This week, the Northwest Film Forum will show the best film I have seen this  year.

[caption id="attachment_15845" align="aligncenter" width="350" caption="Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, USA, 1969)"]Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, USA, 1969)[/caption]

Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, USA, 1969) follows four traveling Bible salesmen through middle- and lower-middle class Catholic homes, as they try to peddle $50.00 Bibles to reluctant housewives, young parents, and solitary old ladies.  Nicknamed "Badger" (Paul Brennan), "Gipper" (Charles McDevitt), "Rabbit" (James Baker), and "Bull" (Raymond Martos), the vendors are by turns charming, macho, sinister, and pathetic.

[caption id="attachment_15847" align="aligncenter" width="419" caption="Bible salesmen Paul Brennan, James Baker, Charles McDevitt, and Raymond Martos"]Bible salesmen Paul Brennan, James Baker, Charles McDevitt, and Raymond Martos[/caption]

True to its direct cinema genre, Salesman is formally simple—no script, no actors, no sets, scarcely a score—but it drifts forward with a gentle and sad beauty that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

In lockjaw Boston accents, they speak with women in curlers and men in wifebeaters, surrounded by the clutter of their lives.  Whether or not they close the deal, they return to the drab world of low-ceilinged 1960s motels and cars prone to flat tires, with only each other for company. The half-histories they mutter to themselves and each other flesh out a deeply moving vision of this iconic American profession, long dead to catalog orders and the Internet.

[caption id="attachment_15846" align="alignleft" width="332" caption="Paul Brennan (The Badger) makes a pitch."]Paul Brennan (The Badger) makes a pitch.[/caption]

When Paul tries to sell his top-shelf Bible ("the best seller in the world") to a woman with eyes so tired they look like shiners, she can't shake him off even by explaining that she has to make her health insurance payments.  Her toddler wanders to the piano in the corner and feels out a haphazard melody more haunting than any score could have been.  Meanwhile, Paul—who looks like a sadder, less creepy Christopher Walken—fingers the gold-embossed book like the most precious of fetish objects.

Cinematographer Albert Maysles (called the "best American cameraman" by Jean-Luc Godard) captures such moments with frank grace. Shot on handheld cameras that never come to a complete stop, the black and white film has that soft grainy quality that makes it more like a velvet painting than a celluloid strip. The camera's mobility enables its curiosity, as it often drifts from the main action of a sale to peripheral but fascinating interactions: as Charles tries to sell two parents on the Good Book, we see his colleague Paul playing with their 3 year-old son and his toy car, capturing a sunny smile on the salesman's normally dour face.

These interactions evoke the interplay between the impersonal, transient lives of the salesmen, living out of hotels, and the intimate spaces they enter to peddle their wares.

[caption id="attachment_15848" align="alignright" width="345" caption="Raymond Martos (The Bull) closes the deal."]Raymond Martos (The Bull) closes the deal.[/caption]

Due to David Maysles' discovery of such fascinating characters, and Albert Maysles' relentless and inquisitive camerawork, much of Salesman feels like meandering through a stunning show of photographic portraits.  Only these portraits are three-dimensional, fleshed out by voices and gestes you won’t soon forget.

If you go see one film in the Northwest Film Forum’s 1969 series—or one film period for the rest of this year—make it this one.  Plays today through Thursday at 8pm.

Today's FilmNerd brought to you by the 2009 Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival:


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