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Short form documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Orson Welles in Spain, Meet Marlon Brando [both 1966)] made the decision to go feature length after completing the short subject A Visit with Truman Capote (1966), which captured the celebrated writer in conversation and rumination following the success of his 1965 "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. It was Capote's Random House publisher Joe Fox who encouraged the Maysles in their desire to shape a non-fiction narrative into a form that resembled fiction and suggested a subject for their cinema verité-inspired "direct cinema" documentary: traveling salesmen. The Brookline, Massachusetts-born brothers, sons of a Jewish postal clerk, had both worked briefly in their formative years as salesmen, hawking everything from Fuller brushes to encyclopedias, and they warmed instantly to the idea. The brothers considered various types of traveling salesmen before settling on agents for the Chicago-based Mid-American Bible Company, who bore, to their eyes, the closest resemblance to the anguished protagonists of Eugene O'Neill, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway.
By the winter of 1966-1967, Willy Loman, the defeated title character of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman, had been in the ground for nearly twenty years and the noise from academia was that door-to-door salesman were as archaic as tinkers and rag collectors. The invasive four-wall push of Madison Avenue seemed to have made flesh-and-bone salesman redundant and the publication in 1962 of E. B. Weiss' The Vanishing Salesman didn't help public relations much, despite the fact that American companies still sent men and women into the field to knock on doors with the expectation that the human element still mattered to those with even a little money to burn. Splitting its screen time between a snow-packed New England winter and a selling sojourn to sunny Florida, Salesman (1968) follows a quartet of Bible sellers through their territories but focuses most squarely on one: Paul Brennan, aka The Badger. Like Willy Loman and Shelly "The Machine" Levine from David Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer winner Glengarry Glen Ross, the Badger's sales and spirits are down, though we do not know with any certainty that he was ever much of a salesman to begin with.
Salesman is ostensibly about Bibles but religion plays a bit part in the film, which is concerned more intensely with language, with the patter of the salesman as they cousin their lower middle class and blue collar customers into buying what amounts to an expensive luxury item, with the bullying incentives tendered by district boss Kennie Turner at quarterly sales meetings, and with the telling, tentative way that the failing Badger communicates with his brothers-in-commission - Raymond "The Bull" Martos, James "The Rabbit" Baker, and Charles "The Gipper" McDevitt - all of whom are doing better in the territory than he is and all of whom maintain, despite participation in poker games and other downtime occupations, a professional distance from the man they consider to be poison, a jinx, "the bum in the territory." Employing Truman Capote's tack, while researching In Cold Blood, of forging friendships with his subjects, the Maysles Brothers interacted directly with their protagonists and whomever agreed to be photographed for the purposes of Salesman, even to the point of paying one-dollar gratuities to ensure participation. Though the documentarians (and their editor/co-director Charlotte Zwerin, who cut the 90 minute film from 100 hours of footage) would face charges from their peers of contaminating the presumed prerequisite of objectivity in their work, the Maysles preferred to believe they were "using the camera with love" to mine for a different reality, a different - but no less genuine - form of truth.
Salesman received a warm welcome from the critics upon its release in the spring of 1969, with New York Times' Vincent Canby (who saw the film three times) claiming it as "such a fine pure picture of a small section of American life that I can't imagine its ever seeming irrelevant." Salesman had significant influence as well on narrative films to come, among them Jim Jarmush's landmark New York indie pic Stranger Than Paradise (1984) - which also split its run time between the snowy north and the sadly sun-kissed south - and Rob Reiner's game-changing mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984), whose classic vignette of the band being lost backstage in a labyrinthine Cleveland venue ("You go straight through this door here, down the hall, turn right and then there's a little jog there... jog to the left...") seems to have taken its cue from a moment in Salesman in which the Badger, lost in "the Muslim district" of Opa-Locka, begs directions (ultimately useless) from a helpful black man ("Instead of jogging to the left, jog to the right..."). And there's hardly a moment in Salesman that doesn't have its analog in James Foley's 1992 film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, though it's all done here without bad language and is, for its reserve, doubly frightening.
By Richard Harland Smith
The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles by Jonathan B. Vogels (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005)
Albert and David Maysles: Interviews edited by Keith Beattie (University Press of Mississippi, 2010)
Albert Maysles: Contemporary Film Directors by Joe McElhaney (University of Illinois Press, 2009)
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