“If a man’s not a success, he’s got no one to blame but himself.”
Variations on that sentiment recur throughout 1968’s Salesman. It’s the myth of American self-determination boiled down to 14 words. Each time it’s repeated, it becomes funnier and more ominous. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin subtly contradict it simply by depicting the title profession, which was already in decline when the film was shot, and which consisted mainly of secularists or nonpracticing believers trying to sell middle- and working-class Americans religious texts they didn’t want and probably couldn’t afford anyway. Without narration—and with only a handful of onscreen titles, most of them terse and dryly factual—the filmmakers show just how casually materialistic postwar America had become.
From the snowy streets of Boston to the sun-blasted faux-Arabian suburbs of Miami-Dade, the film’s men seem weighed down by work and by the people they work for. The women—mostly stay-at-home mothers, also known as “housewives”—betray a mix of delight (at the chance to have unplanned social contact with another adult) and the cool excitement of audience members critiquing a live performance. (They expect a killer pitch, and they won’t reward a bad one.) No one seems to have any special feeling toward the Good Book itself—only the illustrations, binding and other characteristics flogged by men trying to sell X number of copies by the end of the month.
The essence of every sales call is the same; only the details change. The salesmen either locate the customer’s sweet spot or don’t, and the customers either fall for the salesman’s line of patter or don’t. Empathy rarely enters the transaction. Here, as in any other sales job, the goal is to close the deal before the customer can come to his or her senses. Perception-wise, there seems to be no substantive difference between selling bibles and selling shoes or vacuum cleaners. In the opening scene, which shows the movie’s de facto protagonist Paul “The Badger” Brennan trying to sell a young mother a bible while her yawning daughter looks on, Paul says, “The bible is still the bestseller in the world.” He’s recontextualizing the founding document of Western civilization as a marketplace phenomenon—something with legs, a purchase that makes the customer feel as though he or she belongs.
Ethnicity, social class, living conditions and the customer’s mood are X factors contributing to the success or failure of the call. The salesman duly notes each of these, adjusts his pitch accordingly, and succeeds based on the customer’s judgement of whether he did a good job selling. Some salesmen are more resourceful and convincing than others. James “The Rabbit” Baker—a slim younger man who looks like he could be Sam Waterston’s kid brother—is a top earner for a reason; he has an unerring, probably innate knack for sensing what the customer is feeling, then putting him or her at ease with just the right compliment, anecdote, question or observation. Paul the Badger is on the opposite end of the suave scale—a smiling wiseacre who trudges through snowy Massachusetts singing, “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof and, in a transparent attempt at bonding, volunteers way more personal information than the customer wanted. And yet the banal essence of this type of social exchange is so clear to all involved that offense is rarely given, or taken. (In one sales call, Paul tries to make an illustrated bible seem more enticing by telling a woman customer that he recently sold one to a female Ph.D. who adored it; then he adds, “I had a cum laude myself, from one of the colleges…Cum no more!”) The ritual’s insincerity is confirmed by the various salesmens’ insistence that they’re not just trying to sell something—that in fact, something spontaneous and authentic is happening in these living rooms. “This is not the Irish blarney,” Paul tells the woman he just assaulted with bad puns. “This comes right from the heart.”
There’s little naïveté in Salesman, and not a rube in sight. Customers and vendors have no evident illusions about what’s really being bought and sold: a false sense of spiritual/social confidence, framed in materialist language that’s blasphemous by definition. In Salesmen, door-to-door bible salesmen are “doing God’s work,” but it’s not the God of the Old or New Testament. It’s the god of money as enshrined in America’s true gospel—the assurance that ours is an egalitarian, capitalist meritocracy, a level playing field where the best man wins. The film’s frank skepticism toward this cherished myth makes it one of American pop culture’s greatest statements of doubt, on par with its spiritual forerunner, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and its descendant, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (the film version of which contains a scene quite similar to one here in which a representative of the head office swoops into a sales meeting to terrorize low earners).
With his weathered face, Chiclet teeth, and hints of baseline depression, Paul the Badger is the film’s foremost emblem of American malaise, a fortysomething working Joe chewed up in the gears of consumerist expectations. His white shirt, dark tie, and fedora incidentally evoke Death of a Salesman‘s Willy Loman; his slump-shouldered desperation and sporadic bursts of sure-to-be-blunted enthusiasm anticipate Glengarry Glen Ross schmuck Sheldon “The Machine” Levene, the Loman-esque character portrayed by Jack Lemmon. The thematic through line joining all three works is their willingness to expose the lie of a level playing field. In 20th- and 21st-century America, as in every other civilization through history, those with advantages accrue more advantages without breaking much of a sweat; those without advantages find it harder to rise beyond their current station, professional or personal. The United States, alone among nations, believes itself exempt from this dynamic. The byproduct of this delusion is a populace whose individual members are inclined to think themselves failures when in fact they’re doing about as well as could be expected—and whose guilt over “failure” makes them ripe for exploitation by salesman of various sorts.
Mamet illustrates this vicious cycle in Glengarry Glen Ross through the device of the “leads,” which are doled out based on current sales figures, with the newest, richest, most promising leads going to the company’s top earners. There’s a version of that dynamic at play in Salesman, with the slickest, most relentless salesmen doing (or appearing to do) the best and getting rewarded with the boss’s respect, which boosts morale, while guys like Paul get kicked up and down the East Coast. (Paul’s supervisor teases him for being a weak seller, and Paul grins and takes it, because what else can he do?)
Throughout the film, the bible sellers come face-to-face with other “failures”—decent Americans who toil with a stiff upper lip and then, in the company of salesmen they’ll never see again, casually let slip a statement implying just how deadening their work must be. “In my job, you have to have a sense of humor,” a sanitation worker says. “If you don’t, you go nuts.” A leather-faced, chain-smoking mom says of her bespectacled teenaged daughter, who seems like one of the film’s most upbeat, inquisitive characters, “She don’t believe in what she’s doing. She hates her supervisor.” The most authentic and surprising personalities can’t survive in bottom-line-driven jobs unless they alter or disguise their natures. Or as Albert Maysles told interviewer Chris Buck, “The guy that succeeds as a human being makes for a lousy salesman.”
The film isn’t just a social and political landmark, but a technical and aesthetic one as well. Shot with compact sync-sound cameras devised by pioneering nonfiction filmmaker Robert Drew, the father of so-called cinema vérité, Salesman‘s embellishment of the genre’s developing vocabulary pushed documentaries further away from the goal of simply recording life. More than any filmmakers working in the genre up till then, the Maysles brothers and Zwerin showed that it was possible, even desirable, to interpret and report simultaneously—and that the result could bring nonfiction filmmaking closer to social criticism than it had ever gotten before. It was a revolutionary idea that dovetailed with similar and more widely remarked-upon developments in print journalism, where such writers as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Michael Herr shaped reported material with techniques borrowed from fiction and drama.
There are several examples of this in Salesman. Beyond certain technical tells—including expository off-screen lines that were obviously dubbed in later—the most notable are the travelling sequences, several of which feature Paul. An early Boston-area sequence shows him driving his route with some difficulty (he’s prone to getting lost) while the radio plays a classical piece; the music plays continuously, but the view from the car gives way from day to night, suggesting the time-collapsing sameness of Paul’s days. A subsequent sequence in Florida finds Paul driving through new territory in Opa-locka, a suburb with street names and architecture modeled on a fairy-tale Mideast. Again the radio plays a song continuously over time-collapsing jump cuts of Paul’s progress, turning a simple drive into an ironic tour of a gaudy suburban America that feigns architectural eccentricity to compensate for its lack of real character. The song: a Muzak cover of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Most striking of all is the film’s deployment of footage from meetings of the company’s sales force, in which reps from the head office try to inspire and/or threaten the troops. In a film about bible salesmen, these are the only scenes that evoke religious services. The motivator/frightener stands at a pulpit-like podium, declaiming the gospel of self-reliance and prosperity and pausing to let star employees stand up and testify as to how much money they expect to make in the coming year. Can-do slogans are lobbed like stone tablets: “All I can say to people who aren’t making the money is, it’s their fault!” “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” “If a man’s not a success, he’s got no one to blame but himself!”
A sequence in the film’s midsection sees Paul being warned about an upcoming sales meeting in Chicago and then, while riding there via train, seeming worried. As he stares out a window, “hearing” a meeting that hasn’t yet happened, the film cuts between the train ride and the meeting (where Paul is present) and bleeds their soundtracks together, so that the sales slogans play over close-ups of Paul fretting on the train and the meeting is backed by clackety-clack train noises. This sequence—which ends with Paul walking along the Chicago train station’s tracks, suitcase in hand—is connected via a hard cut to a sales meeting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, a scene that leads to the film’s Florida section. Standing at the podium, the company’s vice president redefines the profit motive as public service: “I am confident that once you realize what you are doing for others, you in your own esteem will rise so high—not with conceit, but in humility!” By intercutting picture and sound from Paul’s train ride and the meeting he’s worried about, Salesman pulls off a bolder version of effects it achieved via jump cuts in those driving sequences. It implies that all motivational meetings are basically the same. It also gets into one character’s head and universalizes his distress by suggesting it’s not unique to any time, place, or profession, even though Americans are too proud to admit such a thing.
Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the House Next Door, will introduce a screening of Salesman this coming Saturday, January 20, at 3 p.m. at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, then moderate a Q&A with Albert Maysles afterward. For more information, click here.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 18, 2007, prior to a screening of the film at the Museum of the Moving Image.