A film by Robert Aibel, Ben Levin, Chris Musello, Jay Ruby
This study guide is designed to provide: summary information about the community portrayed in A Country Auction, an analysis of the auction as a socio-cultural process, and a discussion of the methods employed in the making of the film.
A Country Auction was filmed in Juniata County, Pennsylvania in 1983 by a team of scholar/filmmakers. It is based upon several years of ethnographic research which was concerned with the relationship between different forms of communicational activity and the organization of social life in the county. The idea for the film was the result of the researchers' common interest in finding a way to report a shared understanding about the culture of this community. At first, we simply participated in auctions as a form of entertainment. Later, we explored the structure and function of these events and discovered auctions to be an exciting way to illusrate many of the values and attitudes which lay at the core of life in this county. As a result of our field research, A Country Auction was produced. Our goal was to depict these customary events as social rituals; to explore their functions in the social life of the community; and to animate some of the underlying values and attitudes.
The Cultural Context of A COUNTRY AUCTION
Juniata County is a rural community of 19,000 people. It is located approximately 45 miles northwest of Harrisburg in the sharply varied ridge and valley section of southcentral Pennsylvania's Appalachian Province. Juniata is one of the smallest counties in Pennsylvania. It is isolated by the towering Blue Ridge, and Shade Gap Mountains which wall-off the length of its northern border, and the Tuscarora Mountains which form its southern border. Named for the river which flows through it, Juniata was originally populated by Native Americans from the Tuscarora tribe. The first European settlements were founded in the 1740s by Scotch-Irish immigrants, who were later joined by German settlers from Philadelphia and Lancaster counties.
German Lutherans and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians still constitute the majority of the county's population and dominate the social, economic, and cultural life of the community. It is a remarkably stable and homogeneous county where multigenerational networks of kin are relied upon as a source of mutual support throughout the full course of life. Communities are small, none larger than 900. Family and friends are the focus of economic, social and religious activity.
The county and its many hamlets and boroughs constitute a small, insular social universe where traditional values and activities remain central to daily life. It is a place where national fads and fashions are slow to gain a foothold, and where family name is important to an individual's status and reputation.
Twenty-seven percent of the county's land is farmed. Hay, corn, oats, and dairy cows are the principal sources of income. Orchard crops, apparel, poultry, lumber, and other wood products also make a significant contribution to the county's economy. People in Juniata County have relatively low incomes; in 1980 the average household income was about $3500 below the national average. Local employment opportunities are sometimes hard to find, leading over one-third of the labor force to work outside the county.
Richfield, the site of the film, is a hamlet of approximately 325 residents. It is located in a fertile valley on the county's eastern border. It is a closely knit community where a handful of prominent names account for the majority of the population. Historically, Richfield was one of the county's business centers. Farmers sold their produce and bought supplies; often bartering in general merchandise stores, like Paul V. Leitzel's, for what they needed.
Richfield's six churches, post office, two general stores, and other establishments made it a center of social life for the surrounding area. However, over the last thirty years many businesses have closed and residents have had to look elsewhere for employment. People have grown accustomed to driving to larger towns to shop. Richfield has become a residential village with a few convenience stores.
Auctions as Socio-Cultural Process
Auctions are a tradition in many parts of rural America. They are colorful and entertaining events where kids play, adults hunt bargains, and church women sell hot food and home made pies. Yet, when examined as ritual, there is more involved than the simple sale of a houseful of goods.
A Country Auction examines the social, economic, and symbolic functions of these sales by covering events prior to, during, and following the auction. In this way the film explores the auction's significance for the family whose property is being sold, for members of the local community, and for dealers and collectors who treat these events like a marketplace.
From the family's perspective, estate sales occur at the end of a life, at the end of a family's life-cycle, and within the succession of generations. In the cross-generational view of family life, estate sales are a means for dealing with death. They are rituals through which the family recalls the deceased and attempts to reconcile their loss while simultaneously working to adapt and affirm relationships among the living. They also offer a last chance to collect material symbols of the deceased and thereby sustain symbolic continuity among the generations.
At the level of community process, estate sales are ritual institutions. Auctions move the family crisis into the public sphere by prescribing traditional methods for dealing with death and the redistribution of the estate. Members of the community anticipate a sale as an important occasion at which the property and life of the deceased and surviving family may be evaluated. Everyone has a chance to examine and contemplate the possessions of a home at its end; to reminisce and buy remembrances. In this way, estate sales carry the family and community from mourning to a collective recollection of the deceased. The structure of relationships in the community is redefined and reaffirmed in the process. The deceased becomes symbolically reintegrated into the community as an ancestor. Viewed in this way, estate sales are part of a regular cycle of events -- rites of passage -- and serve as the last phase of a set of funerary rituals.
Finally, A Country Auction explores the sale as an economic event -- integral to the local economy and a source for the antique market. Sales attract dealers and collectors from outside the local community and are thereby subject to consumer trends on a national level. These outside interests have functioned increasingly in the past decade to reshape the social and symbolic aspects of auctions. The film considers the impact of these national influences on the sale.
On the Making of the Film
A Country Auction was produced as a collaborative effort by four scholar/filmmakers. We combined our abilities in conducting research in the social sciences and visual communication with training in filmmaking. Our aim was to avoid the shortcomings evident in some documentary/ethnographic films which contain too little legitimate research or emphasize the research at the expense of coherent and effective filmmaking.
This film was constructed to make socio-cultural patterns visible. We selected a visually exciting event, an auction, to use as a vehicle for our analysis, and offered the viewer the analytic means to go beyond the visual pleasure of the event. We organized the film to provide the viewer with a framework which makes the events depicted meaningful rather than simply interesting, intriguing, or exotic. Ultimately, the film is not about an auction, but about a socio-cultural system as it is manifested in an auction.
As social science, the film and its accompanying materials were designed to provide the following: contextual information about the setting, the people, and the event; a theoretically grounded analysis; and a discussion of the planning, shooting, and editing processes.
We assume that an ethnographic film must meet the same key criteria expected of written ethnographies. Too often ethnographic films are critiqued according to the conventions of realist filmmaking rather than the scholarly standards of ethnographic research. We believe that films should be grounded in theory and a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. With the aid of written materials, ethnographic films must make explicit the framework which guided the production, and information must be provided about the conditions under which the data presented was collected. Conditions for the selection, reduction, and ordering of information in the film should be available so that the value and legitimacy of the analysis may be evaluated.
In making A Country Auction, the ethnographic analysis of Juniata County and its auctions guided all phases of production. Based on our findings we established explicit criteria in searching for an auction to film. Standards were developed for deciding which family and community to film. Shooting strategies and stylistic devices were designed to make the substance of our analysis clear and to make the methods employed as transparent as possible. The "look" of this film is not the result of a belief in any one particular aesthetic of documentary realism, but due to a set of pragmatic decisions about how best to convey social science knowledge in film. Narration and a brief methodology statement were included near the beginning of the film in order to establish the guiding analysis and to make the filmmakers' purposes clear. The interviewer was often left in the frame so that viewers were reminded of the interactive quality of the scene. Disolves were used reflexively to avoid "artificial" continuity in editing. Fades to black were used to distance viewers from the narrative surface of the film and to divide theoretically distinct segments of the event. An editing structure was developed which periodically diverged from the chronology of the auction in order to develop particular concepts. Finally, this study guide and a detailed film companion were prepared to more fully explicate the research and filmmaking process. In this manner we take the viewer and reader beyond the surface of an auction to offer an explanation of its significance for those who participated in it, and to provide a body of research for evaluation.
A Country Auction was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Note - This guide is not copyrighted and may be reproduced for discussion purposes.