Four relentless door-to-door salesmen deal with constant rejection, homesickness and inevitable burnout as they go across the country selling very expensive bibles to low-income Catholic families. (logline)
The recent passing of the great Albert Maysles has caused me to see fit to revisit one of his landmark documentaries, the 1968 film Salesman, made with frequent collaborators David Maysles (his late brother) and Charlotte Zwerin. There are plenty of great films in the Maysles canon, including Gimme Shelter, which captured the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated concert at Altamont Speedway, as well as Grey Gardens, a depiction of a bizarre debutante mother-daughter relationship that has since become the stuff of cult movie legend. Salesman is a lesser-known treasure, but it fascinatingly captures the workaday grind of the door-to-door soliciter.
The salesmen in question here are in the business of peddling the Holy Bible, the bestseller in the world, as they say. And it’s a fancy, complete version of it too, full of illustrations and shimmering with gold. It can be yours for just $49.95 and you can pay for it either with cash, C.O.D., or they have a Catholic honor plan (the good ol’ days). That’s when you close the deal.
Here we’re privy to those clandestine salesman moments, where they congregate after a long day, the empty-pocketed shrugging sheepishly, while a couple of guys boast about their one sale for the day, before the flying ace shows them all up, taking that coffee pot brewed for the closers. But this moment is informal, it’s social, enjoyed in sweaty suits over hard-earned cans of cold beer. Next come the sales meetings, the pound-me-in-the-ass motivational meetings. Here, you get to know all about losers and winners, making money that other people are too lazy to take, and how to stay hungry and desperate as you knock on the wood of every fresh door to a prospective sale in your fertile territory.
Sales is a business that is all about mindset. No matter what you are selling, you have to believe in it the way you believe the sun will rise in the morning. This is how that rare, superstar salesman thinks. The rest of the successful in the field are merely hungry and tenacious, they get in front of as many people as they can in a day and do their spiel, and the numbers smile on them.
It may sound dull on paper, the idea of watching a bunch of sales stiffs go on their daily grind, but Salesman is a rare, arresting working class document. Every time I see it, I’m impressed by the authenticity of the moments that the Maysles Brothers were able to capture here on such a small, simple scale that manages to be somehow poetic. It’s often said that the documentary is a form that didn’t get exciting until Errol Morris and Michael Moore came along, but it’s clear to me that the people saying that never saw a film by Albert and David Maysles. They should start with this one.
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