God’s Salesmen: Rejected Again and Again

Close your eyes and imagine you’re in a different time and a different place. The year is 1968, arguably the most tumultuous in the American century. The world is changing, but you wouldn’t know it given your starched shirt and porkpie hat. Knock on a stranger’s door. Introduce yourself.

“Now what the hell is it all about?” is the first thing one of the salesmen (The Badger) hears in the aptly named Salesman, a documentary by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. He explains to the slightly agitated man at the door that his wife gave him his name “at the church, see” and this is “with the approval of the monsignor.” The man says he’ll have to talk about it with his wife, and the salesman walks away.

Each of the peddlers featured in Salesman has an animal nickname. There’s “The Badger,” “The Rabbit,” “The Bull” and “The Gipper.” The documentary’s premise is very simple—these are unemployed men hawking decorative Bibles for $50 a pop in 1968. In 2011, this translates to about $325.50 per Bible. It’s a losing venture for these men, and they rely upon (prey upon?) the religiosity and gullibility of their prospective customers.

“Could you say if this would help the family?” is one of their common pitches. The only problem is that most of their audience just does not need another Bible. They’re mostly working-class Catholics who mostly have Bibles and who cannot possibly afford a $50 book.

This is the original trailer for Salesman, and, characteristic of trailers made before people decided they lacked an attention span, it shows several clips of varying length that give the film context.

The end of the trailer features snippets from contemporary reviews. One of them, from Vogue captures how I feel about this film: “A marvelous movie, Salesman is a non-documentary, non-fiction, opinionated film. Salesman is a funny film about sadness, a cruel
film about sensibilities, a patter-filled film about dumbness.” The Maysles and Zwerin captured the reality of the situation in a style very similar to the cinéma vérité genre.

The days of the door-to-door salesman are long gone, at least they seem to be. The act of coming to a stranger’s door and attempting to sell something they may not want to buy seems foreign in 2011. It still happens, I’m sure, but even in 1968, the film depicts the salesmen as relics of a bygone era. The salesmen are peddling what they call “still the best seller in the world,” but these aren’t ordinary Bibles. These are men, trying to make a living, selling a product their customers already have in a package they cannot afford. And they know it. They know their careers are doomed. To lighten the mood after a failed sale, Paul (The Badger) says in a faux Irish accent, “Sammy’s been workin’ in the police force now. The boy retires, he gets a pension. He’s all set for life. He…” Then the humor fades from his voice. He looks down, reflects. They’re just men in a motel.

This film is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection and on Hulu Plus (subscription required).

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