End of the Road
March 15, 2012
Albert and David Maysles’ direct cinema documentary Salesman follows the exhausting professional lives of four door-to-door bible salesmen. It’s an acute, funny, and ultimately depressing movie, and an anomaly in the Maysles filmography in that it deals with working class people rather than celebrity or society figures.
Early in the film, for just a few frames, there is a glimpse of a television set in the salesmen’s motel room, a set that’s tuned in to a identifiable program. Although the Maysles’ work has been written about extensively, I can’t find any literature that mentions the salesmen’s taste in television. But the show they’re watching is Run For Your Life.
The Maysles photographed Salesman in the winter of 1965-66, during Run For Your Life’s first season. By the time the documentary received a proper release, in 1969, the show was off the air.
Maybe it’s foolish to place any significance in Run For Your Life’s little cameo in Salesman. I wonder if even the Maysles Brothers paid much attention to what was on television in that scene. But, for what it’s worth, that there could hardly have been a more appropriate show for these faith peddlers to follow. In different ways, both texts were about men on the run.
Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as a lawyer who, after contracting a terminal illness, decides to spend his remaining days travelling the globe in search of adventure. Maysles’ bible salesmen lead a peripatetic existence, taking long trips out of town and then schlepping from house to house by car and on foot as they search for fresh prey. Even the names are consonant. Gazzara’s character is named Paul Bryan. The salesman who comes to occupy the center of the Maysles’ film is a man named Paul Brennan.
The similarity pretty much ends there. Paul Bryan doesn’t have long to live, but he has all his free time to live it up. His disease is painless and symptom-free. He has enough money to party with the jet set, to visit exotic places, to experience the adrenaline rush of extreme sports. His hell is existential – he’s burdened with the knowledge of when he’ll die – while the Maysles’ bible salesmen are trapped in a more mundane kind of purgatory. Tasked with selling tacky fifty-dollar bibles to people who can’t afford them, they need all their wits to eke out a stressful, uncertain living with no end in sight.
By the movie’s conclusion, Paul Brennan seems to be on the verge of some kind of breakdown, or at least a change of occupation. I imagine that Run For Your Life would have seemed like an escapist fantasy to him. If Brennan and his co-workers had wanted a TV hero with whom to empathize, they might have switched over to ABC to watch David Janssen as The Fugitive. Richard Kimble’s hardscrabble existence had a bit more in common with theirs.
One other idea that occurred to me as I watched Salesman is how much its images of Florida, where most of the second half of the film takes place, remind me of the Route 66 episodes set in the same state.
In her audio commentary for the DVD, Salesman’s editor, the late Charlotte Zwerin, points out how “barren” the Florida landscape looks. Zwerin is right: you’d imagine that Florida could not help but look cheerful on film, all sun-spackled and pastel-colored, but the Maysles’ grainy sixteen-millimeter black-and-white makes the sunshine seem harsh and oppressive. The subtropical landscape is scrubby and dotted with wilted palm trees, a dreary, anonymous place.
The Florida of Route 66 looks the same way – so flat, spread out, sun-blasted, and hot that might as well be Mars. The screen-doored houses are quaint but bland. It was a great, unique location for the show, so distinctive that Tod and Linc toured Florida twice, late in both the third and fourth seasons. Their Corvette looked pretty cool tooling down those long, straight freeways, surrounded only by sand and sky. At least, that’s what I remember of “Who Will Cheer My Bonnie Bride?,” the Cape Coral kidnapping-and-pursuit episode that has Gene Hackman in a cameo as a doofus “motorist,” as they used to put it in the credits.
There’s a wonderful website that documents, photographically, some of the Route 66 locations. Take a look at the then-and-now images from “Shadows of an Afternoon” (filmed in Punta Gorda) and “The Cruelest Sea of All” (filmed in Crystal River, Florida, and featuring the famous Mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, who saved a remarkable scrapbook of snapshots documenting Route 66’s visit), and you’ll see what I’m getting at, as well as the visual correlation to Salesman.
The four protagonists of Salesman are led to expect to find easy pickings in Florida, but their targets there are culturally and ethnically far removed from these Boston Irishmen, and they prove to be tough sells. The Miami outskirts where the salesmen flail about, getting lost in monotonous suburban streets with nonsensical names, provide an objective correlative to Paul Brennan’s mounting frustration.
Florida was the end of the road in Route 66, too. It was in Tampa, in the two-part series finale, that Tod (Martin Milner) decided to get married (to Barbara Eden!), and decided to part ways with Linc (Glenn Corbett), who kept the Corvette and drove off towards a more ambiguous future. Just what is it about Florida, anyway? My other favorite television-related association with Florida is from one of Michael Moore’s TV shows, from right after the 2000 election in which Floridians enabled the theft of the presidency. Moore’s advice: “Snip it off.”
Salesman or Route 66? The image is from “Shadows of an Afternoon” (1963), and swiped from the Ohio66 website.