The Maysles Brothers spent decades making films which showed the mundanities and peculiarities of American life and culture, a number of which were co-directed and edited by frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin. Grey Gardens is one of cinema’s great oddities. Gimme Shelter is a marvelous exploration of The Rolling Stones, perhaps the most prolific band in American music history. Both of these documentaries serve as interesting observations on their face and serve to spell out a deeper message about the American psyche. However, no Maysles Brothers film, or any other film for that matter, tells a more honest and powerful story about America than Salesman.
Salesman, co-directed by Zwerin, follows a group of travelling Bible salesmen as they attempt to make a living going door-to-door. It exposes the desperation with which they approach their craft and the tactics they use to persuade their clientele. It observes their national sales meetings as they proudly boast lofty goals for the year. It interviews them and shows their conversations with family members back home waiting for another check to come in the mail.
On its face, Salesman tells the story of these men who are doing anything they can to scrape by. We empathize with their financial struggles and we root for them to make every sale. We connect with them through their bonds with each other and we find joy and humor in their minor victories. It is possible to take nothing from Salesman but the story of this group of middle class men trying to make it through daily life and still derive value from the film.
That said, at its core Salesman is a sad analysis of American capitalism. The salesmen at the center of the documentary lead lonely lives of financial struggle. They spend their lives away from their families, each action driven by the desire to send a small amount of money home. The greatest irony in these men’s efforts to make enough money to feed their families from afar is that they are doing so under the guise of spreading religion, which is itself being corrupted by the veil of the dollar.
With all this, Salesman is not a tonally cynical movie. It treats its subjects with dignity and often tackles the topic with a sense of humor. The sociopolitical elements of the film are present, but disguised with a genuinely human tale. In all, Salesman is one of the great documentaries, but more importantly it is one of the great films about the myth of the American Dream.