Redemption and faith…for only $49.95.
What is truly irritating to you? Nails on a chalkboard? Getting a wood splinter in your toe while walking on a deck? Eating a piece of chicken and getting that little piece of bone stuck in your throat? Or how about the incessant knock of a door-to-door salesman pitching everything from cosmetics to God's authoritative word? If the latter is on your list, than you just may want to see the Maysles brother's 1968 cult classic documentary Salesman. A look into the world of the walking, talking peddler, Salesman makes its DVD debut in a new edition of Criterion.
Facts of the Case
When some Bible salesman make their way across town selling their gold embossed product, a few cameramen decide to follow them around and wind up with the documentary Salesman. This film follows four salesmen in 1968: Paul "The Badger" Brennan, James "The Rabbit" Baker, plus two other men, one known as "The Bull" and the other known as "The Gipper." All four of these guys have one single goal: to sell as many biblically-themed products as they can. Along the way, we experience the joys and (mostly) disappointments of trying to make it in this rough and tumble business. Our focus is "The Badger," a sad and very frustrated individual who is struggling with trying to get even one sales pitch across to many uninterested customers. Be it wind, rain, sleet, or snow, the salesmen continue to ply their trade all over the land, selling not only the word of God, but even their own souls to make the sale.
Salesman is a very odd and fascinating story. You don't so much watch the film as you do feel it. There were moments that felt so tough and real to me that I almost could have been right next to that certain salesman back in 1968. At one point Paul "The Badger" drives around in the harsh winter weather and I could have sworn I knew exactly where he was and how he felt. I have no idea if what I am saying makes any sense—the point is, I know what these guys were going through. I'm not a salesman and I don't peddle Bibles to make a living, but it's as if I experienced some alternate universe where I knew what it was like to be a sad sack salesman. Salesman is that kind of movie.
I was forced to watch Salesman when I was in film school. Being the obstinate student that I was, I watched maybe ten minutes of the film then fell asleep. Don't even get me started on what happened when I had to sit through Citizen Kane (about now you're probably wondering how the hell I got a job working as a movie reviewer, eh?). When I was offered the chance to review Salesman: Criterion Collection, I thought maybe it was time I grew a little as a reviewer and watched something that was cinematically important. I must say that I really think that Salesman is a worthwhile movie. Not only is it a time capsule for the end of the '60s, but also a portrait of an occupation that doesn't really exist anymore. I don't know about you, but I can't remember the last time someone came to sell me anything door-to-door (not counting kids selling chocolate bars or magazines).
Salesman is ultimately a very depressing film. Away from their families and their lives, the salesmen in the movie struggle to make ends meet in a way that is somewhat degrading and very, very hard. My father owns a packaging company, and is also a sales representative for his company. He does very well at his work, enjoys it, and knows the ins and outs like the back of his hand. The Bible peddlers, on the other hand, seem to be the complete opposite of my father; depressed, frustrated and disparaged, they trudge through their work knowing that the next pitch will most likely end in without a sale. Paul Brennen is the man that none of us want to end up like. His coworkers seem to find his endless prattling about his dwindling sales repetitive and boring. During the end of Salesman Paul is forced to partner up with another man, and subsequently is humiliated in front of customers for his lack of "spark" or enthusiasm. A scene featuring Paul using some questionable tactics makes the audience wince even more. The pain and depression on Paul's face and in his voice is evident from the beginning—he is a man who has suffered long and hard, and his time as a salesman is coming to a close. We empathize with him yet understand his co-worker's annoyance. As it states in the liner notes, Paul is "the person—the future—you hope not to be."
However, the movie does offer funny moments during the dark ones. Some of the dialogue between the men is lighthearted and warm, and a break during the night leads to a dip in a hotel pool that is relatively humorous. While some of the sales pitches to housewives and the underprivileged are disheartening, there is also some levity present. "The Rabbit" is especially interesting to watch, a snazzy showman who talks and talks and talks until he's close to being blue in the face. Salesman should make viewers think long and hard about what careers they choose (or have chosen). As the saying goes, count your blessings, for there are always those that are more miserable than you.
Salesman: Criterion Collection is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The transfer has been cleaned up and looks good, if not excellent. The film was shot in black and white, and as such features a softness that is apparent throughout the whole film. Blacks and grays were usually level, though grain, dirt and scratches abound. This is to be expected, especially for such a old, low-budget feature.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono and works fine in the confines of the film. Salesman didn't require a new remix, and the hollow mono track almost enhances the lonely feel of the film. Dialogue was clear with only a small amount of distortion present. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Salesman: Criterion Collection features a nice array of extra material, starting with a commentary track by filmmakers Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. This track is invaluable, with both Maysles and Zwerin filling in gaps or questions the audience might have about the production or the featured players. Interesting facts abound ("The Rabbit," if you look closely, has long deformed hands with missing fingers, Maysles points out), and there is much discussion about the cameras used and the personal feelings the makers had about the salesmen.
An interview by Jack Kroll with the Maysles Brothers from 1969 is featured, another great tool on how to learn how the brothers made this film and what their thoughts were about the characters in their movie. "The Rabbit" on NPR is a ten-minute radio program with James Baker discussing the film and his role in selling the Bibles back in the '60s (he eventually gave it up five or so years later). Some behind-the-scenes photos are included of both the salesmen and the filmmakers at work, plus a weird theatrical trailer presented in full frame and some filmographies on the filmmakers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the movie is interesting, some people might be put off by its slow pace or dated look. I have to advise viewers to stick with this film, as it has a lot of interesting things to say about the human spirit and what men will do to acquire the almighty dollar.
Not to be missed, Salesman is a fascinating chronicle about a bygone era, a job that no longer exists, and the lonely feeling that sometimes comes with selling the scriptures door-to-door. Criterion has done a very nice job on this disc, making sure that the video and audio portions are well produced and mostly clean. Extra features-wise Salesman makes the grade, featuring some insightful material that should shed more holy light on this documentary. While the price may be a bit steep (well over $30), I can easily recommend this title as a rental.
Salesman is free to go and share its despairingly weird tale around the globe! Go forth, my sons, and spread the word!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Filmmakers Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
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