Hello 2024 (Cinéma vérité: Part 1 of 4)
But First: Cinéma vérité
cinema - noun
cin·e·ma / ˈsi-nə-mə
MOTION PICTURE → Usually used attributively
a motion-picture theater
especially: The film industry
the art or technique of making motion pictures
vérité - noun
vé·ri·té / ver-ə-ˈtā
the art or technique of filming something (such as a motion picture) so as to convey candid realism
Welcome to Academic January, where Movie Night takes a break from carefree fun and gets serious! Serious about cautious fun. And by cautious fun, I mean appreciating art and the many shapes art can take. Ok, just one shape: Film1. But there are many different forms within the field of film. Transcendental Style is one of those forms. Cinéma vérité is another one of those forms.
The movies we’ll watch this month aren’t documentaries, but they’re essentially the father of modern documentaries in that they aim to capture objective reality as closely as possible. Besides the college-freshman-ness of debating objectivity, cinéma vérité is fun for group viewing and discussion because the wrinkles of the form are prominent. The level of involvement from the filmmakers: are they onscreen or offscreen? Do we ever hear them? The level of engagement between subject and camera: do the “characters” acknowledge the camera, talk to the camera, pretend the camera isn’t there? It’s a form that draws comparisons to reality television, and for good reason. (It occurs to me that The Rehearsal might be the ultimate realization, the final boss, the great becoming, etc., of this form.) Vérité, despite its attempts to show us “real life,” obviously suffers from the observer effect, and we see this in many examples of vérité and reality TV. They can both, at times, feel like they feed our worst impulses for voyeurism, exhibitionism, and heightened dramatic behavior. The similarities between all of these things are reminders that they share something else: deserved skepticism.
If you need a jumping-off point for debating vérité after watching some of the films, look no further than Warner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration. Cinéma vérité, like Herzog, isn’t always consistent, but it’s always thought-provoking and entertaining.
The best-selling book in the world is the Bible. You might think a book like the Bible could sell itself, but Paul Brennan, “The Badger” is trying to sell you one. So is Charles McDevitt, “The Gipper.” And so is James Baker. “The Rabbit.” After hustling their holy wares to the elderly and middle-class, they head back to the motel on the edge of some small town to drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and laugh about the trade.
If you grow up in an environment where you feel like you have to convince the people responsible for your well-being to continue to care for you daily, you grow up receiving the training you need to be a salesperson2. The salespeople in this movie sell like their lives depend on it, and when they’re done charming their clients, their faces slowly regress into emotionless vacancy. Their animal instincts are exhausted in the pursuit of their living, and they rest, though not easily, back in their motel, away from their marks.
Salespeople now, and salespeople when Salesman (1969) was made, are the same blunt instruments that they’ve always been: people employed by large organizations to move the margins, to make up for the product's inability to sell itself. The men who occupy the screen in Salesman use every tactic at their disposal to sell Bibles. It would be impressive if it weren’t so shallow and ironic. Worse, in a rare acknowledgment of being filmed, they’re happy to laugh about their tactics and successes to the camera and lament their failures. The camera sees everything the salespeople do, and they love being seen doing it.
Movies have evolved over the years, but so has our relationship with cameras. Point a camera at someone today, and they might worry about a slew of #online considerations. In 1969, when the Maysles brothers were following their subjects around, the subjects might have smiled sheepishly for a few seconds at the realization of being filmed, but then it was right back to business. The camera and its profound ability to capture life had yet to be fully realized, affording the audience of Salesman an unprecedented view into reality that immediately began to fade inverse proportionally as cinéma vérité grew and evolved as a style, taking on various forms until it arrived at modern incarnations such as Survivor and The Apprentice.
And this is what makes Salesman one of the most profoundly authentic and sad films you will watch about modern America. As we cautiously proceed into 2024, it’s worth considering the people trying to sell you something and their motivation. We watch salespeople feign interest in the lives of the people they’re selling to, occasionally interrupting to ask if they might be able to round $5 up to an even $7.95. They talk in circles, push people, and exploit their loneliness. In one scene, after a deal is closed, the salesperson’s face prematurely fades back to neutral as his hosts follow him out the door, hoping to keep the visit alive and huff the fumes of his ephemeral companionship. Or was it being witnessed by the camera, the camera we sometimes forget we’re looking through, that they desperately wanted to maintain?
Salesman is the ideal of vérité. It’s a form that is not to be taken at face value, depicting people who are not to be taken at face value. It’s a reminder that truth is not some fixed, unyielding thing that someone forces into your view3. Truth is…
Directed by Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, and David Maysles
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Stream on the Criterion Channel or Max
You’ll like this if you like: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) or Roger & Me (1989)
This is where my future wife told me to stop doing a bit.
This is not to say all salespeople have troubled childhoods.
Unless that fixed unyielding thing is evidence of election fraud and intent to subvert the Constitution.