Those who adhere to the wildly held, wildly wrongheaded notion that feature documentaries are “boring” obviously have not seen a film by the legendary team of Albert and David Maysles, who pioneered the method of “direct cinema”–in which the story and structure of each of their films was dictated by the reality of what they shot. The results were films of uncommon intimacy, honesty, and objectivity, free of all-knowing narration and other conventions of documentary filmmaking.
The Maysles’ first feature was 1969’s Salesman, which follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen. That may not sound like the most scintillating of subjects, but the team of brothers have made quite a riveting, multi-layered film about it. On one level it’s a fascinating document of a bygone era where such peddlers were commonplace; on another, it’s an interesting commentary on religion as a consumer commodity (the Bibles they are selling are gilded tomes as expensive as they are ornate; and on its most stinging, a look at a once-hot, now-struggling saleman’s (Paul Brennan, nicknamed “The Badger”) descent into frustrated desperation. The Maysles draw no conclusions nor offer any easy answers about these people, their jobs, or any individual situation, which makes the film more powerful.
The Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of Salesman offers a wealth of background into the film. Albert Maysles, the surviving brother of the team, offers insightful, informative, anecdote-heavy commentary on both discs along with his collaborators (editor/co-director Charlotte Zwerin). The late David Maysles also gets his say in a feature on one feature of the Salesman disc: a 20-minute television interview he did with Albert for WCBS-TV in 1968. One of the salesman featured in the film, James “The Rabbit” Baker, is also heard from, in a National Public Radio interview from 2000. An extensive selection of behind-the-scenes photographs rounds out this disc.
Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; Dolby Digital mono; English subtitles.