Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site, and we’re happy to present them to you now.
“Salesman (1968) is one of the pioneering works of American documentary filmmaking, created by Albert and David Maysles, with Charlotte Zwerin serving as the editor who co-created the film in the cutting room. The Maysles brothers were some of the first filmmakers to use hand held sync-sound 16mm filmmaking equipment; indeed, they helped to create the equipment, along with other filmmakers, to document the world around them in a more immediate style than contemporary technology would then allow.
The structure of the film is simple; Salesman follows four door-to-door salesmen for a New England Bible company. We are introduced to them, one by one, in the beginning moments of the film, and then follow them on their rounds as they try to sell ornate Bibles to relatively poor people who clearly can’t afford the then-steep $50 price tag for each volume.
Joking, cajoling, shaming and wheedling their customers into purchasing the Bibles, sometimes on a monthly payment plan, the salesmen start their work in Boston, then move to Chicago, and finally to Miami, in search of new customers, and virgin territory.
When Salesman was made, The Maysles brothers were the “go-to” men for documentary filmmaking assignments, often at short notice; such earlier works as Showman (1963), documenting a day in the life of film producer Joseph E. Levine, and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), focusing on the Beatles’ first visit to America, in addition to filmic portraits Meet Marlon Brando and A Visit with Truman Capote (both 1966), consolidated their reputations as the key documentarians of the pop culture of their era. Salesman was their biggest commercial success up that point, and paved the way for Gimme Shelter (1970), which covered the disastrous concert by The Rolling Stones at Altamont, California.
Shot in gritty black and white, Salesman is at pains to show that what the four man do is brutal, unrelenting, and lonely, consisting of seemingly endless hours of driving, pitching to potential customers, nights spent in cheap motels (in one of the happier moments in the film, the four men are seen doing “cannonballs” in a hotel swimming pool to relieve their stress), and the constant pressure to sell, sell, sell.
Like their contemporary Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles’ documentary style strives to be as unobtrusive as possible, with no narration, minimal editing, shooting hundreds of hours of film to capture the essential moments that depict the tragically nomadic life of these men of the road.
The Maysles split the duties of filmmaking, co-producing and directing their films; Albert, however, emerged as the cinematographer of the duo, while David handled the sound. Working with primitive equipment that would only allow 400 ft. of 16mm film to be shot at one burst, or less than 12 minutes of running time, Salesman stands as a bleak, compelling time-capsule of a lost era that would, like the phenomenon of the door-to-door salesman, vanish into obsolescence with the advent of the new digital society.”