Take a Drink: for national stereotypes
Take a Drink: for every failure
Take a Drink: whenever religion becomes just another selling point
Take a Drink: for every one of Paul’s excuses
Do a Shot: for every successful sale
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Before master documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) made their mark on the film world, they occupied all sorts of odd jobs- including door-to-door salesman, selling brushes, cosmetics, and encyclopedias among other things.
Not eternal space planets chock full of docile wives, though, unfortunately.
This experience must have stuck with them, because when Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood inspired them to make the first “nonfiction feature film”, the subject they chase was the life and work of a group of door-to-door salesman.
Salesman is an ingenious documentary that works on multiple levels- period piece, character study, and social critique. On the first hand, the film is a fascinating peek into both a disappearing yet culturally influential profession and a rarely documented side of American life- the 1960s blue collar lifestyle that provides a stark contrast to the less numerous but more exposed counterculture of the period.
Literally and figuratively.
While it’s very interesting seeing what a living room chat with my (and many) viewers’ grandparents must have been like, and even more so watching these salesmen wheedle, finagle, and browbeat their customers into closing a sale, it’s central figure Paul Brennan that inspires a more personal connection. “The Badger” is pretty much the opposite of his moniker, a washed-up salesman whose cynicism and excuses are beginning to alienate him from the rest of his team but whose humor and frustration make him easy to relate to. The comparisons to Death of a Salesman are inevitable, but hopefully poor Paul ended up better than that, and get a nice comfy job like used car salesman or something.
Most interesting to me, though, is the current of social commentary running through it. In many ways, Salesman exposes the seedy underbelly of capitalism, juxtaposing scenes of the salesmen using a variety of techniques to foist a product on people they don’t need and can’t afford with others showing their yearly sales convention, as these borderline con men expose their own delusions and consumerist dreams.
This Catholic Church-sanctioned capitalist convention feels more genuinely religious than any of their Bible sales pitches to devout Catholic families. The management structures it like an old-time revival meeting, and make disgusting speeches equating their profit motive with real Christian work. Here’s a handy rule of thumb- if a group is giving away Bibles, it’s a Church. If it’s selling them, it’s a Corporation.
You’re making Jesus’s whip hand tingle.
Salesman does communicated one aspect of the lives of salesmen a little too strongly- the monotony. As we bounce from one seedy hotel room and working class kitchen to another, it all begins to blur together from time to time.
Salesman is notable not just for how influential it was on the whole documentary genre, but also for how deeply it delves into the American experience.