When I recently saw Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, I said this:
"Herzog movies are just varying degrees of great (I've never seen a bad one)."
I suppose I was setting myself up for a discovery of failure then... and I have discovered it! I have discovered a bad Werner Herzog movie. It's called How Much Would Would a Woodchuck Chuck? and it's from 1976 and it's a short doc on the art of auctioneering.
Okay... just so we're clear, "bad" is a relative term. It's only 44 minutes long, for one, and it's bookended by fifteen to twenty minutes or so of good stuff. His interviews with the auctioneers that begin and end the film are stuffed with the sort of terrific observations that he's known for. He always gets the oddest stories from people; ones that tell you heaps about them in the briefest of instants, and it's always fascinating.
But then there's the centerpiece of the film, which is approximately twenty straight minutes of us watching these men (and one woman!) perform their derring-do of vomiting auction-speak at a billion syllables per second at us over a bunch of ugly cows. And it feels endless. There's literally no break; it just shows us nearly every contestant at this enormous auctioneer competition trying their hand at selling a cow to the highest bidder. I eventually had to just fast-forward through it, which PAINED me. I've never wanted to fast-forward through a Herzog movie in my life! I tried to hold out as long as I could... but I couldn't. I was defeated.
I did not watch any of the extras on the disc, but it seemed fairly obvious that the three docs I watched last evening (the other two of the set, La Soufriere - in which Werner wanders around an abandoned island where a volcano is about to explode - and The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner - a doc on the Swiss ski-flyer, who kept breaking records left and right but didn't seem to want to - are fantastic and highly recommended) were all done for German television and were meant as educational, and I imagine the art of cattle auctioneering was probably more interesting to the foreign set of eyes the film was intended for. Those that had never seen into that world, that is. I imagine these auction folks seemed that way to Werner back then, as well. Not that I spent my childhood wrangling steers or anything, but the country-folk depicted seemed pretty average to this American one generation off being raised on a farm.
All that said, the film did allow Werner to get off this beautiful insight (via):
"I believe auctioneering to be the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism."
God I love this man.