Salesman the Documentary Maysles
Essay title: Salesman the Documentary Maysles
The landmark documentary, Salesman, by the Maysles Brothers follows door-to-door bible salesmen in the 1960’s. Although the technique of direct cinema has been used throughout the Maysles’ careers, the results of this approach can yield diverse results. Everything from anti-ambiguous titles, long takes and an on screen absence of crew, cameras, or personalities saying “we are filming a documentary right now”. The films Gimme Shelter and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. tag along with rock stars as they encounter the stoned, hippie culture of America. Salesman is a complete opposite portrayal of America in the 60’s as it documents real American’s trying to make a living selling premium bibles. The use of direct cinema in these films gives the viewer a sense of intimacy with the characters on screen, but the emotions evoked as well as the message sent to the viewer is dependent on the subjects themselves as well as the subject matter. In Salesman viewers get to ride shotgun with a sad combination of Willy Lowman and The Rat Pack as they chain-smoke and constantly shoot the shit about their lousy sales territory. This film seemed to take advantage of the direct cinema technique because of the vulnerability of the characters. They are simply classic American “Joes” in the late 60’s, and whether the camera was there or not, they still had to sell bibles to put dinner on the table. In the Maysles Brothers “rock-docs”, the subjects, i.e. The Beatles, would have to be much more aware of the results of having recording equipment present just because of the sheer fact they are public figures and this sort of media interaction in normal. The result of the presence of recording equipment in their daily lives could cause a person to develop an “on screen personality”. This leads to debates whether direct cinema is direct at all, due to the influence of a characters performance by the documentary crew present during shooting. In the 60’s, the technology of lightweight cameras and Nagra’s made direct cinema a possibility. In today’s age of reality TV saturation, cameras are everywhere and everyone knows what’s going on when they see a cameraman/boom-op running around. The 60’s documentaries exhibit a public who often seem to be interested in what the crew is filming rather than enhancing their own performance within the context of the scene. Direct cinema is very closely achieved in Salesman because of the naпve folksiness of the characters.
Salesman has been said to be dishonest and exploitive by critics who believed the Maysles could not achieve true objectivity in their work. The brothers did not deny that their influence, whether it be in the editing room or how a shot is framed, would eventually influence the final picture. They did publicly emphasize that they never staged anything; rather what you saw on screen was a creation of the hundreds of hours of footage acquired when shooting. A particular scene in Salesman makes one question the influence of the camera as it relates to performance. The main character, Paul Brennan (aka “The Badger”), drives his huge sedan around to different houses that allegedly expressed interest in the $45 bibles “The Badger” and his crew were peddling. (Not to get off the subject, but I did a google search on a “comparison of the worth of the dollar -1968 vs. 2007. These bibles would be the equivalent of $267 today, wonder why they’re such a tough sell?) The Badger is constantly singing, whistling and even in skat style, “If I were a rich man” from Fiddler on the Roof. This song tells us so much about the tired old salesman with ‘the same old leads”. Seeing this on screen can’t help but bring up the case of whether this was a performance for the camera or the real Paul Brennan. The Maysles tried to discount criticisms of legitimacy in their films by explaining how they worked. They were the first to point out that they could not do a film with someone they didn’t like. Albert Maysles said, “instinct took us to situations related to the closeness of human beings…our work is a discovery of how people really are”. They would spend time with their subjects before filming them to establish an acquaintance between each other. Many of the subjects spoke about their approval of the final versions of the films they participated in, emphasizing the trust that was established between the two parties.
The Maysles’ choices for the subjects in Salesman greatly improved their chances for objectivity. This is shown as the story progresses revealing the methodology of the pack of salesmen. They are so consumed with being a salesman that they couldn’t possibly put on an act for the camera because they are always in “the sell” mindset. Its that overly cheesy “go get em!” attitude that has been parodied so many times. In Salesman these are the real guys, that hustle around communities trying