Salesman (1969)

Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin

The bible may rule the spiritual life of America, but the dollar rules everything else. Pit them against one another, and throw in an intimate portrait of the men caught in the miserable crossfire, and you have Salesman, the Maysles brothers’ sweat-and-nicotine-stained reportage on door-to-door salesmen who walk the country thin to sell an overpriced version of the world’s most widely distributed piece of literature.   

They’re a depressed circus as they go down the east coast, a bunch of comedians who know a thousand jokes with the same punch-line; a group of confidants who only know one cure to whatever ails you. Filmographer Albert Maysles stays glued to their steps like the re-heeled shoes they wear and gives you a deep look into the realities, indignities and weird camaraderie that exists among such a particular group of men. 

With each their own animal-derived nickname, from The Bull to The Badger, they endure refusals at the door (“My sister just called!”, “I don’t speak english!”) and the greater torture of trying to get them to purchase an expensive copy of the same book many already have sitting on the bookshelf. Try as they might with every trick known to (sales)man and offering any possible pay-when-you-can scheme, orders are scarce, and in a modern world where faces mostly appear on screens instead of your doorway, the idea of turning up with only your hat in hand and a book in your bag with the idea to sell the latter is nerve-wracking to even watch. 

By following them at every moment during the day, Albert Maysles unearths more than just salesman antics. In peoples’ homes, they won’t shut up, pushing the book’s aesthetic pleasures or its “heritage of life” and fundamental existential place in a christian’s life. At lunch, however, it’s quiet around the table, the silence broken only by weary drags on cigarettes. When night comes, they shack up two to a shoddy motel room, greeting each other with a “how’d the battle go?” and trade the day’s war stories and sales numbers with shame or pride. 

It’s these group therapy sessions that are the real sell of Salesman, lifting it from simply a ride-along in a given profession to naked psychological insight into capitalism’s foot soldiers, who for all their grandstanding about selling something they believe in, just want to make money and are getting increasingly desperate to do it. In a world where you’re only as good as the number of sales you made today, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and you should be wary of any old man in such a profession. None of these men are young, and no commission is going to buy back what they’ve lost by being out here so long.  

Although an ensemble performance, the Maysles favor Paul “The Badger” Brennan more than the rest. Wiry and a jabber-mouth, he’s having a rough go of it and sales are down. Evenings are spent telling anyone who’ll listen he’s got a bad feeling about their prospects in a given neighbourhood, steeling himself for further decline.

It’s a miserable spectacle to watch this defeated man stew in the belief that he’s no longer capable of the one thing he prided himself on once. To see him project and lash out is worse, and his slide into abjection completes with him tagging along to another salesman’s house call to hopefully witness a sale so that it may jump start something in him. To watch him sitting slightly back and to the side of his colleague, saying nothing, in someone else’s home, is to know there are worse ways for a man to die than for his heart to stop. This is one of them.  

Many films trading in fact and fiction have come since Salesman, but this film is blessed with Maysles’ eye and talent with a camera. To freewheel like he does, as well as orchestrate; to know when to think of the collective and to know when to get close in order to capture the moment when one of these men see outside of their lives, is a talent that takes both natural skill and hard work. 
Salesman has moments of genuine poetry, but the barebones presentation leads me to think of it as one novel wherein several short stories dovetail, showing us that long before the face of imposing consumerism was Amazon’s faceless arrow-smirk, it was a tired man standing in your doorway, asking you to pay a premium to belong to some community that we think only things can grant us access to.

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