Blu-ray Review: Salesman | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, September 19th, 2020  


Studio: The Criterion Collection

Mar 20, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Few filmmakers have had the same level of impact on documentary movie-making as the Maysles Brothers. While it doesn’t have the same high profile as Grey Gardens (1975) or even Gimme Shelter (1970), Salesman’s vérité, fly-on-the-wall style may have been their biggest game-changer in terms of influence over the documentaries that came after it.

Salesman (1969) follows four traveling Bible salesmen with colorful nicknames like “Bull,” “Rabbit,” and “The Gipper,” but it’s one named Paul Brennan who is the documentary’s center. These men work in units, occasionally together, driving into Catholic communities around the country and attempting to sell them expensive, illustrated Bibles and theological encyclopedias. These are men who live most of their lives on the road, rarely seeing their families, and whose livelihoods are directly linked to the number of holy books they manage to sell. It’s clear early on that it’s a rough way to live, and a stressful time to be doing what they’re doing; their only apparent moments of happiness come during an evening game of poker for pocket change, and in making quick, long distance calls to loved ones that they probably really aren’t able to afford.

Salesman is often an uncomfortable film. It’s incredibly intimate – almost painfully so – in the way the camera lingers and refuses to look away; this is exacerbated by the film’s running theme of failure. Brennan, the closest thing we have to a lead, is experiencing a real crisis of faith in the job to which he’s dedicated his life; no man appears to be doing well at this time in their career, but Brennan is the one having a heartbreakingly miserable time. Few significant sales are made on camera, and The Maysles never offer explanation as to why that’s so, leaving it up to the audience to guess. Is it a bad economy? Is door-to-door marketing on its way out the door? Are families just no longer gathering around excessively ornate books of scripture? All of the above?

Beyond its compelling subjects, Salesman captures a time and era in ways that few movies – documentary or narrative fiction – are able to do as well. These salesmen (and the camera) enter normal folks’ homes largely unannounced, capturing all of the lively messiness that’s part of real life. These are dirty kitchens, smoky living rooms, and snowy yards. Vintage Christmas decorations still hang in most locales. (The movie was shot in early January of 1967.) In one memorable scene, a woman in curlers puts a down payment on a Bible while her husband blasts an orchestral cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” on a newly-acquired tape reel; in another, two of the salesmen are turned away at the door of a home where an infant sits calmly by itself in a highchair in the driveway. The movie is full of so many of these little, slice of life details that are so real yet borderline on surreal.

The documentary makes its Criterion Collection debut on Blu-ray with a freshly restored edition that’s a significant upgrade over their two-decade-old DVD release. (The subtitles are also very good and unobtrusive over the image – you may need them, as a lot of the subjects mumble or speak in put-upon accents.) The old audio commentary is ported over from last time, and paired with numerous archival featurettes. One of the new highlights on this disc is a video appreciation from fan Bill Hader, as well the episode of the ever-esoteric Documentary Now!, “The Globesmen,” which parodied this film.



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