Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin. Produced by Albert Maysles, David Maysles. Photographed by Albert Maysles. Edited by David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin. Starring Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, James “The Rabbit” Baker, Raymond “The Bull” Martos, Kennie Turner.
Salesman is a documentary that plays like the ruminations of a sad, troubled uncle. This little 1968 film tells the story of four travelling bible peddlers, which may not sound like the sexiest of material to build a documentary out of, but that is just the surface. Underneath is a bracing story of pressure and failure, as a man detects his career and his very relevancy slipping away, bit by excruciating bit. The effect mirrors the downward spiral of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (an echo cheerfully commented on), and also prefigures the character of Shelley Levene, played memorably by Jack Lemmon in Glengary, Glen Ross. If David Mamet did not specifically have Salesman in mind when he first wrote the stageplay of Glengary, he certainly channels the same spirit: insular, aggressive, and deeply perceptive about luckless men in a brutally competitive business.
The man offered for consideration in Salesman is Paul “The Badger” Brennan, a travelling salesman whose best days are slowly getting behind him. He is a pleasant man, kind, with a good sense of humor, but he is concerned as Salesman begins, and grows more distant as it progresses. His face is wrinkled, strained by cigarettes and worry, and his ingratiating smile, we sense, has begun to go past its sell-by date. What was once charming and genuine feels desperate and misleading. And so he slogs up and down neighborhood streets, invites himself into all manner of peculiar households, pushing a $50 exquisitely-illustrated bible to uncomfortable clients. At the end of the day he files his sales slips, which are getting fewer and far between. Consistently, the film contrasts Paul with his fellow salesmen that he shares the road with, all nicknamed after animals (“The Rabbit,” “The Bull,” and “The Gipper”). Needless to say, their numbers are better.
We get a sense of the pressure these men are under to make their quotas in scenes where they are crammed into hotel ballrooms in order to hear pitiless motivational speeches, then get more grief from their managers during poker games and Continental breakfasts. Their supervisor, Ken, begins his own lecture with the admission that some men have been let go, and lets that pointedly hang over his speech. “I want no excuses,” he remarks, with the implication that everything that is not a sale is an excuse. Indeed, the word “excuse” sounds as a drumbeat across every scene of the men comparing their days’ work, as the other men are able to get past their hurdles, while Paul lingers over them. “I got a flat tire,” he mutters; “I’m not trying to make excuses.” Ken’s smirking reply: “I’m glad you clarified that, because it sounded like you were.” Later they take place in a roleplaying exercise designed to outline strategies, and Ken strongarms the other men into hearing out his aggressive style, which borders on bullying.
The movie unfolds with basically three scenes, each repetition being a variation on a theme. There are the discussions between salesmen as they eat in greasy spoons and hole up in shabby motel rooms. And then the scenes of the men literally on the road, braving the elements, muttering about their prospects. And then there are the sales calls themselves, which are exercises in calculated, ingratiating gamesmanship as the men use every tool at their disposal to walk away with signatures, even negotiating installment plans as low as $1 a week to a customers who are still wary about the economic burden. The cruel irony of men trying to scrape together a living by squeezing individual dollars out of those who can barely afford it is highlighted without being insisted upon.
These are not particularly religious men. When they mention the church, it is a shorthand to probe information about the neighborhood and potential buyers. They smile and nod when the editor of the extravagant bible they are pitching uses cheap rhetoric to resolve their crassly capitalistic enterprise with the teachings of Christ. The salesmen are certainly not above flattery, cajoling, lying…anything to get a sale. When their merchandise selection expands to offer a full-blown Catholic Encyclopedia, they marvel at the accompanying informational brochure like it was a treasure map and extoll its virtues despite not being able to fully explain what it could possibly be usefull for. And at night the men huddle together and modestly gamble. And they smoke and smoke, slump in their chairs, and generally wish they were doing better, either at their jobs or within other industries entirely.
Throughout it all is Paul, whose own sales calls are mired with frustrations. People aren’t home, or refuse to answer the door. Yes, that’s common, but it happens repeatedly. In Miami Beach, his car wanders into a “Muslim district” that he can’t find his way out of. When he does actually get inside a home, his pitches miss more than they hit—several times we can actually see the look on his face when he realizes he has lost them. Coming back at night, he commiserates with the other men, blaming invisible demographics and stereotypes for his failures. Each time, his co-workers muster up less interest in his plight, laugh fewer times at his witty stories, and start reading his self-deprecation as depression, which in this profession is considered contagious.
Like many documentaries, Salesman is a film that took its form almost by accident—when they were scouting the project, documentarians Albert and David Maysles (who would later famously direct the classic 1970 Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter) didn’t really know what they were going to capture—they only wanted to make something that focused on a slice of life they knew quite a bit about, having been door-to-door salesmen themselves. What they found instead was poor Paul Brennan, a real-life Willy Loman about to find the end of his professional rope, and his story gives the film a structure it would otherwise lack: despite its repetitive nature, the film never seems to go shapeless, because the very repetitive nature of the business is what eventually wears down Paul, and we see it happen.
Salesman’s technique is typical fly-on-the-wall cinema verite, with a rough approach that somehow adds to the flavor. Editing is apparent, equipment sometimes seen. We are occasionally reminded of the reality of the production in jarring fashion, such as when people’s faces go unseen, and when some of the customers seem to be playing to the camera. But this approach only makes the fugitive emotions that are eventually captured on film all the more real and striking.
The film accumulates details, not just of the men and their wares, but of their world: car troubles, weather delays, drab motor lodges. Some even seem destined for a ‘60s time capsule, as kids lug wooden sleds around the slushy streets of Boston, and others are little everyday details that evoke an era (and profession) no longer in existence. In the movie’s strangest sequence, a sales visit is overpowered by a husband putting on a warbly LP of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” (“This has a rounder sound”), and for a time the camera simply regards the tableau in perplexed fascination.
The film also captures the dialogue and rhythm of middle-class men in the 60’s, in a way, better than any fiction film could, because it removes the scrim of artifice that fiction would operate under. As befitting a documentary, the dialogue is rough, simple and spontaneous–but still peels back layers of the various people involved. Interesting to note how despite being a film about nothing but men spending all their time together, the film has only a little profanity—which would probably be different if made today (about a profession that was still around, of course).
Other details build up in the background and grow ominous. We note how Jamie, “The Rabbit,” is the youngest of the group, and how through the course of the film even he tires of Paul’s dead weight as a salesman, seeming all of a sudden older. We notice how Ken becomes more hands-on in steering Paul back on track (or is this probation?), how the leads seem to dry up. Paul’s home life is sketched in with a quick and unsentimental phone call to his wife that says much. And then we get every moment of the film’s most agonizing sequence: when Paul accompanies a co-worker (Raymond “The Bull” Martos) on a call and makes a crucial interjection that blows the whole deal. It ends with The Bull, in a fit of passive-aggressive frustration, purposefully humiliating Paul in front of the potential buyers. Paul shrugs off the moment in his words, but his body language is that of a broken man.
What seperates Paul from his contemporaries is that we just plain sympathize with him more. The men all have their moments (The thuggish charm of The Bull, the innocence of The Rabbit)…but Paul is grandfatherly and kind of sweet, and his behavior, while annoying to his co-workers, makes us think of relatives or old acquaintinences who would ramble on about half-forgotten stories. He is not cut out for this profession, loathes his territory, sees himself about to be set adrift into forced retirement. But that’s not what hurts—what really makes him inert is his gnawing fear that he is slowly earning the disrespect of his peers, his real family on the road.
What I like most about a documentary like Salesman is the way it invites observation, not just from the documentarian, but from the audience, which views the work that has effortlessly been put before it. The movie captures behavior and discussion rife with subtext that is never articulated, allowing the viewer to piece it together. Like any good salesman, the film takes its time, steers us in the right direction, and makes us believe we’ve come with its own ideas by ourselves. By the time we reach the concluding scene, we are in full agreement that Paul is a tragic figure, and the fates are lined against him.
What is Salesman about? It contains a lot of themes: the commercialization of faith, the cruel push-me/pull-you of economy, and a note most strongly held about how hard it is to survive in a career so grasping and lonely. But what I always connect to every time I see Salesman is the face of Paul Brennan. More than Paul himself, Paul’s face is the real subject of Salesman, as we see him think, investigate, hope, sadden, and despair. If he is a man in the wrong line of work, he at least deserves better than to have his spirit crushed by his own impossible-to-please employers, which may ultimately be what happens, depending upon how you read the ambiguous final scene.
Movies like Salesman are what renew my faith in film, which is sometimes necessary after a summer movie season drains my will to keep going. If it is a cinematic crime for a movie to be boring (and many of them are), then it should be a moment to rejoice when we see something that should be boring and is not. Something like Salesman, which lives and breathes and thinks, and has empathy for its troubled main character, and allows us to like and understand him. There is a motif throughout Salesman of Paul staring out windows and into space, and the most potent comes at the end, as he contemplates the future and sees nothing. Like a travelling salesman, onto the next town. Already gone.
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