Movie Review – Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman (1985)
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff

Some pieces of art are monolithic in that you know some things about them even if you don’t actively seek them out. They just made such an impact on the culture and became interwoven into our language and our contemporary understanding. I can’t point to exactly when I first knew of Death of a Salesman, but one of my earlier memories was it being referenced in Seinfeld. In an episode, Jerry says George reminds him of Biff Loman from the play. I was a teenager and had never read the play, so I can’t say I ever fully comprehended that one. It made the play stick out to me, though, as it must be important, at a minimum, to understand some aspect of the “discourse.” But time flowed on, and I never sat down to experience Death of a Salesman until now.

Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman) is a salesman. He fancies himself the king of New England in his given profession, having many contacts and deals with vendors in that region. He’s getting older, though, and his wife, Linda (Kate Reid), worries about his health & safety being out on the road. As the play starts, Willy has recently had a near-car crash that shook him up. She wants Willy to ask his boss for a position in the city so that he doesn’t have to drive so much, and Willy is weighing it over. Meanwhile, their adult sons Biff (John Malkovich) and Hap (Stephen Lang) are visiting home, having never really made anything of themselves in the world. Willy stews about the fact that, in his mind, his sons have never amounted to anything, seen as a blight on his reputation. 

Through flashbacks, we begin to piece together how the Loman family got here. It’s all through Willy’s perspective, who is clearly experiencing encroaching dementia as he frequently sees visions of his dead older brother Ben (Louis Zorich). In these visions/memories, Willy recalls Ben pressuring him to push against his mundane life and invest in a lucrative business opportunity. Willy goes back and forth, ultimately too scared to push against the tide. When he becomes increasingly irate in the present, Linda lies that Biff has a big investment chance the following day, which pressures the eldest son into attending a meeting he doesn’t want to attend. 

The play’s structure is deceptively simple. Just two acts about fairly average people living mediocre lives. Yet, that is the whole point. In the past, we can see the cripplingly insecure Willy finds hope in his boys; he sees them being men of note, achieving great things and, in that way, making up for the insignificance of his own life. But, unfortunately, Biff and Hap’s lives do not play out that way, and now, in old age, Willy is prone to mood swings about these adult children. My reading of this is that Willy’s dementia has broken his masking. For his whole adult life, or at least what we see of it, Willy has been playing a role, presenting himself in a certain way. That makes sense. He would do that as a salesman; Willy needs to make people think he’s their pal and convince them to buy what he’s selling. 

Yet, that salesman persona seeped into every aspect of his being. When he talks to his brother or their neighbor, Charley (Charles Durning), he’s selling the idea of his sons as great men-in-waiting or that his life, in general, is a dream come true. Willy eventually lies to his acquaintances, strangers, and himself about these things to the point that he’s not even sure where the fiction ends and the truth begins. Our protagonist recalls another salesman’s funeral he attended, where people came from all corners of the country because they respected the man so much. Willy speaks about this with such envy; we can tell this is how he wants to die, revered by his associates. This leads to a profound discontentment with the world as it is because the facts on the ground do not match the aspirations.

Biff is on board with the fantasy throughout his childhood but hits a speed bump. The end of high school comes, and his father’s emphasis on being well-liked by your peers over academics keeps the young man from graduating. He must attend summer school to make up for a math credit. The week of graduation is a blank spot among the family when Biff just disappears for a while. We learn near the end of the play that Biff went to seek advice from Willy, who was on the road at the time. Biff discovers that his father has been having an affair with a woman he met in New England. Biff catches them together in a hotel room. This destroys so much of Biff’s worldview that he crumples, sobbing in a corner. Willy is not a great man; he’s a pathetic lech, just another base person who disregards others to satisfy his desires. In turn, Biff sees his father’s vision of him crumble; Willy just projects the idea of a person without these flaws onto his sons. They would be better than him, though the salesman would never say it like that. 

On a larger scale, Arthur Miller points out the lie of the American Dream in the tradition of someone like Eugene O’Neill. Miller shows us that we are made to be salesmen of our existence; we are convinced we must sell ourselves to family, friends, and strangers rather than simply be who we are and find contentment. Unfortunately, little has improved; more than ever, many people in America are tangled up in selling themselves as a brand. This happens not just in a work-professional setting but among our loved ones. We need to project an image of who we’d like them to think we are and hope that we, at some point, also believe the lie. 

As someone working through an understanding of being autistic and the role masking played in a lot of the harm I experienced growing up, this story spoke to me profoundly. My father and I haven’t spoken in fifteen years, and I don’t see that changing ever. He was always obsessively concerned with being respected, and if he felt that any of his children didn’t show him the level he believed he deserved, he’d pitch a fit. My mother was often blamed for “turning his children against” him, but the irony was he did this to himself. He was the architect of his own misery by playing one role to people outside our home and showing us the ugly reality behind closed doors. I could never respect him because he failed to ever respect himself. It also doesn’t help that I’m reasonably sure he’s undiagnosed autistic. In America, one of the worst things a white person can do within their circles is admit to being disabled. He will probably never be honest enough with himself to come to this understanding, but it is what it is. 

The COVID pandemic (still going on, despite what officials are desperately trying to convince us to believe so we all get back on the hamster wheel for their benefit) jolted many people out of the labor til-you-die mindset. It’s been enough that you regularly see the media corporations pushing ludicrous headlines that people are missing their hour+ long commutes or that enjoying working from home is a sign of some moral ill. This media onslaught indicates that an alternative way of living is cracking through the mask. The establishment is desperate to hold that back as it upends the scheme they’ve spent generations developing to maximize their comfort and ability to not labor like the rest of us. 

We still see Willy Loman’s popping up everywhere, desperate men who think if they just got a “fair shot” they’d make something of themselves. They fail to find contentment in the beauty around them, the relationships they have, and the privileges they enjoy. It’s not entirely their fault; the society around them has spent nearly every moment since they emerged from the womb inundating them with bootstrap ideology. Some of these men are very prominent indeed. They are Ben Shapiros, Stephen Crowders, Matt Walshes, Elon Musk, etc. Men who hate everybody while simultaneously craving the emotions associated with being respected & revered. Their constant dissatisfaction with never getting that experience comes out in explosive outbursts about meaningless things in an attempt to appeal to a crowd of the most easily distracted reactionaries you could imagine. And thus, they understand that the respect of these people, who they secretly revile, can’t satiate them. 

Life might be easier if we were honest, starting with ourselves about who we are and what drives us. It wouldn’t mean the erasure of conflict or suffering, but damn, it would go a long way in mitigating those things. It’s funny; I’ve had some really trollish comments some strangers have attempted to post on reviews I’ve written that I just delete, where they make insinuations about me making money off this blog. I make about $20 /month off Patreon from PopCult. Would I like it if I could support myself and Ariana off of this blog alone? Hell yes. But it gives me a sense of contentment and lets me work through ideas in a forum I enjoy. So many men cannot conceive that a person would do something because they love doing it. Everything is a way to connive money out of a dupe. It’s why these same men are so often interested in cryptocurrencies and NFTs. It’s the foundation of America, really, one big con job. Money is all that matters to them, and while you certainly can’t survive as it is without some money, I genuinely do not want that to be the center of my life. 

Death of a Salesman is a great American tragedy that not enough learned from, or when they felt the truth, they found excuses & flawed logic to convince themselves it was wrong. The tragedy that unfolds across its two acts is the same one that played out when it was first produced, and that keeps happening generation after generation. There is hope, though, because the reactionaries wouldn’t be pitching as many fits and stomping around if they didn’t feel a genuine threat to their system. The great bootstrap machine is cracking, cogs & springs are flying off through the air, and the ground buckles beneath us. The machine’s destruction won’t be pretty, but allowing it to keep running would be horrific. Humanity can have an existence of joyful contentment; we just have a lot of work to do to get there.


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