A study of Boston-area Bible salesmen was the breakthrough documentary of the brothers Albert and David Maysles.
The Maysles brothers, Albert and David, pioneered what came to be known as “direct cinema”: a form of documentary without narration or interviews, which allowed the subject to develop in unplanned and unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ve seen Gimme Shelter, their account of the Rolling Stones tour that ended in disaster at Altamont, or Grey Gardens, a quirky portrait of mother and daughter recluses. But before these movies, the Maysles’ first important film, the one that made them famous, was Salesman, produced in 1968.
The movie follows four men selling expensive, illustrated Catholic Bibles door to door, in the Boston area and (briefly) on a trip to Florida. Despite being imitated countless times in the years since it was released, Salesman‘s style still seems startling in its originality. We are taken into the homes of potential customers, and their behavior—they often struggle to find a way to say “no” to the salesmen—is extremely natural. Of course they were aware of being filmed, but this seems to have had a negligible effect. (It all took place well before the era of “reality” TV and the popular craving for fame that we see so often now.)
The contrast between the hard sell techniques of a salesman and the religious nature of the product creates some humor, but the Maysles aren’t aiming for laughs. They just stand back and observe, and the result is complex and fascinating. The main focus is on the salesmen themselves. The brothers were particularly fortunate that the oldest of the four men, Paul Brennan, turns out to have been a compelling character who almost seems to have stepped out of the pages of a novel. Brennan is alternately sardonic, exuberant, and pathetic, and his increasing sense of failure matches the mood of emptiness and futility evoked by the salesmen’s lifestyle.
The dog-eat-dog world of sales, in which hapless customers are pressured into buying things they don’t need, and the salesmen themselves are threatened with unemployment if they can’t meet the quotas, becomes a commentary in miniature on the fabled American dream. This is one of those pictures that might seem overly dry while you’re watching it, but then starts to haunt you after it’s over. We can see how the methods of salesmanship always involve performance—in short, lying of one sort or another–and how the connection between this heightened kind of performance and the ordinary web of interactions and relations reveals falsehood as a vital element of the social fabric. To the Maysles’ credit, the insights gained are not at the expense of their subjects’ humanity. However odd the reality of their lives may be, the salesmen come off as real individuals with their own virtues and flaws. While rigorously maintaining a matter-of-fact approach that still seems novel today, Salesman allows us glimpses of the truth under the mask.