#231) Salesman (1969)

SALESMAN, 1968

#231) Salesman (1969)

OR “Jesus Shlept”

Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin

Class of 1992

The Plot: Hi, my name is Tony. How are you today? Have you ever heard the word of the Maysles Brothers? They’ve made this wonderful documentary about door-to-door bible salesmen. You don’t seem interested, but what if I told you that the film’s direct cinema approach provides you with new insight to a thankless profession? And wait until you see these salesmen; there’s Paul “The Badger” Brennan, who’s having a bit of a slump. But he’s aided by Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, Jamie “The Rabbit” Baker, and Raymond “The Bull” Martos. Their stories of struggle and survival are truly inspirational, especially in times like these. You still seem on the fence, is it okay if I leave some literature with you?

Why It Matters: The NFR quotes Vincent Canby, who wrote in his review “the Maysles Brothers transcend superficiality with compassion by showing that ‘the salesmen are no less vulnerable than their customers.’”

But Does It Really?: Perhaps “Grey Gardens” set the bar too high for me in terms of Maysles documentaries, but I just couldn’t get into this one. The subject matter is fascinating, the business tactics are interesting to watch, and like a lot of direct cinema, it’s an important time capsule of a specific era, but there was a barrier between me and the movie that I just couldn’t break. Direct cinema is known for letting the viewer fill in their own blanks, so perhaps what I brought to the viewing prevented me from connecting with it. Regardless, I still respect the film for what it brings and the time it represents, so let’s label “Salesman” as “historically significant” and move on.

Shout Outs: McDevitt gets his nickname “The Gipper” from “Knute Rockne, All American”. The Badger sees the “Casablanca” hotel in Miami and references the movie and “Humphrey Bogie”, which coincidentally is my favorite Bowie album.

Everybody Gets One: We get more of the Maysles with their follow-up film “Grey Gardens”, and co-director Charlotte Zwerin with the recently inducted “Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser”. This is, not surprisingly, the only NFR appearance for the four salesmen. Despite what Pauline Kael claimed, these were actual salesmen, not actors.

Wow, That’s Dated: Door-to-Door salesmen: is there anything else to say?

Seriously, Oscars?: Definitely no Oscar nod for a documentary that couldn’t even get a proper distribution deal (the Maysles had to pay for it themselves). The 1969 Best Documentary winner was “Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life”. I’m sure he’s a great guy, but a documentary about a concert pianist? Yawn. (NOTE: If “Rubinstein” makes the Registry I will immediately retract this disdain). The Maysles’ only Oscar nomination came in 1974 with their short subject “Christo’s Valley Curtain”.

Other notes

  • The Maysles were the ones doing the actual filming, sending footage back to Charlotte Zwerin, who would edit and offer feedback. Zwerin’s contributions in forming “Salesman” in the cutting room led to her receiving a directing credit.
  • If $50 sounds steep for a bible, remember that that’s in 1967 money. Today that would be over $350.
  • Did having a camera crew standing there pressure any of the customers to buy a bible?
  • Paul looks like a cross between Burgess Meredith and Sterling Hayden.
  • The salesman’s boss Kennie Turner pops up throughout the film to encourage sales. He’s no Alec Baldwin.
  • Lots of jabs at the Irish and Italians in this one, especially from Paul Brennan. If I were closer to my roots I’d be offended.
  • There are a lot of thick New England accents in this movie. I may need subtitles for this one.
  • Melbourne I. Feltman, the bible consultant featured in the film, may have the greatest name of anyone in a movie ever.
  • What I wouldn’t give for these guys to try a peddle a bible at “Grey Gardens”. The first connective tissue in the Maysles Cinematic Universe.
  • There’s a painting of the Immaculate Conception? Ewwww….
  • Watching unpolished improv always gives me second-hand embarrassment. Can we please get a suggestion for a profession other than salesman?
  • My favorite scene is the movie is when The Badger ends up in a “Muslim district” by mistake. In reality, he was driving through Opa-locka, Florida, which, despite its Arabic-inspired aesthetic, has a more diverse population than Brennan would assume. He couldn’t find his leads, but The Badger did find out how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.
  • The film’s greatest irony is when the salesmen blaspheme in frustration. Thanks for keeping that footage in the final cut!
  • The Badger says that all of their nicknames are derived from animals. Who can tell me what kind of animal is a Gipper?
  • The Rabbit’s the young one? Man, that generation was built tough.
  • I cannot get over that we as a society used to let door-to-door salesmen into our homes. We were so trusting back then.
  • There’s something about this movie that almost feels like they’re in a different time period. For something filmed in 1967 the movie feels very late ‘50s. Perhaps hippies hadn’t made it to New England.
  • “That’s where I sign my John Henry.” So close.
  • Don’t play a Beatles song! We can’t afford that, especially not “Yesterday”!
  • This may be the only movie where the end credits are narrative text. It reads like something Orson Welles would recite.

Legacy

  • The Maysles followed up with legendary Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter”. The brothers continued working together until David’s death in 1987. Charlotte Zwerin stopped working with the Maysles when they wouldn’t let her produce their films. Zwerin went on to direct noted documentaries about Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald.
  • “Salesman” was spoofed in the “Documentary Now!” episode “Globesman”. Written by Seth Meyers, the episode captures the film’s aesthetic perfectly.
  • “Glengarry Glen Ross” would eventually eclipse “Salesman” in the “Desperate Salesman” subgenre. If only The Badger used more colorful profanity.

2 thoughts on “#231) Salesman (1969)”

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