Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"If a man smiles all the time he's probably selling something that doesn't work. " SALESMAN DOCUMENTARY MARATHON

*the title is a quote from George Carlin

Salesman-1968-Albert and David Maysles


The sound of wipers and turn signals are like the rhythms of these men’s lives. Salesman, directed by the Maysles brothers in a great, authentic cinema-verite style, follows four Bible salesmen on the road as they struggle living the life of a dying profession. The Maysles brother’s use of style creates an arena for higher believability in the drama and interactions as we follow, in a fly on the wall fashion, these salesmen into the homes of their clients, into their hotel rooms and their cars.

The striking thing about Salesman is the fact that these men are not only door to door salesman, but Bible salesmen. The idea of selling the Bible is an interesting one, as I remember it, in Christ’s words; he always spoke about giving to people, not taking from people their money. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that adds a hint more to the subtext of the narrative.

Door to door selling already has one foot in the grave, its integration with religion and the local churches brings us into a whole other realm. Not only are we seeing men desperately trying to sell to live, but we see the integration of religion and business and those who are believers thinking nothing of their priest giving these salesmen their names and addresses because of their trust in their church. It’s obviously a brilliant endorsement when the man of God himself is recommending these salesmen.

However, through an interview on the DVD special features I came to find out the Maysles brothers lack of interest in the religion/business subtext. Their focus was solely on the lives of four men as they struggle to stay afloat in their troubled job choice. We have Paul Brennan, “The Badger”; Charles McDevitt, “The Gipper”; James Baker, “The Rabbit”; and Raymond Martes, “The Bull”, all traveling together and getting along like a dysfunctional family. They all know the job is going downhill but they feel like they can each make it through. The Maysles do an outstanding job of fleshing out these characters, especially Paul Brennan. Brennan is the oldest of the group, and seems to be having the hardest time making sales.

There is a certain desperation in each sale. Not only on part of the salesman, but also on the customer being sold to. They both seem to want to get everything over with, generally with two totally different agendas. We see clients talk about money problems, while the salesman is obviously trying to be understanding without blatantly saying that they too have money problems when people aren’t buying their product. That desperation causes a great tension when we see each salesman in the home using their best lines to try and win over each family. Seeing the salesmen in the heat of the action, while also seeing them rehearse their sales pitches together, reminds the viewer of how each salesman is basically an actor. They rehearse as if they are performing improv, and thinking, what might the audience throw at me next?

Brennan’s constant struggle to find the streets where his clients are to be found is a representation of the way of the salesman, trying to find their place in a changing world. It’s a sad sight, but Brennan is so compelling. He tries to keep a smile on his face for others and the camera, constantly doing an Irish accent and joking around. It is only when he doesn’t know the camera is watching that the Maysles are able to capture his fear of the future simply by the look on his face as he stares blankly off into nowhere. This happens twice in the film and one can’t help but wonder what the man is thinking. These brief moments say so much with so little time taken. They are the film’s greatest moments.

Salesman doesn’t seem to be all dreary. It’s not hard to get a kick out of the Bible salesman conventions. Seeing a bunch of men dressed alike listening to men speak, using religious language, about business, bringing back the duality of religion and business.

“There are many people who know the Bible. There are many people who can quote from the Bible, but somewhat different, you know the business.”

The abnormality of comparing the Bible salesman to a priestly figure struck me as quite hilarious at times. Is there really admiration to be found in the profession of door to door salesman? They are akin to modern day telemarketers, and everyone seems to find them utterly disgusting (not gonna lie, I used to be one, there is good money in it).

When one man literally quotes the Bible saying “Knowest ye not that I am about my fathers business” in reference to Bible selling, I couldn’t help but chuckle. This film represents the death of the 1950’s way of life. We want our capitalism and we want our religion. Let’s not reference Christ’s contempt for the rich and adoration for the meek and lowly, let’s try and make as much money as possible but still be very upright and moral in our ways. In 1968, the year of this film’s release, America had already changed greatly. But there were those on the fringes still wearing their business framed religious glasses. The sad thing is where are we at today? Stuck in the same spot.

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