VCU students, faculty, and members of the Richmond community filled the seats of the Grace Street Theater last Tuesday evening for a special 35mm screening of the Maysles brothers’ 1969 documentary, Salesman, loaned to VCUarts Cinema directly from Albert Maysles himself. Sitting comfortably at the foot of the stage and waiting patiently to introduce the film was critic, author, and honored guest J.M. Tyree.
The film, a direct look into the lives of Bible salesmen traveling door to door across the East Coast, is considered the first feature length documentary film ever made. We see men ranging from mid 30s to early 50s, some smartly dressed, some slightly harried, all trying their luck at being their own bosses. Masculinity and worth become tied to sales quotas. An immediacy pervades as we follow the salesmen from door to door to, finally, the motel, where 3 to 5 men are crammed into a room at a time. And they review the day’s catch, fully aware that they are both compatriots and competitors to one another, sometimes unable to look one another in the eyes.
“It’s a hard film to watch,” Tyree had warned, and he was right. There is no entirely happy way to talk about America’s vulnerable adolescence, America’s 1960s, or America’s American Dream. Everything you know about Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman makes itself subtly present in this film.
After the screening Tyree encouraged the audience members to stay and ask any questions they might have had about the film. He answered questions regarding the salesmen backgrounds, how the customers of the salesmen reacted to cameras recording them and the criticism the Maysles brothers received for their observational approach to filmmaking and their choice not to acknowledge the camera crew.
Salesman came out in the 1960’s and immediately found itself under scrutiny for its use of direct cinema style. The goal of direct cinema, as Tyree defined, is to “capture real life as it happened using camera and sound technologies that allowed film to capture an unprecedented form of immediacy… To transfer some of the texture of real life onto the movie screen.” With the development of handheld cameras and lightweight sound recording devices in the 1950’s and 1960’s, “the real world seemed open to film in a way it had never before,” Tyree said.
In the world of non-fiction film making, however, it was unprecedented to shoot real life without revealing the camera crews or an interviewer. What made “Salesman” special was the deliberate choice to exclude all indications of the film making process. The content was non fiction, however the presentation was in a movie-like, fiction form; none of the subjects acknowledged the fact that they were being filmed. For this reason, the Mayseles brothers were criticized for manipulating the story through editing.
Tyree was kind enough to extend his visit into Wednesday and speak to the freshmen in the Cinema program about nonfiction film and film criticism. The VCUarts Cinema department would like to thank J.M. Tyree for guest speaking for VCUarts Cinematheque and extending his stay through Wednesday afternoon to share his insights with the freshmen.
J.M. Tyree’s works include BFI Film Classics: Salesman and BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski. He also contributes to Film Quarterly and has taught Creative Writing at Stanford University. He was most recently awarded the position of Associate Editor for Nonfiction at New England Review.