Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#122: Salesman

(David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1968)

Good lord, what a depressing movie. The Maysles brothers have made a number of other rough films, two of which - Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens - are represented in the collection. But none of the films I've seen from them compare to Salesman, which depicts a group of door-to-door bible salesmen. These men - straight out of Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross, only worse - are alternately pathetic and predatory. They live horrible lives barely scraping by in seedy hotel rooms conning poor and ignorant people out of their desperately needed money (the bibles cost around 300 dollars in today's money).

I guess the question to ask would be is it worth it? As a sharp critique of its subject and an examination of American capitalism at a turning point (when this type of con was dying out - it would eventually move to television on infomercials and HSN) the film is quite successful, but as a viewing experience I'm not so sure I would recommend the film. It can be oddly entrancing to watch a man bulldoze a weaker mark right in front of you - and it has the kind of power pieces like the two mentioned above can't produce with fictional situations. However, the train wreck quality of the film is undeniable, making this uneasy viewing for people with a heart. Ultimately, we can all be thankful that this sort of industry is now marginalized if not mostly eliminated (as far as I know), even as people continue to con people out of their money based on their faith. It's hard to imagine anything more cynical, and watching it unfold in front of you isn't exactly an enjoyable experience, regardless of the quality of the work.

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