Dir. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.
In 1949, Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway, which on its most basic level is about a salesman who is too old and tired to go on the road any longer. The beginning of the play hints at Willy Loman’s exhaustion through that benighted car:
Willy: I got as far as a little above Yonkers. I stopped for a cup of coffee. Maybe it was the coffee.
Willy: I suddenly couldn’t drive anymore. The car kept going off onto the shoulder, y’know?
Paul Brennan, the de facto star of Salesman, is the salesman we return to most frequently. As often as anyone else he is alone in his car, and when he is alone in his car he is never really alone, not even because of the presence of a cameraman. He curses the bad directions and impenetrable design of suburban Miami streets. He speaks in a false accent obscured further with his murmur. This is a person who has learned to stave off the loneliness of the road and block, if not stonewall, the nibbling doubts that must haunt any door-to-door salesman. (Other men selling these radically expensive Bibles do it through sheer ludicrous bombast. At a conference, one man says he expects to make $35,000 next year. Another, throwing a little shade at his peer, says he wants to make $50,000, not $35,000. In the present, those guys are talking about making somewhere between $250,000 and $360,000 selling Bibles.) Although all four of the salesmen in the film look a little harried just as a matter of course, “the Badger” is the most drained of them all. Other salesmen sit around in their jackets; his comes off almost as soon as he’s off the job. He wears short-sleeved shirts under his jacket, which ruins the effect. And when they get together to talk shop, he is inevitably the most downhearted and troubled of the bunch. “The Bull,” “the Rabbit,” and “the Gipper” fail to seal deals sometimes and you can see the fatigue in their eyes, but none of them are quite as fatigued as the Badger. In one scene towards the end of the film, the Badger loses his patience while he’s on a sales call with the Gipper. The Bible they sell is heavy on pictures, and the Badger makes the case to the parents that their children will benefit will have such a book in the house. The father, quite reasonably, wonders how a Bible that the kids can’t even read will make any real difference in their lives. He’s lectured hard by the Badger; they lose the sale; the Gipper all but apologizes for him. It’s a scene so climactic that I could believe it’s staged.
What’s worth remembering about the salesmen, even at their most human, is that these people are parasites. (Brennan, Baker, McDevitt, and Martos are small fry parasites in the grand scheme of things. Kennie Turner, who appears to have a higher position in the company, and Melbourne I. Feldman, a Bible scholar who speaks at the company meeting, are the most vocal and unlikable parasites of the bunch.) Having received a list of parishioners from the local Catholic churches, the bible salesmen knock on doors and worm their way into houses. More than once a housewife turns down a home visit on the basis that her husband would need to okay any kind of purchase like this one, which is a wonderful way to take themselves off the hook and the kind of statement that makes a good salesman slaver with opportunity. “Does he have a birthday coming up?” or “I won’t be in town tomorrow” are the responses these schooled sellers go to, although much to our satisfaction the housewives hold their ground. It’s not a small purchase, either; the Bibles come in around $50 a pop in the late ’60s, and the Badger notes that the salesmen seem limited to low-income neighborhoods. That anyone buys a Bible that might cost more than ten percent of their monthly income before taxes is absolutely incredible. That the salesmen focus their efforts on people who emphatically cannot afford these Bibles and push to the edge of incivility to get them bought is basically pernicious. In one scene, Brennan talks to one woman who has a centuries-old Bible that she couldn’t imagine giving up, and who doesn’t have the income to buy a Bible like the one Brennan is selling. He pushes her to her limit, and she pushes back with quiet, guilty firmness. He wants her to buy it. In the close-up growing ever more extreme on her, we can see her breaking. We can see her willpower stretched like rubber bands to the very edge of resistance. And she manages to say the words once, quietly, and then again, more firmly. It’s not a purchase I can afford to make. Feldman’s speech at the convention compared the business of selling Bibles to Jesus’ words to his mother after he hung out at the temple without telling his parents: “I must be about my Father’s business.” Feldman, to borrow from another piece of American literature I’m addicted to referencing, appears to have never read that most important paragraph in The Great Gatsby, which uses the same phrase to describe James Gatz. It’s proof that these people are utter maniacs. Watching Salesman has much the same thrill as watching Planet Earth, where you’re unwillingly forced to root for a snow leopard and her very cute cub or for the baby mountain goat to get et.
Compared to Grey Gardens, Salesman feels forced. As much as the Badger mumbles to himself, it can’t quite compare to the perpetual cacophony of the Edies singing at each other. And even though there are no indulgent little mirror shots in Salesman to remind us of what those four men were as young people, the drama itself seems strangely narrative. The handheld cameras and careful sequencing—when we get an exterior, we always see the salesman knock at the door first from some distance, which reminds us that it’s one thing to let a salesman in and quite another to welcome a film crew—are at odds with the arc of the Badger. The Rabbit is probably the next most important character, and at first it appears that we might see nearly as much of him as we do of the Badger. More given to bow ties than his peers and more adept at folding humor into his sales pitch, he has the deepest eyes and the thickest brows of the bunch. His cowlick is an artful swirl. Where the Badger likes to point out his own Irish heritage and poke some fun in that direction, the Rabbit has jokes about Scotsmen instead. There’s something much less severe in his manner than in the Badger’s, and the same is even true in the Bull and the Gipper, who are both heavier men with thicker jaws and more powerful builds. Perhaps Brennan is the protagonist of the story because he is the true sadsack of the bunch, but all the same it’s a documentary which I’m not sure needed a protagonist at all.