For Reel

Salesman (1969)
December 29, 2016, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

Director(s): Albert and David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin
5 Stars
salesmanAmerican documentary films in the late 1960s/early 1970s were often attracted to the rise of counterculture, most spectacularly laid out in the contrast between Michael Wadleigh’s fly-on-the-wall appreciation of Woodstock and the account of the hellish tragedy that unfolded the night that the Rolling Stones packed the Altamont speedway in Gimme Shelter. If Salesman doesn’t document this type of counterculture in such an explicit way, it is undoubtedly a crucial piece of the puzzle: this is exactly the America that certain young people were desperately trying to leave behind. The film argues that the commercialization of the country has dehumanized its citizens—in this case, salesmen like Paul Brennan grow frustrated with their predatory work, and customers are told that their only path to respectable class status and even religious salvation is to buy an expensive Bible. Brennan’s “Badger”, the most sorrowful of the salesman, is one of the great documentary subjects, both giving a hugely empathetic performance and yet still maintaining a certain unknowability—the filmmakers often linger on Brennan’s detached expressions as if searching desperately for the emotional meaning behind the facade. The most powerful aspect about Salesman as a work of political criticism is that it argues that there are few winners in this game of commerce, and that Brennan and his fellow salesmen themselves serve as both the predator and the prey.

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