A Smile and a Shoeshine
The “Opening Acts” series is comprised of Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhood screenings of prior works by filmmakers in this year’s 52nd New York Film Festival. For Harlem’s Maysles Cinema, the partnership is especially appropriate. There, Albert Maysles talked with Festival director Kent Jones following his and late brother David’s Salesman plus sneak scenes from his own Iris, world premièring three-and-a-half-weeks afterwards in the “Spotlight on Documentary” category.
Charming nonagenarian fashion- and interior-designer Iris Apfel supplies New York humor and sensibility to Iris, while in contrast the ninety-minute Library of Congress National Film Registry “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” 1968 b&w is a picture of what now is called Middle America (in what seems the Middle Ages). Its no-narration portrait may look sarcastic today, but that is to read current cynicism into the American Dream and religiosity of yesterday.
There was editing, of course, by researcher/sound man David and Charlotte Zwerin, of Albert’s footage in order to afford coherence to this cinéma vérité or “Direct Cinema.” In every instance, permission was requested to enter residences with the salesmen, and releases were signed -- only one person refused -- though once settled in, the film crew as fly-on-the-wall becomes unobtrusive, invisible. Aside from sales spiel, dialogue is spontaneous, nothing staged or repeated, no one looks at the camera or seems aware of it.
The sole outside intrusion is no more than printed introductions of the four real-life Bible salesmen: Paul Brenna, Charles McDevitt, James Baker and Raymond Martos, for no discernible reason respectively nicknamed the “Badger,” “Gipper” (from “just win one for . . .”), “Rabbit” and “Bull.” They are Boston-based representatives of the Mid-American Bible Company, filmed over two months in much Northeast rain and snow, contrasted to later top-down rented convertible Florida sunshine in faux-Moorish Opalocka, sandwiched around a convention-cum-pep rally in Chicago.
They pitch a gaudy illustrated Bible and optional accessories, starting at $49.95, to working class Catholics in a Boston out of Mystic River and in the Miami area of exiled Cubans, tipsy housewives and young couples with kids but no money for the rent.
This is another time and place -- another country -- in which everyone smokes everywhere and no one car pools or removes his tie and, often in pairs, unknown salesmen are welcomed into family kitchens, parlors and living rooms.
Nor does anyone laugh at the award to the “World’s Greatest Salesman of the World’s Best Seller” in the Edgewater Beach Hotel nor at the fervent boosterism touting the “self-satisfaction of being about your Father’s business [italics mine] in serving others” nor at Milbourne Feltman’s presence as sales “theological consultant.”
Aside from two brief and one-ended long-distance calls, there is no indication of the drummers’ personal lives. In the repeated monotony of motel rooms that mirror the repeated monotony of life, they sort prospective buyers’ addresses and receipts and discuss sales or, increasingly, lack of sales. Brennan appears much the key figure and, as business takes a Willy Loman downturn in results and an uptick in “delinquent accounts,” even this formerly assured Irish-American begins to “seem negative” and doubt his own abilities and future. Norman Rockwell idealization slips towards a new America forged in individual assassinations and riots at home and mass deaths in Southeast Asia.
(Released by Criterion Collection and rated "G" by MPAA.)