Released in a time of mass-scale social disruption and near-cataclysmic unrest of a decidedly corporeal character, the Maysles’ Brothers’ Salesman is careful to remind us that plain old fashioned social malaise and boredom had not dissipated either. While Southern men were burning crosses, as Neil Yong reminds us, they also sometimes cared less about “what their good book said” than whether hoking the word of the Bible could provide them a stable living. Southern men, and Northern men too, all bible salesmen. And all drowning in the mire of the mid-century American Dream failing them in small, pin-prick increments by the day.
Or maybe they do care what their good book says, since the gospel of self-effort and the Protestant work ethic is among the primary verbal barrages they suffer from, mostly at the hands of their boss. The four bible salesmen at the center of the film, on the prowl for souls in New England and Florida, bear animalistic nicknames in the film – the Bull, the Rabbit, the Gipper, and the Badger – that both evaporate their humanity and insinuate connections between their wiry door-to-door sales pitches and foraging for food. But if these men prey on the public, they are prey themselves to their middle-manager, the bossman, who preaches the late capitalist doctrine of personal agency and, more importantly, self-responsibility, framing every effort of theirs as their only path to a moral life and every drop in sales an indicator of their personal inefficiency in the capitalist tradition. The locus of success squarely constrained to the personal, the crisis at the center of Salesman may seem far removed from Vietnam or Kent State or Altamont, but it is no less indicative of the troubling corridors of capitalism at its most insidious and self-paradoxical.
The lower registers of this capitalistic system intrigue the Maysles, particularly the broken-hearted minutiae of the door-to-door battleground where the pressured salesmen beleaguer disinterested subjects with their verbal incantations preaching capitalistic prophecy. The situation is lose-lose, especially when compounded, in the Southern cases, by the stultifying Florida heat. This is a system which not only encourages physical violence of the old fire-and-brimstone register – thus, Kent State – bur thrives, rather, by ameliorating itself, self-purging its most vicious enforcers to lacquer itself in a more hospitable façade of nurturing opportunity. The Salesmen’s world lies not at the point of exteriorized violence – where oppression mushrooms into eruption – but in the catatonic day-to-day zombie shuffle of drift-less hopes and dashed dreams, in the middle-class and middlebrow doldrums of a static existence calcified by the impulse to lock the self into routines and rituals of false-actualization.
“Actualization” because this capitalistic myth feeds into a personal narrative of agency – of the capitalistic – and the liberal-filmic – narrative of cause and effect, action and reaction, of the individual whose motions infect, intercept, and (in the case of an action hero) incapacitate the world. “False” because it is a ruse that masks a perennial state of arrested development for these four salespersons who seldom feel they are actually sculpting the contours of their existence but – with the twinge of capitalism colonizing their minds – nonetheless persist in the presumption that their actions must be the source of their sorrow. I say sorrow, but the key is that this life does not benefit from cathartic, conclusive emotion – the men live in a state of professional dullness, of a neutral divorce from expression. Socially, the mirror for this state is a lack of cathartic failure and overt suppression; murdering four students at Kent State activates the state and thus legitimizes or at least overtly acknowledges the claim of the oppressed that they are being acted against by a corporeal being. The subjects of Salesman are dissociated from this life of action and reaction, of definable moments, of explicit violence against them to legitimize their feeling that they are oppressed. Their being is a perpetual and unending hum of nothingness garbed as motion. In some ways, it is much more insidious than physical violence.
Thus is the paradox of late-capitalism: a life in perpetual motion but never getting anywhere. The violence committed upon them is not compressed into sudden bursts – interruptions, walk-ons in the game of life – but stretched as a thin membrane over the essence of life itself; it becomes life, encompasses all, dulls the senses to it, and even colonizes critique of it. Which is why social arguments for opportunity and progressive films alike deal almost exclusively in the logic that oppresses them: liberal narratives of individual opportunity, epitomized in any hundred or two personal biopics that undoubtedly eulogize the lone savior, the individual agent. These are the very terms of the oppressor, of course, pulling the strings of criticism.
This neoliberal life legitimizes itself – grants life, feeds resistance – by making all other conceptions of life, other pathways of resistance, unlivable. Salesman defines oppression in these terms, much more uncertain terms than the violence of murder, and it visualizes cinema itself – with the camera-eye almost never telling us where specifically to view in the frame – in kind.