In the late 1980s, between semesters at college, I worked as a field canvasser for a public interest research group, or PIRG, in towns all around Massachusetts. This was fundraising; really just a gussied-up form of sales, where the product sold was the satisfaction of feeling you’d done the right thing to make the world a better place. The summer I was there, we were trying to fund a lobbying campaign for statewide recycling. We went door to door, making mostly cold calls, in communities where we weren’t necessarily well known. Or if we were known, we weren’t necessarily well liked.
That’s what this short movie personally took me back to: going around to door after door, day after day, screwing up my courage every ten minutes to go through the whole awkward pitch all over again. My script was short—I just needed to hit a few key points—but it was hard to stay on track since, from the moment that door opened, the person inside was pretty much on a mission to stop me from delivering it.
I think most of us believed in the cause, but we also just wanted the sale. We were paid on commission. People would regroup at the end of the day and go over their successes and failures. The weirdo who didn’t donate but spent almost an hour playing you opera records. The other weirdo who produced a checkbook from his back pocket on the spot and gave you a $500 contribution. Or, in the shorthand we used, a $500 con.
Of course, Gary and Chemtrails326 are in a somewhat different situation. What Gary is hawking, not very skillfully, is the opportunity to make a lot of money, a too-good-to-be-true offer that really should make everyone suspicious. The funny thing is, what seems too good to be true is often too good to pass up, and you don’t have to be living out of your car or in a run-down hovel to fall for it (the Madoff scam being the most obvious recent example). The fact that Gary and Chemtrails have apparently had some online contact hasn’t, unfortunately, led either of them to a realistic understanding of the other’s expectations. The world of this film (and our world, essentially) is so fucked up that Chemtrails comes out sounding like the smartest guy in the universe when he says, “And if you get $8000, call me, because that’s what I need.”
My personal identification with Gary’s flop sweat aside, it’s hard to sympathize much with either of these guys, and yet I come out of it feeling buoyed by their failures to exploit one another. Flannery O’Connor does a similar thing in her short stories: pushing craven, self-serving, and just downright awful people together in a situation so comically tragic for most everyone concerned, you feel somehow redeemed by the realization that we’re all just a bunch of jerks learning everything the hard way.
“I’ll tell you another thing,” the Bible salesman says, in the story “Good Country People,” to O’Connor’s atheist snob, Hulga. He’s about to make off with her wooden leg, leaving her stranded in a hay loft. “You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
That for most of us the struggle is longer and harder turns out to be one of the hidden blessings of our flawed humanity.