‘Salesman’ – 50th Anniversary Retrospective
In the 1960’s getting your hands on filming equipment could be difficult, and when you got it you wanted to utilize your resources on something grand. But brothers, Albert and David Maysles decided to use their cameras and recording equipment to follow around a group of door-to-door Bible salesmen in the Eastern United States. Together these brothers pioneered a movie style dubbed “Direct Cinema” which they transformed into what we know today as, the documentary. Earlier in the 60’s they had worked on Primary, a Direct Cinema movie which followed John F. Kennedy’s campaign during the Wisconsin Democratic Primary. It was not long before they decided to set out on their own to make a picture in the same style, and make what they called the first “non-fiction feature film”.
With a budget of $100,000 David and Albert followed four men in order to make Salesman. Though they had real names, part of the fun was that these men had come up with nicknames for each other. The primary focus is the down-on-his-luck and jaded, “the Bagder”, but we also have “the Rabbit”, “the Gipper”, and “the Bull”. The Maysles watch silently as these men make their pitches to stay-at-home wives (and sometimes their cynical husbands) pushing them to drop their hard earned cash on one of the ornate Bibles they are selling (and maybe one of the other religious books available). As expected they strike-out more often than not, which while entertaining for us in the audience at times, tends to hit them hard. As the movie comes to a close, we see a very upset Badger, contemplating why he even chose this career path. Salesman is not all door knocking and sales pitches, Albert and David Maysles are also able to show us these men goofing around in hotel rooms and meetings. This is where we really get to know these men and find things we can relate to in them.
As one would expect, such a one of a kind film would have a hard time finding distribution methods. After Salesman was completed and copyrighted, the Maysles could not find anyone willing to spread it into theaters. The following year they began renting out theaters to host their own screenings of the movie until word-of-mouth began to spread. As the movie was diffused, it was hailed by critics for its unflinching look at the everyday lives of real people in a way never done before. Of course you do not blaze a trail without making enemies, and Pauline Kael of the New Yorker became that enemy. She used her platform as a prominent film critic for a major publication to accuse the brothers of falsifying the entire movie. She specifically made the claim that the Badger was not actually a Bible salesman but actually a roof and siding salesman who they hired for the part. Albert and David threatened legal action in order to prove the authenticity of their work.
Being among the very first examples of modern documentary filmmaking Salesman has earned its place in movie history. In 1992 the Library of Congress granted it a spot in the National Film Registry (like it should do for Plan 9 From Outer Space) due to its importance in American movie history. Recently, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the picture George Lucas paid to have the original cut of the movie digitally remastered. Salesman is a perfect example of early documentary filmmaking, which I highly encourage any cinephile to see in order to gain an appreciation for the origins of this unique genre.