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Salesman (1968)

Salesman (1968)

Directed by: Albert and David Maysles

Like many great films, Salesman seems to have only improved with age, but what has allowed it to age in a particularly interesting way is how it plays along with the inevitable evolution of society. An era passes, only to give rise to the next. One can’t guess that the Maysles brothers had such foresight to know how their film would be perceived by later generations, but you can sense they were fully aware of the weight of the moment they were documenting.

The documentary film follows four Irish Catholic bible salesmen, as they plot and slog through the ins and outs of the job. What makes the film so uniquely fascinating is how the Maysles brothers place the viewer in the living room of American families during a time of social upheaval in the country. We are watching the American way of life as it was known sputter out right before our eyes. The families the salesmen visit are varied in race and religion, many seem to continue to cling to the moral ground of religion, but also seem to have strayed into a more practical observation of God and religion, one that does not leave room to spend fifty dollars on a bible.

Socially and economically the world is changing all around these men, but they merrily plug along, smiling at every face that greets them, completely oblivious to the indifferent and somewhat puzzled faces that are handed back to them. Everyone in the film seems to be cognizant of the bible salesman’s doom lying just around the bend, save for the bible salesmen themselves. The men still speak of selling bibles with such fervor and zeal, as if it were still the 40’s or 50’s, and every home was in desperate need of an impractically sized, illustrated bible for the foundation of their home, ignoring and even at times snickering at the idea that a family would find it impractical, and never picking their heads up to notice how “strange” the world has become, never wanting to notice.

This is not a religious film by any means. The men could very easily have been selling encyclopedias or dictionaries. It is, once again, principally a film that comments on culture at large. The Maysles brothers place a marker in the ground denoting one of the many cultural deaths in Americana – the death of the door to door salesman, selling goods based on stereotypes speculated from the nationality of a person’s last name, asking for just a moment of one’s time, before easing into your favorite chair, and ruffling the kid’s hair as he curiously peaks in on the conversation.

There is a poetic moment in the end of the film. The star of the film, Paul Brennan, after struggling threw much of the film, exhausting all of his excuses, has finally been relieved of his job. He strains his wrinkled face, and does his best to keep a sense of humor about the situation, while his friends try not to look at the ghost before he exits, none of them seeing how close they all are to being ghosts themselves.

James Merolla