A vérité masterpiece of the bullshit that America sells itself, Albert and David Maysles’ Salesman, from 1968, documents a way of life that was dying even then — the soiling grind of getting by as a door-to-door salesman, talking people who don’t want you there into buying junk they don’t need with money they’re almost certainly short on. Salesman’s milieu of motels and porkpie hats may have passed, but its broader diagnosis has lost none of its truth. In this huckster America, everyone’s a mark — especially the schnooks who think they’re the sharks. (The film is screening in a new 2K digital restoration on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.)
The Maysles brothers and co-director Charlotte Zwerin capture two different sorts of on-the-level cons. First is the doc’s main event, the peddling of Bibles to families on the outskirts of Boston and in Opa-locka, Florida. The filmmakers follow a quartet of not-especially-religious sharpies and wannabes as they work what they call “the territory,” just like the fast-talkers in The Music Man. Some seem born to the life; others, like Paul “The Badger” Brennan, seem to be trying to look like they’re born to it, talking the talk and selling the idea of themselves as salesmen. (He sings, “I wish I were a rich man” while driving from the home of one lead to another.) They’ve given each other nicknames, mostly derived from animals: The Badger, the Bull, the Rabbit and the Gipper, that last one irresistibly foreshadowing the coming age of Ronald Reagan.
Working on behalf of the Mid-American Bible Company, and always blessed with the imprimatur of a local church, this crew turns up at the homes of parishioners with an offer that would strike most of us as patently refusable: “The Bible runs as little as $49.95,” the heart of the pitch goes, “and we have three plans on it.” Fifty years on, scenes of the men in the kitchens and living rooms of believers still sting and discomfit. “You can see how this would be an inspiration in the home,” Brennan muses to a mother who’s clearly not interested in buying but also seems torn up at the thought of disappointing the salesman — or the divine future he insists this Bible represents. Then Brennan turns to flattery, pointing to the woman’s young daughter: “She’s bright — she’s pretty like her mother!”
This is all shot in crisp black-and-white, with the participants exhibiting no awareness of the cameras. The technique is transparent, in its way, which makes it doubly important to consider it as the film unfolds. When a woman opens the door and refuses to let the salesmen in, is she reacting to the film crew — is this her first inclination? When another does admit him, and the filmmakers, too, has the moment already been worked out in advance? The framing is too precise to have been arrived at haphazardly, so moments of tense real life that we witness here are perhaps made more so by the fact that we’re able to witness them, that the filmmakers have entered these homes and fussed with their equipment and made the participants in each scene only more self-conscious. It’s a fruitful challenge to try to tease out the layers of performance in the standoffs between salesmen and customers, to mull over the put-on regretfulness of the people not buying. Is it for our benefit that they’re so broken up over not wasting their money? Is it to let us know that they really are the kind of people who would treasure a Bible?
When a mark flat-out refuses, the salesmen keep pushing. One woman says, quietly, that she’d have to consult with her husband about such an investment. The salesman asks if maybe he has a birthday coming up — wouldn’t this Bible be good for that? One chipper woman who actually buys chirps, after the sale is complete, “Thank you, I just hope I get around to reading it!” That’s the genius of this not-quite-a-con: Since faith is involved, many of the marks believe that not to buy, not to relish and study this lavish tome, is to be a disappointment. Brennan wishes he was a rich man, and his hope of getting there is the exploitation of believers’ own wish — not to be impoverished of spirit.
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But it’s not just the targets who worry over their own inner worth. The salesmen, too, are being sold. The difference is that the belief system they’re buying is the one that has come fully to rule American life in the decades since. At a sales meeting with other Bible pushers, they’re lectured by a muckety-muck from the Bible company: “All I can say to people who aren’t making the money — ‘It’s their fault.’” The salesmen then have to stand up and declare how much money they each vow to make in the next year. It’s the implicit promise these guys would have picked up from Dale Carnegie, Horatio Alger and Amway: If you’re not rich, you didn’t try hard enough. Never mind that even the world’s best-selling book doesn’t sell itself, that the life is hard, the people broke, the yeses and the deposits slow to come. If you can’t move the product, it’s on you.
Later, at a conference in Chicago, the company’s founder makes even more explicit the link between success as a salesman and success as citizen and soul: “Some of you at one time or another may or may not have held a higher income, but you’ve never held a higher position of esteem in the minds of the world or in your own satisfaction.”
That’s absurd, of course. Guilt-goading Christians into wasting their money on a scriptural tchotchke is the key to the world and the self’s esteem? Such claims might have jolted audiences in 1968 but today — in the era of the prosperity gospel and the president who’s qualified simply because of his public performance of business success — they’re just something like the headwaters of the contemporary American mind. Success is its own virtue, and the lack of it, even in a gilded age of rapidly increasing income inequality, just means you’ve failed yourself, your family, your country and your God. Salesman finds early adopters of this nation’s new creed selling a gaudy parody of the old one.
Salesman screens Sunday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre and Friday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Spielberg at the Egyptian Theatre; americancinemathequecalendar.com.