Published/distributed by BFI published by Palgrave Macmillan
Salesman: BFI Film Classic
Tyree, J.M.; Release date: Sept 2012
Selected for preservation by The Library of Congress as one of the 25 most significant American films ever made, Salesman (1966-1969) is a landmark in nonfiction cinema, equivalent in its impact and influence to Truman Capote's 1965 'nonfiction novel' In Cold Blood. It follows a team of travelling Bible salesmen on the road in Massachusetts, Chicago, and Florida, where their American dreams of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency go badly wrong, and one member of the team, Paul Brennan, reaches the end of his tether as the cameras roll.
Long acknowledged as a high-water mark of the 'direct cinema' movement of the 1960s, this poignant and ruefully comic film was the first masterpiece of Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, the trio who would produce Gimme Shelter (1970) as their next feature. As this study explains, Salesman heralded a novel experience for moviegoers, one that remains viable today. Based on the premise that dramas drawn from real life could compete with Hollywood extravaganzas, the film was critical in shaping 'the documentary feature' - a nonfiction genre specifically designed for theatrical release in cinemas and presented without voiceover narration, interviews, or talking heads.
Pursuing a utopian dream of recording life with handheld equipment, and experimenting with eclectic methods and a collaborative ethos, the filmmakers produced a carefully-orchestrated narrative drama from outbursts of spontaneity. Salesman contains many puzzles to unravel and raises perennial questions about reality, artifice, and performance in nonfiction. Decades later, the style of Salesman still makes other documentaries look clumsy, immobile, and static, while its humane tone towards outsiders permanently influenced filmmaking.