Rewind: When the Maysles Made a Vérité Star of a Bible Huckster



Paul Brennan in a scene from the 1969 documentary “Salesman.” Credit Janus Films

In their first documentaries, the brothers Albert and David Maysles portrayed media stars like Truman Capote, Marlon Brando and the Beatles. Then they realized the movie camera might make anyone a star. The feature documentary that cemented the Maysles’s reputation centered on a middle-aged huckster selling Bibles door-to-door and seemingly at the end of his road. Attention must be paid.

“Salesman,” playing for a week at Metrograph in a new digital restoration, was not without controversy when it opened in 1969. The Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, an early defender of the American version of cinéma vérité — or what the Maysles called direct cinema — found the movie pointlessly bleak. Vincent Canby, who reviewed it in The New York Times, confessed to having seen “Salesman” three times and to being increasingly impressed with each viewing.

”Salesman ” — official film trailer — 1968. Video by neondreams 25

In a way, “Salesman” moved into the territory opened up a decade before with the publication of Robert Frank’s 1959 collection of photographs, “The Americans.” Mr. Frank was subjected to critical abuse for his downbeat vision of seedy bus depots, all-night diners, garish billboards and empty highways. “Salesman” might be a feature-length elaboration of a Frank photograph.

The movie’s designated star, Paul Brennan, is part of a four-man team working for the Mid-American Bible Company. His sales are off, but with a gift of gab and a cliché for every occasion, his performance seldom flags. As every sale is a drama in which the salesmen basically sell themselves, the movie has a grim absurdist quality, not least at a company sales meeting in which a motivational speaker tells them that, like Jesus, they are doing “the Father’s business.”

Religion, per se, never enters the salesmen’s private conversations and is not crucial to their spiels. “The best seller in the world is the Bible,” Paul begins his pitch, pushing an illustrated version that, although not inlaid with pearl, costs $50 (about $350 today when adjusted for inflation). “It’s the greatest piece of literature in the world.” And you can buy it on time.

Opening in snowy Boston (where the Maysles themselves once sold encyclopedias), “Salesman” moves to southern Florida. The most surreal episode has Paul lost in Opa-locka, a Miami neighborhood developed around an Arabian Nights theme. “I was in the Muslim district,” he explains to his colleagues. “If I told anybody about it, they’d think I was drinking again.”

“Salesman” is edited by Charlotte Zwerin, whom the Maysles list as a co-creator, to conclude with a cascade of failures, among them a futile attempt to sell a Bible to a salesman of vacuum cleaners. Paul’s befuddlement when the apparently Irish housewife he’s been chatting up turns out to be Polish is palpable. “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as someone says while eulogizing Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” “When they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake.”

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