The second film of the day was completely different. A re-mastered documentary from the 1960s. New technology had transformed the possibilities of this medium. No longer the images with a voiceover, it became possible to film and record simultaneously and two masters of the art, Albert and David Maysles with a consummate editor, Charlotte Zwerin made a series of cinéma verité or “real life” films and Salesman is one such.
This is a film that puts The Bible into Bible-belt America! We follow four salesman flogging Bibles and Catholic Encyclopaedias through Boston and then through Miami. On the way they are given pep talks and instructive lectures on the “good work” that bringing the Bible into people’s lives is going to do.
With their promotional material and sample bibles, they are also evidently provided with cars: in snowy Boston they all have identical saloons, in Miami suddenly, open-topped Cadillacs!
A premier salesman gives an inspiring talk about Jesus saying “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business”, and this salesman equates flogging Bibles to people as just that “our Father’s business”. The double-entendre was not accidental!
These men are going into homes of people for whom the word ‘dirt-poor’ is no exaggeration. The terms of the deal is $1 a week payment for one year. But many of them cannot even raise that amount. There is an absolutely desperate scene in which the woman can hardly bear to say no to this frantic saleman, and even though she already has a Bible, she faces a complex problem. She doesn’t want to say no, but she doesn’t have the money to say yes. The emotional agony for both of them bleeds from the screen.
There are four salesmen that we follow, and they have varying success, but one has clearly lost his mojo, and the final shot of him, the final screen shows his face: an absolute picture of defeat and misery.
Made in conjunction with the Mid-Western Bible Society, this is cinéma verité at its most telling. A powerful and woeful story.