F.: Albert Maysles. M.: Charlotte Zwerin. Int.: Paul Brennan (‘il tasso’), Charles McDevitt (‘the gipper’), James, U. S. Baker (‘il coniglio’), Raymond Martos (‘il toro’), Kennie Turner (direttore delle vendite), Melbourne I. Feltman (consulente teologico), Margaret McCarron (cameriera del motel). Prod.: Albert Maysles, David Maysles per Maysles Films. DCP. D.: 91’. Bn.
The Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter takes one of the defining moments of the 1960s, the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, and helps us see what all the fuss of youth rebellion was all about. Given their prowess in examining the counterculture of that tumultuous decade, it’s doubly impressive that their exquisite Salesman (1969) so skillfully details the ‘other’ ’60s, the world of ‘ordinary’ people animated by making do with everyday life rather than preoccupations with Vietnam, drugs, and social change. These are the door-to-door Bible salesmen and their customers, and they occupy a world of starched white shirts, dark ties, pork-pie hats, and morning cigarette coughs – a world far removed from tie-dyes, beads, long hair, and pot highs.
Salesman takes us inside the diurnal rituals and disappointments of men who clearly resemble Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The result is a classic of American normalcy exposed. The difference between this and Miller’s play is that the dialogue here is, of course, real: the clients’ curlers are in, their Muzak LPs are playing, and we’re really no longer in Kansas. Both Albert and David Maysles had been door-to-door salesmen-brushes, cosmetics, encyclopedias, you name it. They knew this world of pseudo-intimacy and carpetbagger pushiness, in all its improbable, American folksiness. When, making this film, they turned up at peoples’ doors with the salesmen, recording equipment in tow, they too became part of the pitch, or as it was politely called, ‘presentation’. When folks permitted the salesmen and filmmakers to enter, they were invited to do so as part of a “human interest story”. The result was an instant classic, one that’s been part of the documentary canon for over three decades.
[…] Underneath this critique of failure and smallness lies a more powerful indictment of American commercial society: its petty obsessions with status, its propensity to exploit the gullible, its way of concealing exploitation behind goodwill, and above all, its snide trick of offering religion and its promise of deliverance in the afterlife, rather than improvements in everyday life. This is all the more poignant here, where faith itself is neatly commodified as though it were a new model of vacuum cleaner.