Salesman

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Documentary;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Salesman was the documentary feature debut that put the Maysles Brothers (David and Albert) on the map along with Charlotte Zwerin, whose subtle editing choices here are, with good reason, the kind often termed as “invisible,” though we subliminally sense that they’re there. The team’s real breakthrough, if you’re talking about audience magnets, came a couple years later with Gimme Shelter, aka the Rolling Stones/Altamont train-wreck-on-film — which every hip person of a certain age just had to see at the time (its shelf life has been robust, too). But Salesman, which the Brothers had to go out and sell all by themselves, did garner a lot of ink and outstanding reviews from its very opening.

The result is a highly specialized real-life portrayal that personally hit me between the eyes the first time I saw it — and still does. More on this later, but the salient point here is that we end up following four Irish-Catholic door-to-door salesmen of middle age and pet nicknames — charged with unloading deluxe doorstop Bibles full of elaborate illustrative paintings to customers who haven’t the money to make the monthly payments. There are tough ways to attempt a living, but making cold calls on straight commission as far as six U.S. states away from home is right up there. And then you drive somewhere else the following week.

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The 1969 documentary was lucky in a sense because it found a star in the making with soul-of-a-poet main protagonist Paul Brennan, the colorfully blarney-spouting member of the sales quartet (when it suits his needs or fancy) who, by coincidence, became the focus here because he is losing his touch. The old bag-of-tricks formulas that riff on a largely canned presentation aren’t working lately, and he’s starting to press — which then has a way of feeding on itself to make things worse. The other salesmen, who’ve been doing fairly well lately against equally tough odds, are sympathetic — but can’t get too close to Paul (nicknamed “The Badger”) or his escalating woes because they might rub off and poison their own well. But segregation isn’t easy to pull off when they’re all looming in close quarters at this week’s anonymous motel.

At this point, I should probably mention that during that flailing period after grad school when I was awaiting my Big Break (which did eventually come), I went on the road myself under the tutelage of my local Encyclopedia Brittanica rep/manager selling Great Books of the Western World on college campuses from Buffalo to Denton, Texas. It was a much younger crew than the one we see in Salesman, working a classy product (Ptolemy, anyone?) to a sharper clientele. But the documentary’s portrayal of the day-to-day lifestyle (a generous term) is chillingly on the mark, unearthing memories I was happy to relegate to eternal slumber miles beneath the earth’s core.

First, it was the long drives to the selling destination, which meant you began your work day at night when you were already whipped. You shared a motel room with someone who was a decent guy as long as you kept the conversation to the two male basics — sports and women — but with whom you otherwise had nothing in common, starting with the fact that, ironically, they never read books during the job’s rare down time). If motel fluorescent lighting could kill you, I wouldn’t have lived to see The Godfather Part II. And then there were the motivational tapes (something we don’t see the Salesman crew have to endure) that we were strongly motivated to buy; I think my manager (someone I liked but one slick Willie), had a piece of that action. In any event, the recorded motivator talked of nothing but attaining material goods and how you could now arrange your schedule to play a lot of golf (really deep stuff here). Negative thoughts were frowned upon, and here I was in the final chapters of the great Warren G. Harding bio The Shadow of Burning Grove, at a time when the administration’s suicides were beginning (“That’s positive,” said my boss, sardonically). When I finally decided to quit mid-week on the road — and I’d had some boffo sales weeks, though they were strongly front-loaded — he had me on a long bus ride back home in a blink, and I never saw any of the crew again. I would have infected the operation, which I understood and accepted.

One thing these two situations had in common were these impromptu customers’ inability to pay once the vendor got in the door (in Salesman, the crew members say they’re “with the church,” which is at best true only on a whopper of a technicality). The Maysles did their filming — and they found that most customers liked, and soon got used to, being on camera — in 1966 or early ’67. One offshoot of this is that everyone here smokes (“Sure, come right into my home and light up”), and truth to tell, this is equally so of the housewives-in-curlers who have to listen to the pitch, occasionally bite and then get read the riot act when their husbands get home that night to see that the family budget has been ambushed. By this time, it’s impossible to cancel the order, though laws were later enacted by the time of my own employment to provide a short “remorse” window.

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The Maysles divide their shooting time between miserably snowy Massachusetts not far from Boston and Miami, with the latter a seeming respite except for the fact that the neighborhood streets where Paul is assigned are such a byzantine tackle box that he can’t locate the household on which he has a lead, however shaky. Adding narrative rhythm to all this are the crew’s bull sessions back in their motel rooms (lots of low-stakes poker gets played for a quality-of-life bonus) and also the large national group meeting that’s intended to provide both motivation and a little ass-kicking. The sales manager isn’t exactly ogre-ish Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, but he makes it clear that they’d better produce — while the publisher rep, spiritual dimension quickly dispensed with, concedes they are basically pushing “product.” Paul and one other guy on his specific crew are thin and bony, but practically everyone else here is overweight, middle-aged and a figure of sympathy unless he happens to be on a sales roll.

The accompanying essay by critic Michael Chaiken and a 1969 Maysles TV interview by onetime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll are up to Criterion standards and the original DVD’s commentary by Albert Mayles and Zwerin has been carried over. But the high point is unquestionably the full-length inclusion of a spoof from the “Documentary Now!” cable series, in which Bill Hader and Fred Armisen expertly have their way in Globesman, a precisely detailed replication about guys trudging through the same snow and the like to peddle globes. Hader also provides a separate appreciation for the original film. As he has proven before, Hader is no movie dilettante, but a funny man who also truly knows and loves film history. He is a treasure.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Little Romance’ and ‘Salesman’

‘Variety’ 2019 Hall of Fame Honorees Feted

Variety inducted five into its Hall of Fame Dec. 3 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The awards, which began in the early days of video, now celebrate innovation in multiplatform entertainment. This year’s event benefitted City Year.

Inductees included writer, director and producer Greg Berlanti; DreamWorks Animation president Margie Cohn; actor, writer, director and producer Bill Hader; Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix; and Dametra Johnson-Marletti, GM of Microsoft digital stores business and category management.

Paramount Pictures futurist-in-residence Ted Schilowitz was honored with an Innovation Award.

Story here.

Netflix’s Cindy Holland, Actor Bill Hader Among ‘Variety’ Hall of Fame Honorees Feted

Variety inducted five into its Hall of Fame Dec. 3 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The awards, which began in the early days of video, now celebrate innovation in multiplatform entertainment. The event benefitted City Year.

Inductees included writer, director and producer Greg Berlanti; DreamWorks Animation president Margie Cohn; actor, writer, director and producer Bill Hader; Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix; and Dametra Johnson-Marletti, GM of Microsoft digital stores business and category management.

Paramount Pictures futurist-in-residence Ted Schilowitz was honored with an Innovation Award.

Netflix’s Holland paid tribute to the first winner of the award, Jane Fonda.

“Jane carved a path that’s impossible for anyone to follow, but many of us have walked or worked out in her footsteps,” she said. “She continues to live a bold and daring life well into her 80s now — whether it’s on ‘Grace and Frankie’ [on Netflix] or Fire Drill Fridays [climate change protests] in Washington, D.C. She’s getting arrested every Friday.”

Holland thanked Fonda for her “kind words” in the video introduction, adding “I’m really proud to know her, and I’d like to be like her when I grow up.”

She also noted Fonda’s involvement in creating the video industry.

“Jane’s workout videos were a really important part of the home entertainment industry, where I spent a lot of my career,” Holland said. “In the early days it was the VHS boom. That was followed by DVD and Blu-ray and now streaming. While Jane was working out in the 80s, I could only dream of all the movies and television shows we now have access to in our homes and in our pockets. It’s been a real pleasure to be part of that change.”

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She urged more recognition for women in the industry.

“I’m really motivated to ensure that women in this industry have the same opportunities to succeed and more importantly to take risks, to fail, to be better for it and still be recognized,” she said.

Microsoft’s  Johnson-Marletti stressed the importance of studio partners.

“It’s not our code that customers like; it’s your content,” she said. “Thank you for a shared vision with us in bringing millions of Microsoft customers fantastic content.”

Hader, who works both behind and in front of the camera and is currently starring in HBO’s “Barry” and in Noelle on Disney+, recalled working as a production assistant and assistant editor in the industry before his breakout on “Saturday Night Live” — as well as growing up in Oklahoma.

“My grandfather used to say, ‘It’s so flat here that you can watch your dog run away for three days,’” he joked.

“So much has changed in this business since I started out, but certain things are more true than ever in this era of streaming wars or peak TV or post-streaming-war TV or whatever we’re calling it now,” said inductee Greg Berlanti in accepting his award. “I believe audiences will always want good stories, well-told, well-acted by diverse voices trying to make sense of the human experience.”

See photo gallery.

HBO, Streamers Nearly Sweep 2019 Primetime Emmys

In the latest indicator that the subscription model has all but conquered the television landscape as far as the prescription for quality programming goes, HBO and a handful of SVOD services won 21 of the 27 categories awarded during the televised Emmys ceremony Sept. 22.

HBO led with nine wins, including Outstanding Drama Series for the final season of “Game of Thrones,” the fourth time the series captured that crown. Peter Dinklage also won his fourth Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy.

The pay-TV network, of course, pioneered the model of leveraging prestige programming to garner subscribers, albeit as an add-on to cable packages decades before the internet would allow SVOD services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to adopt the practice as well (and for HBO to offer its own SVOD app).

Another big winner for HBO was the miniseries Chernobyl, a harrowing account of the eponymous nuclear disaster of 1986 and the inherent corruption of socialist bureaucracies in both the cause of and response to the crisis. It won for Outstanding Limited Series as well as directing and writing in the limited series/TV movie categories.

Among additional HBO wins, Bill Hader won his second Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series trophy for “Barry,” “Succession” won for drama series writing, and “ Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” won for Outstanding Variety Talk Series and for variety series writing.

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The show with the biggest haul was Amazon Prime Video’s “Fleabag,” with four trophies, including Outstanding Comedy Series. The show, about the adventures of a sexually aggressive woman living in London, was created by and stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who won for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and for writing the show. It also won an Emmy for directing.

Prime Video had seven wins for the night, also taking Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for Ben Whishaw in A Very English Scandal, while “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won Outstanding Comedy Series Supporting Actor and Actress for Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein, respectively (with Borstein repeating her win from last year).

Netflix won for Outstanding Television Movie for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the famed interactive film with the “choose-your-own-adventure” narrative that allowed the viewer to pick which action the main character should take at several points throughout the story. and

Also adding to Netflix’s tally of four were two trophies for “Ozark,” with Julie Garner pulling in a surprising Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series win, and series star Jason Bateman winning for directing the episode “The Gold Coast.” Netflix’s When They See Us won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for Jharrel Jerome,

Hulu’s lone trophy came for Patricia Arquette winning Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for “The Act.”

Sticking things out in the basic cable camp, FX shows won a pair of Emmys, with Michelle Williams taking Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for playing Gwen Verdon in FX’s Fosse/Verdon, and Billy Porter being named Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for “Pose.” VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” won Outstanding Competition Program, while Jodie Comer won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for the second season of BBC America’s “Killing Eve,”

And still carrying the flag for broadcast television was NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which managed wins for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series and variety directing.

Amazon’s ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Lead Way at 70th Emmys

For the second year in a row, a show from a streaming service won the Emmy for best series in its category.

While last year Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” won Outstanding Drama Series, this year it was Amazon Video taking the top prize in the Outstanding Comedy Series category with the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“Maisel” ended up with eight Emmys, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Rachel Brosnahan as the title character, and Outstanding Supporting Actress for Alex Borstein (who won another Emmy this year for her voiceover work on Fox’s “Family Guy”).

The 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards were announced Sept. 17 at a televised ceremony in Los Angeles and at the Creative Arts ceremony a week earlier.

Netflix and HBO ended up tied as the top networks with 23 wins apiece.

Outstanding Drama Series again went to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” this time for its seventh season, which is readily available for digital download or on Blu-ray and DVD.

“Game of Thrones” previously won the Best Drama Series Emmy in 2015 and 2016 for its fifth and sixth seasons, respectively, but a quirk in its production meant the show didn’t air during the 2017 eligibility period, opening the door for “Handmaid’s Tale” to win last year.

“Thrones” won nine Emmys this year, including Peter Dinklage winning his third trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actor for the role of Tyrion Lannister (previously won in 2011 and 2015).

FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story won seven Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series. The nine-episode miniseries is available for digital download.

Among some other notable categories, HBO’s “Barry” (on DVD Oct. 2) won Outstanding Actor and Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Bill Hader and Henry Winkler, respectively. Matthew Rhys won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for the sixth and final season of FX’s “The Americans,” coming to DVD Oct. 23 from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Claire Foy won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for playing Queen Elizabeth II in the second season of Netflix’s “The Crown.” And Thandie Newton won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for season two of HBO’s “Westworld,” which will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Dec. 4 from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

For a complete list of 2018 winners, visit Emmys.com.

HBO’s ‘Barry: Season 1’ Available for Digital Download June 18

HBO Home Entertainment’s Barry: Season 1, starring Bill Hader, will be available for digital download starting June 18.

In addition to Hader (“Saturday Night Live”), cast regulars also include Henry Winkler (“Royal Pains”), Stephen Root (“True Blood”), Sarah Goldberg (“Hindsight”), Glenn Fleshler (“True Detective”) and Anthony Carrigan (“Gotham”).

Barry (Hader) is a depressed hitman from the Midwest, and while on a job in Los Angeles, he follows his mark into an acting class and has a career epiphany when he discovers the intoxicating world of theater acting. Instantly drawn to the class and students, Barry is eager to leave his lonely, cold-hearted job behind, but as he attempts to start a new life in Los Angeles, his criminal ties won’t let him walk away, forcing him to find a balance between both worlds.

Extra content for digital download at participating partners includes the “World of Barry,” in which Winkler and the rest of the cast introduce the ridiculously quirky characters, and “Inside the Episodes,” eight featurettes dissecting each episode with Hader, executive producer Alec Berg, and the rest of the cast and crew.