Sunday, August 21, 2011

One of the Most Appalling Documentaries ....Ever!

That is the 1968 effort Salesman, directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin. From he outset the film has you staring agog at the sheer chutzpah of four Bible-peddling miscreants as they go door to door trying to push (the correct word) $50 bibles onto hapless people who obviously can't afford them. At multiple points, as when their spiel turned to the "dearly departed" spouse or relative (who would want them to have something to remember them by) you wanted to reach into the set and wring their slimey necks.

The actual filming was done in 1967 or early 1968, in any case when the U.S. dollar value was worth roughly 4 times what it is now. In other words, those $50 bibles would cost at least $200 in today's dollars, maybe more like $220 (given the dollar's deterioration in the last few months). Now, WHO the hell today would shell out $220 or so for a bible, even a gold engraved one?

After the film was first released, a Wiki entry notes that Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the film and wrote, "...[the] documentary feature about four door-to-door Bible salesmen who move horizontally through the capitalistic dream

Well, to me it was more the epitome of the capitalistic nightmare as John Kenneth Galbraith first wrote about in his memorable book, The Affluent Society. He observed the craft of advertising in general - and sales termites in particular, in their endless efforts to sell people things they don't need, and can't afford...and which can only put them deeper in debt. That is certainly the case with the four peddling pests featured in this film who ply their wares in Chicago, Boston and Miami.

Miami was the most poignant segment for me (since I lved there), and especially the area code given to one of the pests, in order to confirm the purchaser would be buying the bible on credit for only $5 a month, for 14 months. Even as the poor woman kept telling the pest she wasn't sure she could get the money to pay for it, he simply said no problem - credit solves everything. But I happened to know the 33054 zipcode at that time was barely middle class and most of those people earned not quit $400 a month. In other words, the purchase of that inane book would have removed nearly one eighth of their purchasing power for a month!

The sleaziest part was how these 2-legged insects incessantly used inside knowledge, gleaned from culling info in obituaries - or maybe phone calling around - as a device to gain the preliminary confidence of each mark. Thus, when they did arrive at the door, they'd have their spiel all set, like "Good day, Madam, is this Mrs. Gullible to whom I am speaking? I received a request to stop by!"


"Good evening, Ma'am. Is Mr. Dressler here? Oh, he's deceased? Well he specifically had asked me to deliver this beautiful bible before he left this world!"

The odious, predatory tactics never end, and always begin with weedling a way into the heart, confidence or sympathy of the vulnerable person (one of whom admits to having been beaten by her father), either directly or using indirect techniques of pseudo-second hand familiarity as exemplified by one pest(Paul Brennan, a middle-aged Irish-American Roman Catholic from Jamaica Plain, Boston) who tells a forlorn Catholic lady in Miami that he grew up in the same neighborhood as her parish priest, in ...what else...Jamaica Plain, Boston!

By the end one can't help but applaud the guy (Brennan) who can't "meet his quota", especially as it entails the cruel manipulation of fellow humans - without the confidence, or critical thinking ability to fend him (and his fellow parasites) off. (And you have to laugh when they're all on one mini-sales meeting, and one of the group complains about "a guy who wouldn't even open the door". Adding: "There's one of them in every neighborhood"! Damned straight, and thank goodness for the occasional atheist, or at least skeptic.

If this is how capitalism secures its so-called footing, by preying on the weakest and most impecunious, then it damned well deserves to fail.

Perhaps the most heart-rending scene (but at the same time encouraging) is near the end when Brennan is pressuring a poor Miami widow to purchase a bible in her husband's memory. She resists, saying over and over "I just can't afford it...not now, and I don't know when". He persists, offering special "terms", or "C.O.D." (collect on delivery") but after about six cycles of this, she remains one can't help but cheer her on(Don't buy the damned thing! You can't afford it!).

Even as he almost lovingly strokes the cover of this embossed, special bible, the lady shakes her head. Her answer is final. 'NO'. At this point one is enhtralled by the woman's psychological strength despite the high pressure sales tactics to empty her bank account. You leave the film very proud of her, and knowing what her financial position is, and that any such purchase of an over-priced book would set her back seriously.

Brennan walks away beaten like a whelp, and one hopes his sleazy, grafting partners meet with the same fate.

No comments: