Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin | Salesman

transactions with faith

by Douglas Messerli

Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin Salesman / 1969

If, at moments, the Maysles’ documentary Salesman reads a bit like a Eugene O’Neill drama, it is no accident. David Mayles described their filming of the four bible salesman from The Mid-American Bible Company, as potentially just such a character study: “We were looking for salesmen who would be interesting, who would be on the road, who would be sort of O’Neill type of characters.”

     How much of the dramatic quality of their work depended upon editor Charlotte Zwerin is unknowable. But it’s clear, if nothing else, that in the worn-out, slightly cynical, Irish-brogue-imitating Paul Brennan they had found their hero.

     Meanwhile, Zwerin, as Daniel Eagan has argued in his essay in America’s Film Legacy, surely helped determine their underlying theme, as she edited the travels of the Bible salesmen through the Boston streets and into the maze of ridiculously titled Middle Eastern streets of Opa-Locka, Florida, as a kind of intimidating contest between the sellers, threatened on the national level with possible firing for not coming in with enough new sales.

     The longer sales pitches are utterly fascinating in how they reveal the gullibility of the poor, Catholic parishioners they visit and the cut-throat tactics of the salesmen, who use—like almost all American pitchmen—faith, family, and cultural edification to seal the deal. Many of their poor Irish and, in Florida, Spanish-speaking “customers,” don’t even have the extra $10 a month to pay for the “lavishly displayed” Bibles they’re hawking. But clearly we recognize that the complete objectification the directors claim—what the brothers described as “cinema direct” (“There’s nothing between us and the subject”)—is impossible. Although they manage to keep the camera “out of the picture,” so to speak, it is clearly an intimidating and influencing tool, as some of the customers give into the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) intimidations, forking over money they don’t have, while  others preen and perform as amateur actors on the screen. Obviously, several of the sales would have been made whether or not the camera were there to record it; and, what is even more revelatory, is that, despite the camera’s presence, most of Brennan’s customers just can’t be convinced, even if it might mean staying in the picture or not. 
      Brennan is a natural charmer who, over the years, has grown into a kind long-suffering, thick-skinned David Mamet-like figure: a man who may once have loved his profession, but now hates the job and himself, while intentionally mocking the very people on whose innocence—or sometimes even stupidity—he depends. In short, he has lost his touch, at times using argumentation and intimidation to turn the deal. “The Bull” and “the Rabbitt”—although far less likable as cohorts—still have what it takes, white “the Badger” has apparently lost it. Even Brennan’s call home to his wife is a listless affair, wherein the two chat more about how fast he should drive than sharing any relevant information. At other moments, such as his humming “If I Were a Rich Man” on his way to fleece poor Catholic believers, Brennan appears almost as a bigot. But then, he too, is being watched by the unforgiving camera, playing up to it, giving the directors most of what they want—all problems that would become apparent in their later efforts, particularly in their notable Grey Gardens, where Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” perform with even more vigor and to better effect.

     And it’s clear in hind-site that the brothers loved “characters” far better that situations, which their work on Marlin Brando, Truman Capote, and the Beatles (and Albert, working with Martin Scorsese, on the Rolling Stones). Yet, to say that doesn’t take away from the genuine truths the Maysles’ films reveal, and, in Salesman particularly, the combination of the “pure faith” expected from and sometimes even displayed by both sellers and customers, and the chicanery, prodding, bullying tactics of these false prophets point to the absurdist realities of the world presented in Flannery O’Connor’s stories (see My Year 2009). The ridiculous give and take of belief—both spiritual and commercial—is at the core of what these charlatans are all about; and, if it takes away the hard-earned cash of their customers, it ultimately steals the hearts and minds of these hard-working salesmen as well.

Los Angeles, May 27, 2015

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