Thursday, November 24, 2016


My first encounter with Salesman (1968) was in the late 1980s when it was briefly revived for its 20th anniversary.  After more than 25 years, it's still astonishing. Despite the fact that its male characters wear hats and smoke cigarettes, its not a time capsule; its message is still strong today. It is perhaps the best documentary about working stiffs you'll ever see.

In 1968, Albert and David Maysles were at the beginning of their prime years, but already deep into the style they'd show in their more famous documentaries. For Salesman they focused on a quartet of bible salesmen trudging through a bleak New England winter, what one of the men calls "ball-busting territory." When they're lucky enough to have a customer open a door, it's usually a bored housewife who listens a bit before saying she can't do anything until her husband gets home.

It's obvious from the opening scene that this will be a different interpretation of the salesman's lot. It's not as tragic as Death of a Salesman, nor as full of itself as Glengarry Glen Ross. Paul Brennan, the film's lead character and the sort of Godsend prayed for by documentary makers, is stumbling through a sale. We can practically see the beads of sweat on his shiny little forehead. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz called Salesman "one of the great statements on America's can-do culture of capitalism, and how it tends to become a psychological cage that makes people feel like failures." Within 30 seconds we can tell Brennan stuck in that very cage.

Brennan is a feisty, pint-sized Irishman by way of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He's in his mid-50s; he resembles old-time actors like Red Buttons or Burgess Meredith, and he plays on his elfin appearance. He's a charmer, but he's in a slump. He's mystified that his usual routine - which he refers to as "the Mickey stuff" - isn't working. He tries to discuss his problem with his fellow salesman, but they only offer company bromides. Don't ever blame the territory, they tell him.

The other members of the sales team are known as The Gipper, The Bull, and The Rabbit (Brennan is the Badger), and they wear the same basic uniform: black raincoat, fedora, a slight look of fatigue. But as the movie unfurls we notice their differences. The Rabbit (James Baker), tall and thin, is the youngest, but has already started to copy Brennan's banter (with more success on this trip). The Bull (Raymond Martos) is a friendly guy who appears to never get rattled. The Gipper  (Charles McDevitt) says the least, probably saving his energy for selling. There's a fifth man, but he's a boss of some kind; he smiles the phony, sadistic grin of mid-management types everywhere. He has no nickname.

When the group is sent to Miami, it's telling that The Bull and The Rabbit want to go for a late night splash in the hotel swimming pool, while Brennan and the Gipper stand around,  still wearing their shirts and ties, nervously smoking. They're the oldest, and they probably haven't been swimming in a long time.

Glad to be out of the cold Massachusetts winter, Brennan finds himself enjoying a win streak in Miami. When he returns to the hotel at night, he's a new man; we see a glimpse of the cocksure talker he must've been before. The next day, however, he's unable to move a single bible. It's all as simple as a De Sica plot: he fails, he succeeds, he fails.

Though the Maysles inspired a legion of admirers with their excellent work, few contemporary documentarians have the nerve to let their cameras remain as still as Albert Maysles' camera. He lingers on Brennan until he captures something resembling the soul's stillness. At other times Brennan stares into space, looking like a weathered figure in an Andrew Wyeth painting. At a dinner for the bible company in Chicago, where other sellers make grandiose plans for next year, he only stares at the speakers and says nothing. What's he thinking? Go fuck yourself? How did I end up here listening to this crap?  We don't know. And the Maysles don't intrude, as many new filmmakers would, by asking him how he feels. They let his tired face speak.

Prior to this the Maysles had spent years making celebrity documentaries, profiling the likes of Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, and The Beatles. It makes sense that they would dispense with the pop culture and focus on the tough existence of bible salesmen, and they seem liberated by these earthier subjects. You can almost feel the Maysles' giddiness when Brennan flirts with a cleaning lady at the hotel, or when he breaks into a song from Fiddler on the Roof. And the realness of the customers provides an unexpected poignancy; how broke and bored these people are, so fatigued by their lives that they are almost too weak to fend off the salesmen.

That stillness I'm trying to describe can be found in many Maysles' films. Think of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer, looking at the footage of a fan being killed in Gimme Shelter (1970). Think of the long, elegant pauses throughout Grey Gardens (1975), particularly when Little Edie walks tiredly up the stairs near the end of the film, sadly returning to her own sheltered life, or the pause given by Muhammad Ali before admitting that he likes Larry Holmes in Muhammad and Larry 1980).

There's a scene where a young woman tells the salesmen that she admires men who are out on their own, rather than tied to a dull corporate job. The Gipper pauses; he'll play along if it means selling a bible. The scene resonates because it plays into the myth that traveling salesmen are something close to cowboys or conmen, though the men in Salesman are as beaten down as any office clerk.

The style used in Salesman is so singular, so persuasive, that a clip from it is as easy to identify as a clip from The Godfather. A recent episode of IFC's Documentary Now presented a spoof of Salesman that was spot on in tone and detail, as if it were a daffy stepson of the original. That's a testament to the strength of the Maysles' style.

The movie is so expertly cut (by David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who is given a director's credit) that it has the rhythm and pace of a long  ride down an empty highway in the dead of winter. The Maysles and Zwerin were also smart to give coverage to the customers. As the sellers grind away, the camera cuts to the targets, mostly housewives, who seem to be going through some sort of secret agony. They don't want the bible, but they don't want to be rude. When a sale agreement is signed, it's done solemnly, as if government secrets are being shared. (My favorite customer is the guy who puts on an album of orchestrated Beatles music, the only nod to the pop culture found in the entire movie.)

In a late scene, Brennan is relegated to sitting by while Gipper makes a sale. Then, the Gipper tells the customers that Brennan is hoping for some inspiration. Brennan shrugs, now so low on the totem poll that he willingly shleps along behind Gipper. Again, we don't know exactly what he's thinking. My guess is that he'd had enough and wants out.

There's a clip on YouTube of Albert Maysles talking about Brennan. He expresses a fondness for him, and said they remained friends after the project was completed. Maysles also described Brennan sitting at an early screening of Salesman, weeping and laughing. According to Maysles, Brennan soon quit selling bibles and moved on to selling aluminum siding. Brennan died in 1990, at age 77. The cause of death is listed as "severe rheumatoid arthritis." There are scenes in Salesman where Brennan flexes his fingers, which look slightly gnarled. It's strange; it's as if we're watching the grim reaper sidling next to Brennan, taking him by the hand.

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