Monday, January 16, 2012

"Salesman" - A Film by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zweria (1968)

This 1968 film, starring 4 real life salesmen, centers on the struggles of two members of the group, Paul Brennan and Charles McDevitt, as they target the poorer working class Catholic neighborhoods of Boston, and parts of Florida, door to door in 1967. They are trying to sell high end, expensive Bibles to working class families. The film is a combination of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and David Mamet’s “Glengary Glen Ross.”

There were no cell phones or laptops in 1967, when the film was shot, and beepers were still several years away for the average man. The film begins in the dead of winter in Boston. When sales plummet the team is called into the main office and given a verbal lashing, much as in the David Mamet film "Glengarry Glen Ross." Using a combination of the "carrot and the stick", the sales manager alternately praises and abuses the team, all in a vain attempt to increase sales.

From Boston, the group journeys to Miami, where they target the limited Catholic neighborhoods in an overwhelmingly Baptist state. The coffee shops where the men eat, the cheap motel rooms where they stay, are all part of the film, which at times serves as a detailed look back into the 1960's.

Paul's meltdown, mirroring those of Willy Lohman and Shelley Levene, the fictional salesmen in the two films mentioned earlier, is a sad thing to watch, as it is played out in real time. The only difference between those two fictional characters and Paul, is that Paul is a real person, as is his meltdown. It's not staged, it's not imagined. It's live. When you see this film you will understand those other two films so much more.

The film ends in a climactic way as Paul packs up to leave after experiencing a very bad sales period. While sitting on the motel bed, reminiscing about his days as an Irish kid in Boston, he laments that he could have done as his brother Charlie did, and been a cop, or like his sister Mary, worked for the phone company. If he had, he would be retiring by now, just like them. In other words, like Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront", he "could ‘a been somebody."

A very poignant film, made all the more interesting by the technology of 1966, this documentary underscores that, although in some ways it's a different world now, in other ways; as with the difference between success and failure; some things never change.

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