The Maysles Brothers and “Salesman”

The documentary film-maker Albert Maysles has died, and the media is awash in appreciations.  I’m no expert on documentaries, but the Maysles brothers’ first major film, Salesman, has haunted me ever since I first saw it.  It’s about four door-to-door Bible salesmen from the Boston area in the late 1960s.  They sell Bibles in a grimy Boston winter; they go to a Bible-selling convention in Chicago; they sell Bibles in Florida.  Gradually the film starts to focus on one of the salesmen, Paul Brennan, “The Badger”, who has lost his Bible-selling mojo.  We see him struggle; we see the other salesmen try to help him.  We yearn for him to succeed.

Here is the description of the movie from the Criterion web site:

A landmark American documentary, Salesman captures in vivid detail the bygone era of the door-to-door salesman. While laboring to sell a gold-embossed version of the Good Book, Paul Brennan and his colleagues target the beleaguered masses—then face the demands of quotas and the frustrations of life on the road. Following Brennan on his daily rounds, the Maysles discover a real-life Willy Loman, walking the line from hype to despair.

But, you know, Brennan isn’t really Willy Loman.  There is no dramatic ending to his story.  Nothing is resolved, because in real life, life just goes on.  But it all seems somehow indescribably weird and poignant at the same time.

Here is a brief scene from the movie on YouTube.

Isn’t that strange?  Why did the husband put on that awful version of “Yesterday”?  If he didn’t want his wife to buy the Bible, why didn’t he just say so?  Or did he just like his music loud?  I don’t get it, but it happened, and life goes on.

Part of Salesman‘s appeal for me, I suppose, is that I grew up in Boston (as did the Maysles) and I knew people like Paul Brennan and the other salesmen.  But there’s something universal about the movie–and something unforgettable, for me at least.  Their later movie Grey Gardens is much more famous and is also unforgettable, but that’s at least partially because of the over-the-top characters it focuses on.  In Salesman, the characters are as ordinary as you and me.  And forty years later, I still remember them.

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