“The best seller in the world is the Bible for one reason: it’s the greatest piece of literature of all time.” -Paul “The Badger” Brennan
“The best seller in the world is the Bible for one reason: it’s the greatest piece of literature of all time.”
-Paul “The Badger” Brennan
This is the opening line from Salesman, the Maylses Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin‘s 1968 “direct cinema” film about a group of Bible salesmen as they travel through the country, joking and lying their ways into the pocketbooks of middle America.
I was reminded of this great film during the two minutes of the Oscars that I accidentally caught, in which Albert Maysles made a documentary about the nominees for Best Documentary. Seeing in those two minutes how the Academy was able to convince Maysles to do something so self referential and forgettable not only increased my disdain for Hollywood, but also increased my desire to watch one of this genius’s great early works with his late brother David who passed in 1987.
To better understand the effectiveness of the method, let me talk briefly about “direct cinema.” The term refers to the presentation of a documentary without voice-overs or situations affected by the filmmakers, showing life as it really happened. The Maysles Brothers accomplished this as best they could by following people and simply capturing as much footage as possible, which they would then edit into a narrative. The problem is that once you make that first edit, you are showing the audience what you want them to see, and not necessarily the truth. Michael Moore gets a lot of flack for this, and often deservedly so, because he never tries to present the truth and in many cases creates his own facts to heighten the drama and get his point across. This all works because America almost always believes its documentaries, usually more than it’s books on the same subject. The Maysles Brothers strived for the most honest approach, and in this film they got as close as any documentary I’ve seen.
The film follows four Bible salesman: Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, James “The Rabbit” Baker, and Raymond “The Bull” Martos as they use different techniques to try and “place” $50 Bibles in the homes of people that seem to never be able to afford them. Each salesmen is nicknamed for their respective selling techniques, and each displayed prominently for the audience. The film is almost overwhelming at times in how much it reveals, particularly because you’re made aware of how easily some customers get roped in, agonizing over the purchase, while the seller continues raising the stakes. You just know that some of these people can’t afford it, but the salesmen can’t afford to lose the sale.
Eventually the film settles on Paul Brennan. Paul hasn’t been able to close many sales, and his three colleagues start to worry about him. He goes from house to house and most of the time doesn’t even make it in the door. When he does get inside, he has the people in his grasp until he tells them the price of his product – then he’s almost always shown out. It gets interesting as the story goes on because Paul deals with these snubs in increasingly hostile ways. He will throw out snide comments for the benefit of only himself and even demeans himself and the customer because he just can’t deal with things. His lying increases. He goes to a house to collect money from a sale that James “The Rabbit” Baker made, only to be told by the wife that the family can’t afford it, and she can’t make any decisions until her husband gets back from work. To counteract this, Paul quickly lies and tells her that not only is he a district manager, but that if she doesn’t pay then he’ll have to charge Mr. Baker out of his own pocket for false reporting. She pleads with him to come back after her husband gets home, and Paul says he can’t because the salesmen are leaving the area…another lie. In the end, Paul gets his money, but won’t even get credit because he didn’t make the initial sale in the first place.
The film works so well because we are never told what to think; we are simply shown how these people act. There is a lot to love and a lot to hate, and it always feels like you’re watching a real story unfold. It also works as a time capsule of a bygone era and profession. Human behavior is key, and you’ll recognize all of the traits on display. It’s interesting to see how little has changed, particularly in how people take advantage of each other. “Salesman” is also still groundbreaking in its display of honesty and really can still be held up among the constantly growing crop of “informative” documentaries. This movie comes from a small team that wanted to follow a select group of people and tell their story. Not a politician on a “green” quest for profit (An Inconvenient Truth). Not a comedian trying to shake things up with smartly cut “man on the street” interviews (Religilous). Not even by a conspiracy theorist using loosely connecting facts from very few sources to create his own version of the real truth. (Zeitgeist). This film just feels so much better.