Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles discusses his film 'Salesman'

The filmmaker says humanizing the experience of people in a documentary is essential.

Casey Rodgers/AP Images for Algonquin Hotel
Filmmaker Albert Maysles (far right), seen here celebrating the anniversary of the Algonquin Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, spoke about his experience making the documentary 'Salesman,' which follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen.

I have been very lucky to see Albert Maysles speak at several discussions after viewing his collaborative work with his late brother David, and Tuesday night, I was captivated again upon my first screening of the Maysles Bros. classic, Salesman, by not only Albert and David Maysles, but also Charlotte Zwerin, which follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen: Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, 
James “The Rabbit” Baker, and Raymond “The Bull” Martos. The quartet first start out in Boston, then go to Chicago for a sales conference, and end in Miami, all the while trying to convince people to buy the world’s best selling book. Although their customers are mostly middle, working-class Catholics recommended by the local church, the Bible is a hard sell for them. Though made and released almost 45 years ago, Salesman seems just as relevant now given how unemployment has risen in recent years during the recession, and how certain politicians are salesmen or saleswomen themselves, looking to religious values to push their agendas and influence voters.

Filmmaker Hugo Perez (Neither Memory Nor Magic) moderated Tuesday’s discussion with Albert Maysles, pinch-hitting for Thom Powers who was away at the Cannes Film Festival. Hugo recalled when Albert once told him about screenwriter/playwright David Mamet after seeing Salesman for the first time told Albert that Salesman was what he was trying to do with Glengarry Glen Ross (about real estate salesmen). Albert said he didn’t remember Mamet saying that, but he recalls another time when writer Norman Mailer told him that Salesman was more about America than any other film.

To Albert, a documentary, especially Salesman, offers the subject, the filmmakers, and the viewers to become friends with one another. Albert parlayed into a story about of when he was a kid in Boston, there was a lot of Irish Anti-Semitism. David told him that he couldn’t play with his friend Jamie anymore because Jamie’s mother told him that David was a “Jewboy.” Making Salesman offered Albert and David an opportunity to become playful and friends with each of the salesmen. Albert said he’s still in touch with some of them. He received a call a few days earlier from “The Rabbit,” who sells real estate now, and “The Bull” is driving a cab in Boston.

And how did the brothers decide to make a film about these salesmen, Hugo asked? Albert said they had just finished a film about Truman Capote. They felt Capote had invented a new kind of novel, the “nonfiction novel.” They thought that maybe they could create a “nonfiction feature,” a full documentary that could be shown in theaters. At a lunch with Capote’s editor Joe Fox, David asked what would be a good subject for a feature documentary, and Joe Fox asked, “what about door-to-door salesmen?” Both Albert and David had done some door-to-door selling when they were in high school selling brushes, and then when Albert was in college, he sold encyclopedias. They realized, when you knock on the door, “who knows what could happen?”

Ryan, an aspiring director and filmmaker in the audience who shot some footage about Occupy Wall Street and having difficulty getting some people to be on camera for him, asked Albert how he and his brother got the people in the homes in which the salesmen were trying to sell the Bibles, to agree to be on camera for them. Albert gave an example of when he went to Cuba in the early 1960s looking for Fidel Castro. He found Castro talking to a group of people in an auditorium. He got as close to him as he could. As he was carrying his camera on his shoulder, Castro looked in his direction, and they caught each other’s eyes. He could tell the way Castro was looking at him that he could be trusted. Within a day or two, he was filming 24 –hour days with Castro.

Albert resumed answering Ryan’s question in twofold. One, there’s something in your eyes, or your gaze that people pick up as empathy. You follow this in the whole process of filming. You can film a person’s experience, and that person’s experience becomes one of a multitude of people. And second, you humanize that experience. The guys in Salesman are human beings. They are not narrated. They are just themselves, but they also represent what Norman Mailer said was so much of what is America.

Brian Geldin blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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