Friday, August 20, 2010

Underrated Movie #90: Salesman

Title: Salesman
Year: 1968
Writer-Directors: Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Stars: Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, James “The Rabbit” Baker, Raymond “The Bull” Martos

The Story: Four increasingly desperate door-to-door bible salesmen bluff their way into working-class homes, trying to get wary housewives to buy a deluxe $50 bible on the installment plan.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is one of the most influential documentaries ever made, but most DVD renters wouldn’t know anything about that. You can still get people to watch 60s verite classics like Don’t Look Back or Monterey Pop today, but the non-musical verites don’t get watched enough.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This was an amazing new way to make documentaries, not based around a subject but around characters, just like a real movie. Though the “verite” movement stressed reality, eschewing voiceover or interviews, the Maysles and Zwerin unashamedly shape their footage into a traditional narrative, with winners and losers and villains and narrative arcs.
  2. Former TV news cinematographer Albert built his own camera and had a genius for getting heartbreaking Hopper-esque compositions on the fly.
  3. We aren’t sure that we approve of these guys, but they become very sympathetic in comparison to their cold-blooded, glad-handing boss, who rides them hard and doesn’t want to hear any excuses. In my favorite scene, the boss blithely leads them through a role-play to show how easy it is. As soon as the salesmen get to role-play the reluctant customer, they revel in the chance to humiliate their boss with every baffling refusal they’ve ever heard. He doesn’t appreciate it.
  4. What makes this such an amazing document is the chance to hear the lost language of sales. The trick of the sale is to create verbal traps where every question demands a positive answer: “Can you see where this would help the family?” “Can you see where this would be a gain to you?” It’s both painful and lyrical to hear.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The Maysles’ next two docs are justifiably famous: Gimme Shelter documented the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont and Grey Gardens showcased Jackie O’s crazy relatives, but if you get a chance, you should also track down their incisive early profiles: Showman, A Visit with Truman Capote, and Meet Marlon Brando.

How Available Is It?: Excellent Criterion DVD with commentary and featurettes

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Stand back! I’ve got a gun!

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