Grade: B+Salesman (1969)

Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles

Stars: Paul Brennan, Jamie Baker

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

Italian Neo-Realism

Albert & David Maysles: Salesman


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"After all the highways, and the trains, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive."
Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
The days of the door-to-door salesman are now dim memories of Americana, along with Burma Shave signs and real cherry Cokes from the neighborhood drugstore. It took a special kind of man to suffer the indignities of continual rejection by refusing the security of a regular paycheck and benefits to pursue the great American dream. All jokes aside, the life of a travelling salesman is no easy street, and filmmakers Albert and David Maysles intimately capture the lonely existence of a real life Willy Loman in their 1969 documentary Salesman.

From my door-to-door experience between semesters in the late sixties, I can attest how tough this profession is. I sold Bible literature in Oklahoma that summer of '69, and in many ways it was the toughest job I've ever had. Relying on my own resources, I had to find a way to live those three months on whatever down payments I could muster from the customers—and I soon discovered that not everyone is going to let the strange visitor claiming to be from the church inside the door—and even fewer were actually going to buy Bible literature from this stranger. Despite continual rejection and numerous doors slammed in my face, I'm thankful for the things I learned along the way—I'm familiar with the required attitude and mentality and can spot those "cunning" used car salesmen tricks and techniques.

The experience also helps me appreciate the Maysles' little-seen documentary that is now thankfully preserved definitively by the Criterion Collection with its usual array of fine DVD extra features.

The film's most amazing aspect is that it was made at all. Knowing how difficult it is to get inside suspicious prospects' homes, the idea that the salesman can get inside for a pitch with a two-man camera crew in tow is mind-boggling. But they managed—usually by explaining to the customer that they were merely following the salesman around to film his presentation, proving that some Americans are willing to do most anything for the remote possibility of achieving their fifteen minutes of fame.

The Maysles follow four Irish Catholic Bible salesmen from Boston on their daily routines in the field and uneasy camaraderie in their motel rooms and cafes. Raymond "the Bull" Martos plugs along, Charlie "the Gipper" McDevitt jokes his way through, James "the Rabbit" Baker effectively sticks with the program, but Paul "the Badger" Brennan becomes the "star" of the documentary by being "different." The filmmakers describe him as the "one who shows humanity," but professional sales people will recognize him as the guy with low self-esteem who gives up on the program and heads inevitably towards failure. While Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman are well known for playing Willie Loman on stage, Paul Brennan is Willy Loman in the flesh. He even exclaims, "They say Alaska's good territory," at one point—had the filmmakers been able to visualize his numerous silent reveries, they might even have located the imaginary Ben.

One early telling scene, after a tough winter day in the field, shows Paul letting off steam to his mostly silent roommate, Raymond. As he prefaces his remarks with claims of "not being negative," he proceeds to whine about his inability to get inside doors to make his pitch, how sick he is of people's excuses, and how awful the territory is with its "Guineas." Although the filmmakers pity him, others will see him as an insincere, manipulative "dime a dozen" loser. Soon after this scene, the filmmakers show the isolated salesman pensively peering out the train window on his way to a sales meeting in Chicago and edit in an audio narrative from his boss Kenny:
"If a guy's not a success, he's got nobody to blame but himself. What everybody's got to do is to quit making alibis and excuses and accept responsibility if a success or failure."
Had the filmmakers focused on the other three salesmen, who were more in line with the positive thinking program, the documentary would take on an entirely different tone, one much less interesting to most audiences. Professional sales people show their own inspirational videos, designed to fire up the troops and get them to dream the big dream to pursue their goals—the Everyman types who start with nothing and succeed. This documentary becomes poignant because it avoids the traditional hype by focusing on the Everyman least likely to succeed.

The Maysles brothers prefer to call their documentary technique "cinema direct" (as opposed to "cinema verite) for their method of simply filming whatever happens and avoiding narration. Although they capture what truly happens, they certainly editorialize and pointedly emphasize essentially anti-Capitalist themes with their editing selections. Their selection of portraying door-to-door Bible salesmen is deliberate—the Maysles brothers seeing this as a quintessentially ideological American film combining Capitalism and Religion with the symbolic Bible as salable product.

Nothing is staged, but with massive amounts of raw footage to work with, the filmmakers craft a cynical insider's view of selling in America by focusing mostly on a rather unlikable loser—a man who hums "If I Were a Rich Man" in the car while bemoaning his lot in life on the road, preys upon one poverty stricken woman's basic goodness by lying and laying on a Catholic guilt trip, and has nothing more to discuss with his wife than assure her that he's not driving too fast. (In the extras we learn that Paul will trade in his Bibles to sell aluminum siding the next year and will soon die from rheumatism)

But filmmakers are not required to offer "balanced" coverage for documentaries, especially when the project isn't slated for broadcast journalism. Salesman represents a remarkably disturbing visual document of a lifestyle that may well be gone forever while exposing the underbelly of capitalism that remains live and well across America.

Most effective are the long silences...the empty stares found upon the faces of these four salesmen as they go through their daily rituals over coffee—the same banality that you'll find in corporate America, where the only thing these men have in common is the business deal. With deft juxtapositioning and editing, the filmmakers successfully question the core values of capitalism, making this real life Death of a Salesman scenario essential viewing.

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