In the fall of 1966, an unusual proposal reached the desk of Melbourne I. Feltman, vice president of Consolidated Book Publishers in Chicago. In a letter dated October 24, sent from the Maysles Films office in Midtown Manhattan, David Maysles wrote:
We want to film on the spot a Bible salesman in a rural or semirural area. We would particularly like to capture and convey the challenge of the first call at an unknown house. Our procedure would be to follow a salesman on the job and off [. . .] to share and record his experiences, his successes, his disappointments—in short, to film the total unique adventure of life on the road.
This pitch was followed by a humble request:
We are looking for a dedicated, top-notch, full-time Bible salesman who stays on the road for at least a few days at a time. [. . .] We realize that the salesman we’ve described is not at all common. However, I think you will agree with our hunch that at least a few still exist. Mr. Feltman, I want to assure you that our purpose is only to make a good film about what we feel is a subject with a great deal of human interest.
Can you recommend some small companies that have a salesman selling Bibles door-to-door?
David had tried this same approach with several other publishing entities—Bible House, Inc.; Christian Booksellers Association; Bible Editions, Inc.—but it was only in Feltman that he found a sympathetic soul. In short order, Feltman put David and his older brother, Albert, in touch with Hargrove Turner, president of the Mid-American Bible Company, who introduced them to sales manager Kennie Turner and four of his most outstanding Boston-based representatives: Charles McDevitt, James Baker, Raymond Martos, and Paul Brennan.
At this point in their careers, Albert and David Maysles had codirected several shorter documentaries and promotional films, most notably the first movie they produced themselves under the aegis of Maysles Films, Inc.: Showman (1963), about Hollywood mogul Joseph E. Levine. Their two most recent films, Meet Marlon Brando and With Love from Truman (both 1966), had seen them working in collaboration with cofilmmaker and editor Charlotte Zwerin. The Maysleses had met Zwerin, a native of Detroit, when all three were working with Robert Drew, the intellectual father and chief producer of the films that helped launch the Direct Cinema movement and many careers, not only the Maysles brothers’ and Zwerin’s but also those of D. A. Pennebaker and Hope Ryden. In his letter to Feltman, David would lay out the principles of Direct Cinema as practiced by Maysles Films as follows:
For the documentary films we make, we try to find an ongoing situation that is interesting in itself, which we can film as it is actually happening. During the filming we use only a two-man crew, with portable, silent camera [Albert] and sound equipment [David], which is especially designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. We never direct or ask people to act for us; all we ask is the privilege to be on the spot. Our whole idea is not to interfere with what is going on but to record the truth as it happens.
“The film transcends the specificity of its cultural moment, capturing the very essence of what it is to be American.”
For With Love from Truman, the team used this approach to capture Truman Capote in the wake of the January 1966 publication of his landmark “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Inspired by the experience of making the film, they resolved to do for the documentary something like what Capote had recently accomplished with the novel: in their case, to produce a nonfiction feature of profound human interest that could play widely in commercial theaters, as opposed to showing only on television, at festivals, or in limited release, as their earlier films had. Their further motivation was to find a subject similar to the kind that John William De Forest had called on authors to embrace in his 1868 essay “The Great American Novel,” one that would allow their new documentary to resonate deeply with its cultural moment in the United States. Spurred by literary ambition, they initially turned to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, going so far as to spend time on a whaling ship on the South Atlantic in the hope of documenting the tracking and capture of a whale. That idea was quickly abandoned on account of the Maysles brothers’ increasing unease with the ethics of whale hunting, not to mention Albert’s revulsion at the odor of the mammals on the high seas. It was Joseph Fox, Capote’s editor at Random House, who proposed a more manageable, less pungent subject. If they truly wanted to capture something of the spirit of American life, Fox suggested, they’d be better off filming the trials and tribulations of the average door-to-door salesman. It was an idea that would alter the arcs of their careers and of documentary filmmaking. Salesman (1969) is a work whose stark emotional resonance connected and continues to connect with many viewers, and it propelled the brothers and Zwerin to the forefront of the Direct Cinema movement. While their next feature, Gimme Shelter (1970), would be a generational swan song steeped in the cultural aphasia of the late sixties, this one, though born of the same era, transcends the specificity of its cultural moment, capturing the very essence of what it is to be American.
The boom years after World War II were a golden age of direct selling. Anachronistic today, the door-to-door salesman is a tradition as old as free enterprise itself, embodied in the late nineteenth century by the “drummer,” who spent a solitary life in entrepreneurial pursuit of a sale, visiting village and rural homes by horse-drawn wagon, goods on hand. By the midsixties, close to a million and a half men and women were canvassing the roads of America, selling everything from cosmetics to soaps, from shoes to encyclopedias to magazines and all variety of household goods. The targets of these sales, more often than not, were the country’s young, hardworking suburban homemakers.
The existential plight of the road-worn salesman had been powerfully conjured into the twentieth-century imagination by Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Death of a Salesman. However, David Maysles had a different archetype in mind, finding inspiration in the work of another American dramatist: Eugene O’Neill. Whereas Miller’s Willy Loman embalms himself in delusion, never achieving self-actualization, O’Neill’s hardware salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in The Iceman Cometh is a spellbinder: a charismatic confidence man, a magician of language who sees things a little too clearly. Researching the phenomenon of direct selling, the Maysleses encountered an article in the January 8, 1964, Wall Street Journal titled “Is Your Mother In?” The article—a clipping of which, annotated in David’s hand, is among the papers of the Maysles archive at Columbia University’s Butler Library—mentions one “Q. P. Carnevale, who quit medical school ten years ago to sell Bibles door-to-door and who now heads the Boston canvassing force for Golden Books, Inc.”
God establishes the work of our hands: Joseph Fox had offered the Maysles team a worthy subject; focusing on Bible salesmen now gave them a direction. In pursuit of screen-ready “protagonists,” David began his search in earnest, perfecting the pitch that eventually sold Feltman on the quixotic film project, and ultimately finding his Hickey in Paul Brennan, a door-to-door Bible salesman with the soul of an Irish poet.
As lower-middle-class Jews from the predominantly Irish Catholic Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, Albert and David had a finely tuned sense of the lives and idiosyncrasies of Paul Brennan and their other subjects, having grown up alongside such boys, while possessing no great insights into the workings of Christian faith. Salesman, to its credit, doesn’t attempt to penetrate the mysteries of the catechism. The selling of the Bible works best as a metaphor, one that bores deep into a particular paradox built into America’s character. Christianity, a vital force in the creation and development of this country, offers as a basic tenet that the poor come first. Standing in stark relief to that idea is the American ethic of enriching oneself at any cost. We can’t feel good about ourselves if we get rich, yet getting rich is the only metric we have by which to value ourselves. “No man can serve two masters,” wrote Matthew the Evangelist, quoting Jesus of Nazareth. Such is the American tragedy and the American neurosis.
“Paul’s bitterness over his failure to close sales is compounded by a palpable sense of disbelief that life has somehow cheated him out of a nobler destiny.”
Filmed over the winter months of early 1967 while canvassing lower-income Catholic neighborhoods in Massachusetts and Florida, our four protagonists are presented to us in type: Paul Brennan, “the Badger”; Charles McDevitt, “the Gipper”; James Baker, “the Rabbit”; Raymond Martos, “the Bull”—their nicknames characterizing something of their indefatigable animal spirits. In the world these four men inhabit, the sixties of our popular imagination are nowhere to be found. Here there’s no Vietnam, no counterculture, no civil unrest, just the din of daytime radio and television, living-room sets purchased from catalogs, five-and-dime Christmas decorations, Formica tables, and unfiltered cigarettes. Our protagonists spend much of their time in the cinder-block-walled purgatory of motels, calling their wives, playing poker, commiserating over the day’s losses. “If I were a rich man,” Paul sings to Albert’s camera in wry parody of Fiddler on the Roof, “I wouldn’t be going round this shit land . . .”
Approximately one hundred hours of 16 mm footage was shot and turned over to Zwerin, who set to the task of giving dramatic shape to the material. The editing process took almost two years, during which time the Maysles brothers went to Israel, shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, to make a concert film with Leonard Bernstein (A Journey to Jerusalem, released the following year). It became clear to Zwerin that, structurally, Salesman demanded that Paul Brennan, the most dynamic and perplexing of the four men, be at its center. She showed her rough assemblages to David, who agreed with her about Brennan’s tragicomic screen presence and encouraged her to keep on in the direction she had been going. She began by editing long, cutting together Albert’s virtuosic, magnificently composed shots, then carefully working into them to create something unmoored and sequentially abstract—breaking with the way time generally unfolds in Direct Cinema films and leaving the viewer with a sense at times of drowning in America’s addiction to kitsch. The film reaches a kind of apotheosis as Paul, en route to his next potential sale, finds himself lost in the wilds of Opa-locka, a Miami suburb with a Thousand and One Nights theme, driving past Harem Avenue, Sesame Street, and Sharazad Boulevard, a string-band rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” blaring over the car radio.
Beyond capturing the petty grotesqueries of a consumer culture that would sell one of its foundational texts on a buy-now, pay-later “Christian honor plan,” Salesman is a timeless portrait of a man who, like so many ambitious men and women in America today, is incapable of reconciling his relatively low standing in society with the bright intensity of his inner life. Repeatedly affecting a thick Irish brogue, Paul eschews the phoniness of middle-class security and respectability, namely the promise of a pension, mocking the belief that if the Lord doesn’t provide, the company will. Paul, too independent of spirit, is surrounded by facsimiles of all the smiling, cloying, and desperate faces he has ever known. It has made him a comically cynical man, and ultimately a tragic one, fighting a losing battle against himself. His bitterness over his failure to close sales is compounded by a palpable sense of disbelief that life has somehow cheated him out of a nobler destiny.
The film had its theatrical premiere in New York at the 68th Street Playhouse on April 17, 1969. While audiences were slow to come around, the critical and intellectual establishment immediately threw its full support behind the film. Harold Clurman, film critic for the Nation, wrote, Salesman “creates its own kind of catharsis. It is a picture for the brave.” Norman Mailer offered that he didn’t know of many movies that “have had as much to say about American life and have said it so well.” At an early screening attended by the filmmakers, one audience member was so moved by the film that she sat in her seat crying after the theater had cleared. Albert approached her. It was Gillian Walker, a young member of New York’s Circle in the Square theater group. The two would later marry, have children, and be together until Albert’s death.
Salesman also has the distinction of breaking down barriers of directorial “authorship” in documentary film, particularly for women. Zwerin continued to work on Maysles projects until a couple of years after David’s death in 1987, most notably as codirector on Gimme Shelter and Running Fence (1977). She served as a guide and mentor to a host of editors, directors, and producers who, early in their careers, lent their respective talents to Maysles Films: Barbara Kopple, Susan Froemke, Muffie Meyer, and Ellen Hovde, the latter two of whom shared directing credit with the Maysles brothers on Grey Gardens (1975). A passionate lifelong jazz enthusiast, Zwerin’s most personal solo directorial achievement is Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988), a virtuosic portrait of the composer and pianist that expertly weaves together interview, performance, and collective memory. She died in 2004.
Albert’s own passing in 2015 closed the circle on the three creative forces behind Salesman, but the work they produced together firmly established Maysles Films as an institution. Originally located in the theater district of Manhattan, Maysles Films has functioned simultaneously as a studio, a collaborative filmmaking hub, and, more recently, a community-driven documentary education center and cinema in Harlem. Documentarians Errol Morris, Henry Corra, and Joe Berlinger have worked in the studio, cinematographer Sean Price Williams began his professional filmmaking career shooting alongside Albert, and this writer had the enormous privilege of helping to organize Columbia’s vast Maysles Films archive.
And what of the salesman? Paul Brennan was so understandably taken with himself in the film that, shortly after its release, he tried his hand at acting, before the arthritis that had plagued him throughout much of his adult life eventually led to his death.
The Mid-American Bible Company’s Hargrove Turner offered Albert, David, and Zwerin his own surprisingly magnanimous take. In a letter to Maysles Films dated January 3, 1969, Turner wrote:
Your picture, The Salesman, includes a fine character study of the kind of man who looks great to every sales manager during an interview but really shouldn’t be hired at all in the first place.
Many emotions are awakened through the fine natural presentation of your story, and whether it is Bibles or watercoolers, it becomes obvious to any sales-minded person, through your story, what a man should not feel or think in his attempt to become successful.
From an entertainment point of view, housewives should find much fun in viewing it.
Thanks to Butler Library, Columbia University, home of the Albert and David Maysles papers, 1948–2018.
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In one of the most controversial films of his career, David Cronenberg adapts a scandalous J. G. Ballard novel, radically overhauling its story to address a society paralyzed in the headlights of a new millennium.
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