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Along with Grey Gardens, Salesman is a great Maysles documentary although to what extent the reality of selling bibles converges on the film makers narrative is open to question. Nevertheless the work displays an honesty that disects the relentless pressure on the salesmen to meet their targets regardless of the tactics used to secure a sale. Interestingly the Maysles were not allowed to show footage of the bible salesmen making their pitch at local Catholic churches where they got their leads. For me the film's pathos is centred on 'Badger' a salesman who would not be out of place in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Saleman'. There is much to enjoy in this film not least the customers, getting lost in the suburbs of Florida and the mock heroics at the annual sales convention.
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"Salesman" was directed, produced, lensed and edited by Albert and David Maysles in 1968 and is a product of what is regarded "Direct Cinema" or "Cinema Verite" in France. "Direct Cinema" is a branch of documentary film-making, developed in the late 50s/early60s, who's objective is to show reality utilising hand-held cameras and captured sound. The one significant difference is the removal of the god-like voice of a narrator and instead replace it with an objective fly-on-the-wall observation of events.
"Salesman" follows a group of four Bible salesman, mainly Paul "The Badger" Brennan, as they attempt to sell very expensive church endorsed literature to people who can't afford it. What we get is a wonderful portrait of middle America that is very humane and funny at the same time. It could be said the real story is told in the editing room but unlike "reality TV" one doesn't get the sense that events are being manipulated for entertainment value although some would disagree as is illustrated by "David Holzman's Diary"(Jim McBride,1968)
"Salesman" was a breakthrough success for the Maysles brothers and they would have further success the following year with "Gimme Shelter" which followed the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour of America.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
"EVERYTHING BUT THE CHINESE FENCE".16 Sept. 2001
- Published on Amazon.com
A few months ago I rented the Criterion edition of Gimme Shelter. The DVD included a fascinating preview for another film by the Maysles brothers called SALESMAN. I had never heard of the film but after seeing the preview I had to see it. Much to my dismay SALESMAN was not available, nor does it appear to have ever had an official release on video. Thankfully, Criterion has seen fit to release this long lost American masterpiece. I was completely won over by this tragic but hysterical documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen. The Maysles brothers focus most of the film on Paul Brennan aka The Badger. Brennan appears to be the the main inspiration for Gil, the unlucky salesman on The Simpsons. Brennan rarely scores a sale and when he doesn't his fellow (and more successful) salesmen have to endure his bizarre Irish rants and mumbled complaints. SALESMAN is full of strange lingo, strong Irish accents, and tons of smoking. I don't smoke but by the end of the film I felt in need of a light. Most of the banter between the Bible sellers and their prospective buyers is very funny. One woman declared that she was the "literal" person of the household. Criterion's presentation is excellent. The disc includes an interview with the two brothers by Jack Kroll. Kroll's interviewing skills are terrible at best. More than once he cuts off the two filmmakers to plunge the shallow depths of his scary thoughts. Even worse he goes on to tell them what they mean to say. The commentary track by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin is interesting and informative. Highly Recommended.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Sad/beautiful?7 April 2002
- Published on Amazon.com
The Maysles Bros. did a wonderful job with this film. The b/w photography is sharp and smartly orchestrated making _Salesman_ a must see in my book. Shot with a custom made handheld camera and portable boom mic, _Salesman_ is the story of four door-to-door bible salesmen in the late sixties. The film falls in to the documentary category, though the Maysles have coined their own term for their style of filming: direct cinema. The "salesmen" themselves are unforgetable; their performances in the homes of anyone who will let them get a foot in the door are fascinating and nerve wracking as you find yourself sympathizing both with the salesmen and the prospective buyers at the same time. It's this dynamic tension that gives the film some real drama. Better than what could have been scripted. I never saw this film on video so I can't comment on any improvements in quality. But I will say this: the film looks and sounds beautiful on DVD. Also, with the DVD is an interview (mostly pretentious banter revolving around the distinction of "direct cinema"), commentary with the Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (editor) and film trailers.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Makes "Glengarry Glen Ross" look like nursery school.8 Jun. 2001
- Published on Amazon.com
This is fascinating, harrowing stuff -- I remain haunted by these men, these door-to-door Bible salesmen, peddling their wares, themselves, their humanity. It's after "Death of a Salesman," but plenty of Willy Loman stuff going on here, and obviously a wellspring of material for David Mamet, for Barry Levinson's "Tin Men," for so many other tales of salesmen. This is written pre-release, but I'm sure that the folks at Criterion will do an extraordinary job with this.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
"Attention must be paid" (Riding on a smile and a shoeshine)4 Sept. 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
Some will recognize the words in quote marks as Linda's plea to her sons in "Death of a Salesman" to have compassion for their father, Willie, whose dream of greatness has been tarnished to the point of incurable, suicidal depression. Paul Brennan, the main character in this groundbreaking American documentary film about four door-to-door Bible salesmen, has never suffered from Willie's dreams of grandiosity and is only nibbling at the edges of depression at the film's end. Moreover, the movie documents a period and a practice that, even at the time of the film's release, must have seemed curiously dated. It may strike some viewers as tedious and irrelevant, yet for those willing to live some of the desperate hours with Paul and his three companions--not simply in the living rooms of potential customers but on the road, in motel rooms, at the rallies--it's a sharply observed little film that delineates its characters with telling precision, producing not merely sympathy but a certain amusement and amazement over our present-day illusions about a supposedly better America in the "good old days." It's still a film that deserves the viewer's attention: ultimately Paul Brennan provokes not only sympathy but takes on some recognizable features of the man in the mirror.
What's surprising is what the film is not. Given the merging of big business and religion, the huge corporate industries that run giant pyramid schemes fueled by arena pep rallies centered on corporate heads who act like evangelical stars whiplashing and inspiring the myriad troops to action, the viewer of this film might expect a similar emphasis. But the film is surprisingly low-key about the religious connections (these guys could be selling encyclopedias or dishware); it doesn't go out of its way to find "villains" for the spectator to feel indignation towards; it's not afraid to show us a prosaic world of motel rooms, traveling scenes, sales meetings, futile (some successful) sales pitches--all in black-and-white clarity yet suffused through a continual cloud of smoke from the chain-smoking that becomes a measure of the characters' empty lives (T. S. Eliot's "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons" metamorphosed cinematically from coffee spoons to cigarettes).
It's also significant that these four aren't selling insurance (those insistent salesmen who plagued me from the early '60s into the late '80s because, like the prospective customers in the film, I was fearful of being rude and denying them a visit, until my wife grabbed the phone and mercifully spared all of us the agony). They're pitching forty-dollar Bibles on a dollar-a-week plan to customers who, we honestly began to believe, can't afford even that small an amount (perhaps their only cigarette money).
The viewer can become engaged by numerous hidden themes in the film--the silent rivalry among the mutually supportive four, the dubious matter of whether the guy who makes the most sales is any more of a "winner" than the one who doesn't, the use of the "church" (who's exploiting whom?), the attitude toward the product (it would appear to be indifference punctuated by occasional glimmers of their belief in the actual value ("utility," Paul calls it) of their Bibles, and last but not least our speculations about the camera's effect on the performances we are witnessing.
On a personal level, I was reminded of my mom trying to put my sister and me through college by going door-to-door selling magazines--during the "happy days" of the 1950s. And I was reminded of the relief I felt when an elderly salesman came to my door in the late '70s selling not insurance policies but music encyclopedias (little did he know that he'd made his sale even before starting his pitch) and, about the same time, a door-to-door shoe salesman (again I was a push-over). Such moments of sympathy have a double meaning: they reflect our desire to help out the Paul Brennans, and they reflect our gratitude at sensing: there but for the grace of God go I. Paul is the brightest, the most verbal, the most experienced of the foursome. "Be liked, and ye shall never want" is Willie Loman's motto. Paul is the most likable--to us--but apparently not to his clients. He blinks. As a result, he loses the sale. In other words, he's begun to show the telling marks of inner stress and strain despite his attempts to bluster his way through the rough periods (he frequently impersonates his customers in private). I suspect that many of us are too honest for our own good: we blink, too. As we get older, we wise up; we begin to know the score, regardless of what we tell ourselves about the validity, or rightness, of the cause, however small. If you can no longer sell yourself on the illusion, forget about selling the public.
"Death of a Salesman" gives young people a chance to identify with the "tell it like it is," illusion-hating older son, Biff, who says of his father: "The man had the wrong dream. He didn't know who he was." But it's the neighbor Charlie's eulogy that proves the enduring word for the play--and it serves equally well for this film (as the last shot shows us an anguished, perplexed and disheartened Paul Brennan literally being squeezed out at the margins of the frame). As Arthur Miller's Charlie says in defense of Willy following the bitter words of Biff: "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back -- that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."
If there's a flaw in this film, it's the absence of one. We can't even blame the realist Paul for having the wrong dream. There's no outlet for our discomfort. No clear epiphany and certainly no catharsis. We simply feel bad for Paul and those we know who are like him. It's a depressing film that's still worth watching.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Couldn't have been any better28 April 2006
John J. Behan
- Published on Amazon.com
I saw this movie a few years ago and need to rent it again soon because I have nothing but fond memories of it. Anyone who has ever had any dealings at all with a salesman will love it - I promise. Watch as one salesman asks a woman who can't afford a bible for $50 if she could afford $2.50 a week for twenty weeks. Watch as he asks her if she thinks her home would be better if she had this bible in her house. These are the same kind of questions you are asked when looking for a car but the way it is shot in the "you are almost there" style makes many of the scenes heartbreakingly real. There is sadness all around in the faces of the salesman and there potential customers. One cannot help but feel moved by the plight of the salesman and the customers. It is amazing how the sales pitches of the salesman have not changed much in the past 40 years! Anyone who likes Errol Morris or John Cassavettes needs to see this film as soon as possible if not sooner.