“I forget who the poet is, but a famous English poet said something like, ‘There’s no sound more beautiful, whether it’s in the city or in the country, than the sound of a knocking on the door.’ …. To that I would add, ‘Unless it was a Bible salesman.'” — Albert Maysles on Salesman
If brothers Albert & David Maysles excelled at one point in documentary filmmaking, it was finding the quiet drama in the seeming banality of the everyday. And while their other subjects–the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter and the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens infamy to name but two–are often better known, it is Salesman that has always affected me the most. Maybe it’s the simplicity, or rather, the complexity of something that on the surface seems so simple. After all, documenting Bible salesmen on their day-to-day peddling routes through suburban Boston could have been unbearably dull. But it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that what is captured–and importantly, brilliantly edited together–exemplifies a sort of quintessential Americanism: a fusion of huckster commercialism, quasi-religiousness, human frailty, and a good dose of sales guilt, all stretched over the classic Horatio Alger myth of “working your way up from nothing.”
Of course, this myth works out well for some, not so well for others. So it is here, where four men–all assigned animal names by the Maysles to describe their attitudes: The Rabbit, The Bull, The Badger, and The Gipper–have mixed success peddling overpriced Bibles to families that can ill afford their $50 price tag. Very early on, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is clearly different from the rest. Especially awkward are the scenes where all men are together talking about their day’s work, Paul clearly not cut our for the task. Despite his rationale for why the sales aren’t happening, and the caustic behind-the-scenes tone he takes on with regard to his clients, he seems almost too self-aware of the superfluousness of his job, of the fact that what he is doing is essentially meaningless and manipulative. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, their incredible editor, hone in on this pathos as the key to their narrative. They admitted later to developing a deep empathy for Paul and maintained a long relationship with him well beyond the filming. Paul is also Irish, and the Maysles, growing up in an antagonistic, anti-Irish Boston neighborhood and raised with those views themselves, saw this as an important peacemaking moment for them.
Today, Salesman could be seen as the film that introduced the term “cinema verite” to a wider audience. The term originates in the works of Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his idea of the “Kino Eye,” as seen in his radically experimental The Man with the Movie Camera. The lens simply captures life as it unfolds, without any intervention or narrative artifice from the director. Later this was taken up by french filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, who coined this term for “truthful cinema.” Nevertheless, it came to embody certain aesthetic ideals and little else, philosophically speaking. At this point in the study of film and media theory, no sane person would argue that the “cinema verite” style is any more “truthful” than that given by someone like Michael Moore. Typically, it is now often shorthand for a documentary that lacks narration or any clear framing devices or contexts for the viewer. Today we really take this form for granted, but in the mid-1960s, almost all documentaries used the newsreel approach, with the omnipotent voice over bringing down the narrative like a sledgehammer, not only providing context but also compensating for the fact that often no microphones were present for the subjects being filmed, with most sound done post production. The Maysles’s “direct cinema” approach (both brothers hated the pomposity of the phrase “cinema verite”) built upon earlier, more subtle traditions, like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the African documentaries of Rouch. The Maysles were “embedded” filmmakers–Albert on 16mm handheld camera, David on the mic and portable reel-to-reel–traveling with their subjects or, in the case of Grey Gardens, practically living in their homes. The Maysles’s reasoning for this was at the very core of their artistic vision: gain their trust, and the rest will follow. The philosophy worked remarkably well for their three essential films, Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.
But in today’s “reality”-obsessed, media-savvy culture, Salesman is amazing for another reason: the lack of self-consciousness of its subjects. Somehow, no one seems to think it strange to have two men filming in their homes, nor do they think it appropriate to get the curlers from their hair, or put on an overshirt, or not smoke at the table with the baby present, or turn down the wobbly, blaring elevator music on the new hi-fi system. Granted, the brothers did work to get the trust of their main subjects, but there was no such trust with the working class families whose homes they entered; just a quick explanation of this being part of a “human interest story.” After all, it’s what the Maysles Brothers loved, getting at the realness of people in the moment, not in a mocking ironic sense, but in a humanistic and sincere way. And there is no film where this sincerity comes through stronger than Salesman.