Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
Cinéma vérité is a style of documentary filmmaking. It was developed by French philosopher Edgar Morin and his equally French collaborator Jean Rouch who made movies as an anthropologist. In turn, these two gentlemen derived the idea from Kino-Pravda, a series of 23 newsreels produced in the 1920s. Kino-Pravda translated from Russian into English as “film-truth,” with the intent to capture life unstaged & unperformed, simply as it happens.
Cinéma vérité is often referred to as the “observational style” of documentary filmmaking. There are rarely staged interviews; instead, the director and/or camera operator might have a conversation with the subject, and often their portions are pared down as much as possible so that the subject is the focus of all action. The goal is that the truth of the subject is revealed through what they say, akin to talk therapy in many ways, having them go through the actions of their life, resulting in their commentary on their own actions and then the realization of the meaning of their life. Or the reverse, the subject comes to no realization, but the audience expands their understanding of the human experience through observing a person in their natural environment.
Albert & David Maysles did not pioneer this form of documentary, but they certainly popularized it with their participation in the political film Primary (1960), which followed candidates in the Democratic Presidential Primary of 1960. This was a landmark event in the American political landscape because it was the first televisual election, the first time the political process had been spotlighted in such a way. Both this documentary and the televised debates would forever reshape how the American public perceived and engaged in politics, for better & worse.
But we’re not here to talk about Primary. Instead, our focus is the Maysles’ ground-breaking Salesman. Four Bible salesmen make their rounds across the bitter winter of New England before getting a respite by moving operations to southeast Florida. The Bibles being sold are not the sort you’d find in a motel nightstand drawer but gaudy, ornamented “fancy” editions with maps, appendices, glossaries, gold-edged pages, and other unnecessary & contradictory ornamentation. The documentary focuses on Paul Brennan, a middle-aged Irish Catholic from Boston who is not good at this salesman gig.
We like to see ourselves as distant from people like Brennan. He’s some old relic who was out of date in 1968, which means he is unfathomably old-fashioned compared to us, right? I didn’t see Brennan as alien, but nightmarishly still relevant. He’s a man who has been following the path he has always been told will lead to success, but it is clearly not turning out that way. Somewhere along the way, a participant in the documentary admits that when you get to the level of Bible salesman, you have pretty much hit the bottom of the barrel. Vacuums and fancy knives are something you could reasonably convince a person to buy for their benefit. No one needs an expensive Bible; they are easy to get. So to get people to buy these objects, the salesmen often manipulate people with the worst tactics.
Brennan is a terrible salesperson, so his worst moments are some of the hardest to sit through as he pathetically pivots from one tactic to another, always half-heartedly. The one that stands out the strongest for me comes near the end of the quartet’s tour of Florida. A harried-looking housewife reluctantly lets Brennan inside, and they sit in the living room exchanging forced pleasantries. She barely makes eye contact with him, instead holds a smoldering cigarette and nervously bites at a fingernail. As Brennan goes through his spiel, the housewife nods but clearly isn’t with him in that room. Eventually, when the part comes where she is supposed to say, “Yes, I’ll buy one,” she tells him there’s a list of people she owes money to, and she just can’t take on another debt. There’s never expounding on what is going on in her life, but those tired eyes and anxious body language could write a novel of disappointment & dashed dreams.
The film never directly explains, but some helpful background is that the United States was on the verge of a recession when the film was being shot. In 1969, an eleven-month recession would begin, only eight years removed from the last one. Interest rates would be raised again, punishing the worker and reminding them of their place in the heap. You also have the psychological fallout of the Kennedy Assassination, the Vietnam War, and the challenges to white male dominance on multiple cultural fronts. We know the 1960s were a turbulent time, in some cases, a necessary upheaval of an old, dead order. It’s a different thing to see haunted, frazzled faces belonging to the confused every-people of the era.
Salesman doesn’t begin particularly dour, though. The Maysles are clearly amused by the absurdity of door-to-door Bible salesmen. They would comment that they made the film because these four guys reminded them of boys they grew up with, peers whom they often wondered about. Where did life take them? Are they happy? Do they enjoy their lives? Through these men, and Brennan, in particular, the Brothers cataloged the many defeats the working class suffer daily. There is a nobility in how these poor guys keep going, but that doesn’t mean I sympathize with them too much.
The salesmen here are brutal in pressuring people into purchasing their unnecessary products. If one spouse isn’t at home, they try to convince their prey, “Yes, I know money is tight, but this Bible will be worth it because it’s such an excellent investment for the future. It can be an heirloom that is passed down through the generations.” One incident stands out to me when an almost sitcom-like loudmouth neighbor comes visiting during the pitch and is clearly pissing the salesman off as she knows the game and all the tricks of the trade. In my whole life, I have never bought anything from a door-to-door salesperson, and I cannot imagine a circumstance where I would, so the entire process stands out as utterly bizarre to me.
One of the most frustratingly relatable moments comes during a conference of Bible salesmen in Chicago. They are given a hollow motivational speech by some important person you’ve never heard of before. He delivers the same Norman Vincent Peale pablum we have all heard at some point in our lives. The salesman’s success, the speaker bellows, relies purely on their belief in the product and their unwavering dedication to forcing their customers into buying it. If they don’t buy, then you must reflect on your own failings, and oh, there must be a long list of them if you can’t sell something as vital & good as the dear old Bible. The camera takes in the assembled salesmen, who don’t seem very impressed or moved. Yet, there comes a dick-measuring moment where a few stand up one by one and announce they plan on making X# of absurd sales in the coming quarter, and the next man promises an even more significant number than the last.
The four men featured in the documentary have nicknames. Brennan is “The Badger,” which, based on his sales pitch and general demeanor, likely came from his misanthropic grumpiness and not his tenacity. The bowtie-wearing James Baker is “The Rabbit,” aptly named because he is also a bit anxious and quick in his sales. Broad-shouldered Charles McDevitt is “The Gipper,” a nickname that clearly did not span the ages. The original Gipper was George Gipp, a college football player at Notre Dame who died when he was 25 from strep & pneumonia. His coach, the famous Knute Rockney, coined the phrase “Win one just for the Gipper” at a game weeks after Gipp’s death. This would later be turned into a movie starring Ronald Reagan before the actor became President and put the final nail in the coffin of American Labor. McDevitt is called this because he played football in college. He doesn’t die of respiratory illness during the documentary’s filming, so that’s my best guess.
Raymond Martos is “The Bull” and is the most successful of this collection of four salesmen. We don’t see a lot of him working the streets, but when we do, it’s clear why he’s earned the nickname. Martos is a very intimidating figure who reads like he would have been at home in Tony Soprano’s crew. The customers seem scared of him and agree to buy something so he will leave as quickly as possible. In the movie’s latter half, there are some incidents where we see deliveries of the Bibles being attempted on C.O.D. houses, and no one answers the door, despite it being clear that someone is at home. The salesmen are reasonably pissed off because they will be made to eat shit by their supervisor. Yet, they used highly questionable tactics, in the same way, U.S. intelligence used waterboarding to get unreliable information from prisoners. As a culture, we Americans need to understand that people will say whatever you want to hear if it will get rid of you as quickly as possible.
The America the Maysles & their collaborator Charlotte Zwerin present in Salesman is a grim, gray landscape. This is a world where everything is dog-eat-dog, and you will be ground up one way or another. The game is to trick other people into giving up their hard-earned cash, or maybe these customers made it by conning people too, and making things a little easy for you on the way down. The harshest moment of this complete absence of solidarity comes when Brennan & McDevitt are tag-teaming their routes, and the latter points out the former’s total failure in sales to the customers while sitting in their cozy living room drinking coffee.
You can see the sudden shift in Brennan’s body language as he takes these stinging barbs from his supposed comrade. Finally, Brennan stands up and calmly states he’s about ready to leave, and McDevitt suddenly tries to cajole & make things light again. It isn’t going to happen. Later, at the motel, Brennan is packing his suitcase while the other three sit nervously around the room, unsure what to say. Brennan seems like his mind is cracking as he slips into the playful Irish brogue he affected in the movie’s first half to impress the Maysles. When he goes into it now, the accent feels like an attempt to disassociate from the pain of another failure.
A film like this could not be made as successfully now. In the contemporary landscape, people have become so used to performing for a camera that you often meet individuals who have adopted reality show personas despite not being on one. It’s easier to understand oneself if you boil down personalities to a collection of obvious traits. The American, being terrified of complexity & introspective, will often choose that path as a way to engage in the world. If you followed whatever remains of the door-to-door salesperson these days, they would be playing it up for the camera, cognizant of their “brand” and how they could sell themselves for future media opportunities. In 1969, the American mind had not been wholly warped into insanity by the presence of cameras, so the Maysles were able to capture something raw.
There is little separating the desperate living of Paul Brennan and us. We also live with anxiety of one degree to another, often rooted in the jobs that consume our lives. Brennan isn’t married, never mentions any children, and doesn’t seem to own or rent a home. This man’s life feels just as desolate & alienating as what you see your average Gen Z-er going through as they try to make something of their lives. That’s the thing, though; the problems of now under capitalism were always the problems back then. They never get better; they just distract us more efficiently for a while. The institutions that make up our society let just enough chaos in that it keeps us on our toes, unable to know true contentment, always scrabbling for crumbs & eager to lick boots at the promise of a few more. It’s hard to find a pal when everyone is convinced they must stomp you like a bug to get ahead. It’s not a healthy way to live.