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In ‘Salesman,’ a joyless reality of the American Dream

Paul Brennan in "Salesman."
Paul Brennan in "Salesman."Criterion Channel

By the 1960s nearly a million salesmen roamed America, going door-to-door peddling vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, shoes, and more. Now in the age of Amazon and telemarketing they are almost extinct, living on in hoary jokes but also apotheosized in works of art such as Eugene O’Neill’s 1939 play, "The Iceman Cometh,” Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman,” and the 1969 groundbreaking documentary and “direct cinema” masterpiece, “Salesman,” by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.

This benighted profession embodied all that is sad and striving about the American Dream and was a metaphor for an economic system in extremis. If the world of business was a surrey, muses Paul (“The Badger”) Brennan, one of the four salesmen featured in “Salesman,” then their job wouldn’t be just the fringe on top, but a stray thread on a tassel on the fringe.

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Brennan stands out from the others, not just because he is the most frustrated but because he has some self-awareness and a sense of irony. He is a bit of a poet, and, as he points out in one of his belabored, increasingly desperate, usually unsuccessful, and sometimes self-revealing sales pitches, he is Boston Irish and has a gift of the gab. He resorts to the usual cajoling bromides when courting a buyer, but when he is back in the motel with his colleagues smoking, drinking, and playing cards, he’ll sardonically speak his mind.

But his “negative” attitude makes the others uneasy. They don’t always get his jokes, as when he indulges in an ongoing riff imitating the brogue of an old Irish woman saying things like “Yer fatha’s on the fahce. He gets a good pinsion. He puts in a lot of time, but he gets his rewahd.” Brennan’s being sarcastic, but he might also be a little resentful. He wouldn’t mind having the financial stability of that “pinsion” himself.

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Paul Brennan, taking a break, in "Salesman."
Paul Brennan, taking a break, in "Salesman."Criterion Channel

The people receiving his pitch are no better off. They are mostly housewives in housecoats and hair curlers with their faces pinched with anxiety who listen politely and admire the hefty, gold-embossed, glossily illustrated, papal-approved Catholic Bible that he’s pushing. After Brennan has exhausted his schtick they hem and haw and say that they’ll have to talk to their husbands or that they simply can’t afford to pay $49.99. So Brennan packs up his big valise, trudges through a slushy Boston winter and heads on to another potential customer.

If he can find it. The Bible company sends him and the others to Miami in search of new prospects (Brennan says they can’t be any worse than the people on Gallivan Boulevard). He gets lost driving in the tacky labyrinth of Opa-Locka, a suburban enclave in which all the streets have names from the Arabian Nights like Ali Baba Avenue and Sesame Street. He starts out searching for an address at the garish, Moorish-style town hall but it teasingly eludes him. He asks people for directions and they are helpful but vague and contradictory. At first he’s amused, but after several foiled attempts the search becomes maddening. Finally, he thinks he’s got it right and turns the corner only to see the town hall.

He’s going in circles. The world seems to be straying from the drab confinement of cinéma vérité to the nightmare scenarios of David Lynch.

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In making “Salesman” the Maysles brothers shot around 100 hours of film and with their editor Zwerin they would shape the story that emerged. Their images of a joyless, monochromatic world are seemingly isolated from the cultural and political change of the era (a rare exception is when the bored husband of one of the customers puts on a blaringly awful instrumental version of the Beatles’ “Yesterday”). But this dislocation from the times makes the film timeless. “Salesman” presents an archetype of America, epitomized by Brennan’s face — shot in candid close-up, blank with desperation, wizened with sardonic glee, or twisted with terror and rage, it is as close to reality as cinema can get.

“Salesman” can be streamed on the Criterion Channel.

Go to www.criterionchannel.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.