreement with NEH (List of Screenings and Awards).

Finally we obtained a distribution contract from the Media Services on Penn State University for 16mm and VHS video distribution. We produced a study guide and a synopsis to go with the film. In time, the film was reviewed by a number of academic journals (List of Reviews).

I have only now(2008) come to realize that the film we made was innovative even "prematurely avant garde". It was based upon our extensive ethnographic knowledge of the community and the socio-economic practices associated with auctions as a means of disposing of someone's estate. Having witnessed over one hundred estate sale auctions, we were well aware of the key socio-cultural elements of a sale. We developed a theory about auctions that caused us to structure the film in a certain way. This approach was in direct opposition to then dominant documentary convention of making a film that was a "voyage of discovery." We knew how the events unfolded and we were prepared to film them as they appeared. We also knew the community well enough to know in advance many of the people who would be there and why. For example, the family member looking to acquire an object as a way to remember the deceased or the antique dealers looking for things to be bought cheap and then sold high. We pre-interviewed possible subjects to see how they would react to being filmed. When it came to editing the film we again consciously violated to popular conventions of the documentary. As we did not shoot an observational film where a chronology appears to flow naturally through the scenes, we deliberately interrupted scenes and jumped around in time in order to explore our ideas. We used voice-over narration when necessary to make our point of view explicit. Interviewers were in the frame and their questions heard so that viewers could understand that they were looking at an interaction created for the camera. While I was frustrated that we were unable to me more reflexive, we felt that the resulting film accomplished what we intended. Apparently we were wrong as none of the reviewers appeared to understand what we had done. I know of only one commentary about the film that indicates that the write understood what we were trying to do. I quote it in its entirity:

A Country Auction: the Paul V. Leitzel Estate Sale(1984) provides a fine example of visually expressive and reflexive scientific film. This anthropological film, produced by Robert Aibel, Ben Levin, Chris Musello and Jay Ruby, is about the social, personal, and economic aspects of an auction of the last 'general store' in a rural community in Pennsylvania. The film follows the relatives of the deceased manager on the eve of the public auction, as they go through all the objects and comment on them. Then the day of the auction is shown: members of the community turn up in large numbers to look for bargains, to purchase a memento, or to swap memories and take a final look at the store. After the big auction, the camera follows a number of sold items to their new owners. At the basis for the production lies the belief that this kind of public auction serves various social purposes: a household is physically dismantled, so that the next of kin of the deceased person experience the disappearance of their relative very intensely, the members of a community are given an opportunity to acquire certain objects (with a primarily symbolic/emotional value), antique dealers can make a living and they distribute a considerable share of the goods over large areas. The film uses filmic techniques and conventions very thoughtfully in order to construct a scientific argumentation. Both the intentions of the makers and the various methods employed are dealt with explicitly in this production. The actual production process of the film and the film-makers are also a topic of this visual study, so that the role of the researchers and the research process are not concealed. Having designed their production as social science, the authors subjected their film and its accompanying materials to similar (though not necessarily the same) and equally rigorous standards as those that are imposed on written forms of science. The 'study guide' that accompanied the film provided the necessary context. It also elucidated the theoretical framework surrounding the production and revealed and substantiated each of the cinematographic choices made (Pauwels 2002).

An excerpt from "Filmed science in search of a form. Contested discourses in anthropological and sociological film-making" by Luc Pauwels (New Cinemas Volume 2 Number 1 2004). Available online Here

We had hoped to produce a study film film which was not unlike A Country Auction Revisited but we could not find any granting agency willing to fund the project(Link the preproposal for the Study Film - an early version of A Country Auction Revisited.). We also planned to write a study companion to the film. We never managed to do so. (Link to a propspectus for the companoin and an incomplete draft of one portion of the companion.)

It is now twenty-five years later and many things have changed. Low cost 16mm production is a thing of the past. Independent films are more and more being circulated as DVDs. Multimedia projects are growing in popularity among academics. So we are now able to expand on our original intentions and produce "A Country Auction Revisited."

- For a discussion of The 25th Anniversary Screening of "A Country Auction" and preliminary filming for "A Country Auction Revisited, click here Anniversary Screening