Documenting Despair: Salesman (1968)

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Something happened to me the first time I saw Salesman (1968). Within just a few minutes, I felt a tightness in my chest, the kind I always associate with stress and anxiety. I began to question myself: Had I forgotten to do something important? Was I suppressing anxiety about work? Maybe I drank too much coffee? Then it hit me: It was the movie. If that sounds like the opposite reaction you want while watching a movie, believe me, I don’t mean it that way. I felt it because I’d been there. I had not one but two cold-calling sales jobs in my life. Two. They paid a base wage below minimum wage because you received a commission on your sales. Or, if you chose, you could take the minimum wage and forego any commission. At one time or another, I tried both. And it was awful. Just absolutely God-awful. Not a work day began where I didn’t feel an immediate tightness in my chest that usually gave way to utter depression by the end of my shift. Was this what I was going to be doing? How could I make this work for a lifetime? Salesman, the extraordinary and pioneering documentary by the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, understands all of that. There’s not a sales pitch scene in this movie that doesn’t make me tense but I’ll tell you what: I’d watch this documentary over most fiction films, and most non-fiction too, any day of the week.

Salesman is an amazing documentary in many ways but its most immediate impact on the documentary world was its complete embrace of cinéma vérité. There is no narrator, no one speaks to the camera, no inter-titles bring us relevant information on the characters or their lives. At most, we get a time and place. We see the salesman making their rounds, first in snowbound Massachusetts, then in sunny Florida. They sell Bibles, specifically Catholic Bibles published by the Mid-American Bible Company. I suppose it would be more exact to say they attempt to sell Bibles, unsuccessfully far more often than not. They get the names of parishioners from the local Catholic church and start knocking on doors, saying the priest sent them. With maybe one or two exceptions, no one ever seems interested in what they’ve got to say.

Meanwhile, we see pep-talks by their higher-ups. These pep-talks come down to little more than “if you’re not selling, it’s your fault,” and no, I’m not paraphrasing, sadly. We see their immediate supervisor walk through a rehearsed sale to show the boys how to do it. Of course he gets the “sale” from them, and walks away feeling like he’s shown them a thing or two. But before and after each sales day, we see the same thing: Enthusiasm to start the pitches, then depression when they get back to the hotel.

The salesmen are Jamie Baker, Ray Martos, Charlie McDevitt and Paul Brennan. They are four different personalities and only one of them, Ray, seems adept at selling Bibles. Jamie gets in a few pitches and has an inadvertently funny/sad scene in which he’s trying to tell a Spanish speaking woman in Florida that they have the new missals for sale, with all the new Vatican 2 updates. She doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. He keeps trying to explain what the missal is and, finally, after an excruciating three minutes, she gets it.

“Great,” he says, “can I put you down for one?”

“No.”

The main character, if there is a main character, is Paul Brennan, and there’s a reason. He stands out as the one who seems too clever to be doing this. He complains the most, to be sure, and it’s intimated by more than one of the salesmen that at one time he could sell the proverbial ice cube to an Eskimo, but he seems to be a man who could have done more. Maybe once there was a spark that led him to believe that this was a way to be his own man. Now all we see is despair and regret. There are moments, stunning moments, where the camera lingers on his face as he’s lost in thought and the thought always seems like it could be, “What in the hell am I doing with my life?”

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The Maysles brothers went on to make Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens(1976), two documentaries far more famous to the outside world than Salesman, but I believe Salesman to be the one that strikes deepest. It documents a world no longer in existence, comes with no frills attached and faces the quiet desperation of its mass of salesmen head on. In a non-fiction medium filled with talking heads and the bland recitation of facts, Salesman makes a pitch to let the viewer see the soul of the traveling salesman and closes the deal.

Greg Ferrara

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8 Responses Documenting Despair: Salesman (1968)
Posted By Doug : October 6, 2017 7:47 am

Greg, your post is perfectly titled-thank you for this look into a film that I didn’t know existed.
“Quiet desperation” indeed. I imagine those ‘higher-ups’ that you mention had begun on that same low rung of the ladder, selling Bibles.
“They get the names of parishioners from the local Catholic church and start knocking on doors, saying the priest sent them.”
I assume that the local Catholic church priests would prefer that their parishioners buy their Bibles and candles and missives and all of that stuff from the local churches-fleecing their own flocks rather than allowing outside sheep barbers.

Posted By swac44 : October 6, 2017 12:09 pm

Great double feature with Paper Moon.

Saw this year’s ago, and I get the panicky feeling, which I felt every day when I briefly worked in sales (retail, not traveling, thank Jebus). The owner kept pushing, but I just wasn’t cut out for convincing people to buy high ticket items (at least I believed in the quality of what we were selling). It got worse as the business started to suffer, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, but that panic is all too familiar.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2017 12:47 pm

Doug, I watched the Maysles Brothers talking with critic Jack Kroll in 1968 when the film was released and stressing, “This is not a religious movie.” Indeed. Not only do you get the F-Bomb from Paul Brennan, you get a real dismissive attitude about the whole Bible sales crap. These guys are trying to make a buck and couldn’t care less if they were selling the Satanic Bible.

Just a side note: According to Albert Maysles, Paul Brennan left the Bible selling work just a few months after making the documentary and became a roof and siding salesman (probably a lot easier). When Pauline Kael found out he was a roof and siding salesman, she assumed he always had been and accused the brothers of “hiring” him away from that to do the movie. Even though all the records of the Mid-American Bible Company showed that Brennan worked with them for seven years before he quit, Kael never retracted. Of course.

Posted By swac44 : October 6, 2017 12:50 pm

Too bad there wasn’t a Paul Brennan sequel you could double-feature with Barry Levinson’s Tin Men!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2017 12:53 pm

swac44, I’m just glad I made it through the entire piece without mentioning Glengarry Glen Ross once. There are so many similarities, it was hard not to, but since every single modern piece on Salesman endlessly lingers on the Mamet film, I decided to let it lay. Besides, Paper Moon is a far more interesting comparison and probably more related. I wouldn’t be surprised, since both the novel it was based on and the movie itself were both released after Salesman, if Paper Moon didn’t get a little of its inspiration from those poor desperate Bible salesmen.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 6, 2017 12:54 pm

I hope Brennan saw Tin Men. I’m sure he would have loved it.

By the way, the top picture is Jamie trying to sell that woman the missal and the bottom picture is Paul, staring off into the distance, utterly frustrated with his life.

Posted By Doug : October 6, 2017 7:21 pm

I know, I know…that this is a post about a documentary. But it brought to mind one of the funniest Bible salesman to ever knock on a door:
Billy Barty as J.J. MacKuen in 1978′s “Foul Play”.
Goldie Hawn was lovely and Chevy Chase charming.
I think I’ve found my weekend movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 7, 2017 8:34 am

Doug, I thought of that too! I must have seen Foul Play a hundred times in the early eighties on cable. It still has a massive nostalgic pull on me every time I see it. And Dudley Moore is just great as well.

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