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.

About these ads

6 Responses to “End of the Road”

  1. macphilms Says:

    Wonderful piece, imaginatively and perceptively tying together RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, ROUTE 66 and that fascinating if painful documentary, SALESMAN.


  2. Stephen, I can’t begin to thank you for identifying the program on the TV in Salesman, I watched the doc about a week ago On Demand; it’s been years since I’d seen it and I knew the show was familiar but couldn’t place it right off. (I’ve got the Criterion DVD and was just about to open it for a closer study…you saved me the work,)

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Not only is it Run For Your Life, but it’s the iconic opening title sequence (or else I might not have recognized it myself, since you only see a second or two). Which means that the Maysles filmed that scene on a Monday night, just seconds after ten o’clock. The salesmen probably had an appointment to regroup in one of their hotel rooms at ten, following an evening shift of bothering people during dinner.

  4. Mike Rice Says:

    I only watched TV selectively in the 60s as I passed through my teens and early twenties. My brother was hooked on everything and kept me abreast of the terrible stuff that was on the air. I bought into the Batman fad, got hooked on the Fugitive at my brother’s behest. My brother and his pals even watched the Channel 15 WMTV, Madison, Wisconsin, editorial for laughs each night before Batman. I was kept abreast of Dr. Smith’s lecherous designs on Will Robinson, which only his robot understood. My brother watched the whole Beverly Hillbillies spawn, including Green Acres with Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. I’m watching Outer Limits from This TV a week or so ago and discover Eddie did a mock Green Acres episode on the wonderfully bizarro Outer Limits, with all kinds of spoken references to the rural series, with June Havoc, Fred MacMurray’s wife and Gypsy Rose Lee’s Sister, standing in for Eva Gabor. Bumping along in a cool new Mercury with June, in a parody of the tractor ride at the opening of Acres, the couple gets lost as nightfall approaches. Limits got by with not too much for sets or props. This episode was a joke. Dry tumbleweed attacks June, but Eddie is unconvinced its designs are malign, and poo pooh’s June’s protests. Rural clown Arthur Hunnicutt shows up to flavor the desolate ghost town setting. Finally a tumbleweed attacks Eddie, attaching itself to his ear. He is convinced. Eddie and June flee, find the car, it miraculously starts. The couple finds they were only two miles from home. In recent decades, my brother and his pals and I plumb old McHale’s Navy episodes for shots of subtle, but still crude racist examples of anti-Japanese remarks re-spun into extraordinary joke sequences on McHale’s Navy.. Captain Binghampton and the jibbering Lieutenant Carpenter sneak up on a McHale and the merry men at a beach party.. Their Japanese Soldier Captive is dancing around the campfire singing a hilarious version of Pistol Packin’ Mama in Japanese pidgin english: “Ray that pistol down boy, Ray that Pistol down, Pistol Packin’ Mama, Ray that pistol down!” McHale’s men are harassed by a Jap Sub, so hoping to get rid of them, McHale broadcasts a message saying Japs have surrendered, War is over. The submarine crew surrenders to McHale. The Jap sub commander with hands in the air shouts :”Wah is Ovah, Wah is Ovah, Give Ol Cowridge Try, Ruse Anyway!” as he wades his crew ashore. Artistic critics had been talking about the arrival of modernism since Picasso’s Blue Period at the beginning of the century, but Americans generally only got it as the miraculous Kennedys ushered in the sixties. Most of the television I care about now from that miraculous decade is a still living Rorschach test of who and what we were then. I wouldn’t look at Idol, CSI, Modern Family, DWTS or any of the other dreck that appears today. Its not in the same league with the noirish tv film-making of the 60s TV. Run For Your Life and Route 66 were representative of the existentialism that was loose in America at the time. What was on TV in those days needs to be studied carefully to find out how we reached the terrible fork in the road that landed us on CSI!

  5. Mike Rice Says:

    Mike Rice Says:

    March 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm
    I only watched TV selectively in the 60s as I passed through my teens and early twenties. My brother was hooked on everything and kept me abreast of the terrible stuff that was on the air. I bought into the Batman fad, got hooked on the Fugitive at my brother’s behest. My brother and his pals even watched the Channel 15 WMTV, Madison, Wisconsin, editorial for laughs each night before Batman. I was kept abreast of Dr. Smith’s lecherous designs on Will Robinson, which only his robot sidekick Robby the Robot understood. My brother watched the whole Beverly Hillbillies spawn, including Green Acres with Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. I’m watching Outer Limits from ThisTV a week or so ago and discover Eddie doing a mock Green Acres episode on the wonderfully bizarro Outer Limits, with all kinds of spoken references to the rural series, with June Havoc, Fred MacMurray’s wife and Gypsy Rose Lee’s Sister, standing in for Eva Gabor. Bumping along in a cool new Mercury with June, in a parody of the tractor ride at the opening of Acres, the couple gets lost as nightfall approaches. Limits got by with not too much for sets or props. This episode was a joke. A dry piece of tumbleweed attacks June, attaching to her chin, but Eddie is unconvinced its designs are malign, he poo pooh’s June’s protests. Rural clown Arthur Hunnicutt shows up to flavor the desolate ghost town setting. Finally a tumbleweed attacks Eddie, attaching itself to his ear. Finally convinced. Eddie and June flee, find the car, it miraculously starts. The couple finds they were only two miles from home. In recent decades, my brother and his pals and I plumb old McHale’s Navy episodes for shots of subtle, but still crude racist examples of anti-Japanese remarks re-spun into extraordinary joke sequences on the show.. Captain Binghampton and the jibbering Lieutenant Carpenter sneak up on McHale and the merry men at a beach party.. Their Japanese Soldier Captive Mascot is dancing around the campfire singing a hilarious version of Pistol Packin’ Mama in Japanese pidgin english: “Ray that pistol down boy, Ray that Pistol down, Pistol Packin’ Mama, Ray that pistol down!” McHale’s men are harassed by a Jap Sub, so hoping to get rid of them, McHale broadcasts a message saying the Japs have surrendered, the War is over. The submarine crew surrenders to McHale. The Jap sub commander with hands in the air wails :”We sullender, We Sullender, Waw is Ovah, Waw is Ovah, Give Ol Cowridge Try, Ruse Anyway!” as he wades his crew ashore. Artistic critics had been talking about the arrival of modernism since Picasso’s Blue Period at the beginning of the century, but Americans generally only got it as the miraculous Kennedys ushered in the sixties. Most of the television I care about now from that miraculous decade is still a living Rorschach test of who and what we were then. I wouldn’t look at Idol, CSI, Modern Family, DWTS or any of the other dreck that appears today. Its not in the same league with the noirish black and white tv film-making of the 60s TV. Run For Your Life and Route 66 are representative of the existentialism that was loose in America at the time. What was on TV in those days needs to be studied carefully to find out how we reached the terrible fork in the road that landed us on Godawful CSI!

  6. Rick Says:

    Thanks for the great comments about my website, http://www.ohio66.com. I’m an occasional lurker here and just noticed this post today. I added a link to your site from ohio66 in the “favorite links” section.

    Rick


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 179 other followers

%d bloggers like this: