Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Twenty-Two

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#22 — Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1968)
I tend to think of the documentaries from the Maysles brothers as fairly wooly and structureless. Grey Gardens, undoubtedly their most famous film, is an intimate portrait of the Beales of East Hampton, New York, but it makes no attempt to hammer their experience into a straight-line story. Quite the contrary, part of the appeal of the film is the way its messiness matches the open-ended lives of the Beales, making the documentary feel like another resident of the ramshackle mansion. Salesman, the earlier effort from Albert and David Maysles (along with collaborator Charlotte Zwerin), has some of the same casual observational qualities and and anti-narrative airiness that marks it as a pillar of direct cinema. In depicting the dire, monotonous lives of door-to-door bible salesmen, the Maysles brothers and Zwerin let the exchanges across coffee tables and through screen doors play out with a minimum of intrusive fuss, but they also find their way to a fascinating through line. Salesman is about a fairly sizable group of religious book peddlers, but the withering soul of the movie is found in Paul Brennan.

Nicknamed “The Badger,” Brennan is the sort of weathered struggler that Arthur Miller could have scribbled notes about on his way to finishing Death of a Salesman. Brennan talks a good game, theorizing about the best approach to moving bibles when sitting at company meetings of with his cohorts on motel room beds, but he seems increasingly defeated as he encounters tough prospects on the road. By the late nineteen-sixties, the notion of trudging from one front stoop to another with a hefty suitcase full of product already seemed somewhat antiquated, even if there were probably more people likely to be susceptible to the allure of a glossy, pricey religious book being brought straight into their living room rather than, say, a fancy vacuum cleaner. Slipping across the South, trying to convince those who can evidently barely afford day-to-day expenses to fill out a credit slip for another copy of a book they undoubtedly already have, has to be especially exhausting. And watching Brennan get more dismayed at every setback gives personality to the darkening cloud over the profession.

The closing credits note that Salesman represents a specific attempt by the Maysles brothers to consider the existences of “the kind of people they grew up with.” I don’t know how much nobility either of them would have ascribed to their filmmaking endeavor, but there’s a certain added power in bringing these sort of humble lives to the screen with little adornment or romanticizing. There’s no pity to be found in these frames, nor aggrandizement. These are guys who get up every day and simply do a job, one that afford them little recognition and almost no dreams of advancement up a corporate ladder. The best they can truly hope for is a stack of cards with slightly better leads and a future of ever more doors to be knocked upon. Like the very best documentaries, Salesman puts the viewer squarely in the place of its subject. The Maysles brothers and their collaborators are peddling a deeper understanding of a neglected part of the American culture and doing so with admirable empathy.

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