It’s nighttime at the Pheasant Valley Motor Lodge. A middle aged man with a suit and tie is using the phone when a wide-set man enters the room wearing a fedora and trench coat. The sparse room has a TV, two beds, two pictures, two lamps and two armchairs.
The middle aged man puts down the phone. His short blond hair is cow-licked and slicked back. “How’d ya do Charlie?” He asks.
This setup could play out in a million different ways, but what ensues is a discussion about Bibles. These men travel door to door selling Bibles.
In 1968 the Maysles brothers filmed a documentary called Salesman. Not only did they pioneer the art of the documentary, but they also captured a slice of Americana that now only exists in the Criterion Collection.
The documentary begins by following a group of four men as they knock on doors during the middle of winter. The snow is banked high, a car fishtails ahead on the road, and the days are short. A searchlight scans the quiet suburban landscape for an address that might be interested in a gold embossed version of “the best seller in the world.”
From New England to the wide open streets of Miami, these men struggle with new cities and new quotas. The Gipper, The Rabbit, The Badger, and The Bull. In the morning they share breakfast and a cigarette; in the evening they share two motel rooms.
In Chicago their fleshy, blond haired boss delivers an encouraging message. The audience sits attentively with poised cigarettes; the women are seated in the back.
“Money is being made in the Bible business. It’s a fabulous business. It’s a good business. All I can say to people who aren’t making the money- it’s their fault.
Just keep that in mind. The money’s out there- go out and get it.
I for one am sick and tired of haggling with you people and pleading with you to get you to do what’s good for you. And what’s good for us.
If you see some missing faces here, we eliminated a few men. Not because we were mad at them. Not because we didn’t like them. Not because we didn’t need the few sales that they made. But it’s a question of the sour apple spoiling the barrel.
Certain guys have a habit of getting a couple of beers and flying off the howl and badging people around and throwing their weight around.
I want to go on record and I want to tell you all that the next man that gets off base with me- I’m gonna tag him out. The ball game’s over. You got a job to do.”
Of all the documentaries playing at the Antenna Documetary Festival in Sydney, I chose to see Salesman because the Maysles Brothers have such an eye for quirky details.
When I think of being on the road, I think of freedom, blue skies and adventure. However, before the digital age, there were men with pot bellies and mortgages and wives that worried about how fast their husbands drove. Careers were made from the thrill and the dread of knocking on a stranger’s door.
“Well you can see how this will be an inspiration in the home.”
The customer is quiet, her child tinkers with the piano keys. “I just couldn’t afford it now… being swamped with medical bills.” At $49.95, the Bible is an inspirational burden.
“You won’t run into people like me all the time. You’re gonna have to work haaader.” The Rabbit and The Gipper are seated around a young woman with dark glasses and a nasal accent.
“But you men are doing fine. I like to see men out, you know, doing things on their own. Get away from companies, get away from people over you.”
The salesmen nod their heads. Yes. It’s good to be independent. It’s good to do what you please.
About: The Antenna Documentary Film Festival