What is it about salesmen that bring to mind failure? From Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, dramas on page, stage, and screen have consistently cast salesmen in the role of the tragic loser--the fundamental prototype of the failed American dream. Maybe it is because it is their job to peddle the wares of the American dream--those desirable material objects such as real estate and automobiles--that they are ultimately denied being a piece of the pie.
Although it was not their intention from the outset, this is precisely what the Maysles Brothers captured in their first feature-length documentary, Salesman, which presents a stark, indelible cinematic portrait of the trials and tribulations of the door-to-door salesman, a profession that is virtually extinct today.
Salesman follows the daily grind of a quartet of Irish-Catholic Bible salesmen working out of Boston, each of whom has an animal-related nickname that refers to his particular style of selling the Good Book: Paul "The Badger" Brennan, Charles "The Gipper" McDewitt, James "The Rabbit" Baker, and Raymond "The Bull" Martos. Nearly identical in their square, slicked-down haircuts, dark trousers, short-sleeved white shirts, and dark skinny ties, these four men ultimately emerge as distinct individuals, all of whom have the same goal, but go after it in vastly different ways.
The film emphasizes visually that their life as salesmen is their life. How they sell Bibles (with a choice of three easy payment plans, of course: cash, C.O.D., or the Catholic honor system) is their defining characteristic; within the context of the film, it is who they are. Thus, it is crucial that we never see their personal lives--where they live, their spouses, or children. We hear one perfunctory phone call home, but that is the extent of contact with their loved ones. Rather, the film emphasizes their world as one of travel--all the action takes place in hotel rooms, in the living rooms and kitchens of the people to whom they are selling, and in the cars they use to travel between the two locations. It is a grind, and one that can seem endless. When Paul Brennan grouses about how long he has been on the road, someone tells him that it's only been four days. "Is it four days? Seems like four weeks," he says.
Paul Brennan ultimately emerges as the central character of the foursome, if only because he is easiest to identify with. The oldest of the group, Brennan has begun to slow down in recent years, and his sales have not been so good. Despite the fact that they are selling the Bible, it is plainly clear from the outset that these four men are cogs in the capitalist money-making machine. Regardless of the professed nobility of their profession (one man at a sales convention refers to it as a "calling"), they labor under the pressure of quotas that absolutely must be met. Brennan is not making the sales he needs, and the film tracks his slow decline and the ensuing crisis. It is a sad spectacle to watch, and in many ways Salesman is a deeply depressing experience, focused as it is on failure.
Yet, the film is also slyly funny, which is the only thing that keeps it from being completely morose. One critic who saw the film twice described it as a tragedy the first time he saw it and a comedy the second time. There is something perversely humorous about the whole concept of selling Bibles door-to-door, especially when they are huge, tastelessly gaudy, exceptionally expensive ("as low as $49.95," which was a lot of money more than 30 years ago), and utterly unnecessary (all the people to whom they're selling already own Bibles). Some of the darkest humor emerges in scenes that depict failed sales calls, especially one in which "The Rabbit" presses and presses on a poor woman who doesn't speak English very well. He continually repeats that he can take orders for a new missal, which, in his thick Boston accent, sounds like "we can take awh-duhs," which makes no sense to this woman of Spanish descent living in Florida.
The dynamic between the salesmen--victims of their overbearing profession--and the housewives on whom they call--victims of the salesmen's underhanded tactics--is fascinating. Many have described Salesman as a "women's film," because we often feel more empathy for the housewives--many of whom are obviously not very well off financially--as they are goaded, pressured, and sometimes outright manipulated by these desperate Bible peddlers.
Where religion ends and commerce begins is an indistinct line, so much so that the salesmen take the commercialization of God's word as a given. The actual contents of the Bible have long since taken a backseat to glossy, full-color illustrations and the varieties of shades in which the leather cover is available. A long sequence that takes place in a sales convention in Chicago is particularly insightful, as discourse regarding the supreme goal of amassing money through sales and discourse about the importance of "doing God's work" is freely mixed, as if they are one in the same.
Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin employed their method of direct cinema in making Salesman. The idea behind direct cinema is that the use of lightweight cameras and recording instruments allows the filmmakers to capture life as it happens without any direct or indirect intervention--a sort of "fly on the wall" technique. They refused to add postproduction narration, and instead relied on editing and context to tell the story and make the points (David Maysles has described direct cinema as the answer to Virginia Woolf's question, "What, if left to its own devices, would cinema be?").
This method has served the Maysles well in numerous other documentaries (including 1970's Gimme Shelter and 1976's Grey Gardens), and here it is especially effective, as it allows them into the homes of nameless strangers to whom the salesmen are hawking their wares. We are privileged with an intimate glimpse into how these men work, and we are sometimes shocked by their casual lies, willful misguidance, and incessant pressing, to the point that it literally becomes embarrassing. Yet, we understand why they do it, even if we wouldn't want them in our living room.
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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