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A Uk region 0 DVD review of SALESMAN by Slarek
 

It's doubtful that there is a more important period in the history of documentary filmmaking than the years that immediately followed the development of the first lightweight 16mm cameras and crystal sync sound. This was the birth of the modern documentary as we now know it, and produced a cluster of highly influential works that are now rightly regarded as classics, not just of the documentary genre but of cinema itself. This was a movement that was known in Europe as Cinéma Vérité and in America as Direct Cinema, a term favoured by two of its key practitioners, Albert and Davis Maysles. The Maysles Brothers began their careers working with fellow pioneers Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, but it was with the 1968 Salesman that they were to unknowingly enter the documentary hall of fame, a work they chose to describe, referencing a term applied by Truman Capote to his 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood, as the first non-fiction feature film.

It's been a couple of years since I reviewed the Criterion DVD of Salesman, an article that covered my views on the film in reasonable detail and that I do not feel the need to add to. If you're not familiar with the film then you can read that review here. Re-watching the film I still regard Salesman is a genuinely great documentary work and one that anyone with a genuine interest in the genre should immediately hunt out.

sound and vision

This recently released DVD of the film from Masters of Cinema is, as far as I am aware, its first appearance on any home video format in the UK, and is to be welcomed. It would appear that the print and possibly even the transfer here are exactly the same as the one on the Criterion DVD, identifiable by dust spots and minor scratches that appear in the very same places on both discs. This is no bad thing, as despite very visible grain of the sort you have to expect with a film shot on Plus-X stock in often available light (a single bounced light was used in some interiors), the contrast and detail are both very pleasing, and this is probably as good as you could hope the film would look on DVD. Presumably to retain this image quality without the negative effects of an NTSC to PAL transfer, this is an NTSC disc, which shouldn't be a problem for any modern TVs.

The soundtrack also mirrors the one on the Criterion DVD, a mono track that is clean of crackle and distortion but reflects the recording difficulties sometimes imposed by location, equipment and situation. This is never a problem – the sound quality suits the imagery and the style well.

English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included. Although these are also in the style of the ones found on the Criterion disc, the wording has been painstakingly and appropriately Anglicised for the UK market.

extra features

Here the Criterion and Masters of Cinema discs part company. For details of the features on the Criterion disc, which include an excellent commentary by Albert Maysles and editor Charlotte Zwerin, see that review.

Albert on Salesman (34:32)
An interview with the always engaging Albert Maysles in his New York office, filmed and conducted by Mark Rance and Craig Keller. In terms of its content it's consistently interesting stuff, covering the genesis of the film, Albert's approach to the production and filmmaking in general, the difference between shooting on film and DV tape, why the film works so well and more. My favourite bit has Albert discussing the technical aspects and showing off the specially modified, bazooka-sized 16mm Auricon camera he shot the film with.

Technically the interview is not so hot, with Albert framed by a persistently wobbly camera against a window that's bright enough to throw his face into partial shadow, while the under-recorded soundtrack appears to have been boosted in editing, which has also raised the volume of the background noise. As he demonstrates the Auricon, Albert points out how well balanced the camera is and how steadily it sits on his shoulders, and I couldn't help wondering how he'd react to the considerably less steady footage of him telling us this.

Kennie and Albert Q&A (18:50)
Mentioned by Albert in the above interview and offered by him for inclusion on the DVD, this is a video record of a 2005 Chicago screening of Salesman that was attended by the sales manager in the film, Kennie Turner. Turner takes the stage with Albert following the screening and recalls his time on the job, after which the two men take questions from the audience. It's all useful, entertaining stuff, and includes some engaging footage of them meeting up before the screening. The camera here is also seriously fidgety at times – re-framing on the fly is definitely not this operator's forte.

Theatrical Trailer (3:14)
The only extra feature here that you'll also find on the Criterion disc.

Booklet
Masters of Cinema have always shined when it comes to the booklets that accompany their releases, and this one is no exception. It features detailed production notes written by Howard Junker for the film's original release on the film and even the equipment used, and also includes some excellent, high quality photographs of the Maysles and their subjects on location and outside of the cinema at the film's world premiere.

summary

Masters of Cinema have gone up against Criterion before and at least twice have come out the winner (Onibaba and Kwaidan). Here they certainly equal the Criterion disc on the picture and sound and the extra features unique to this disc are interesting and worthwhile inclusions, despite the wobbly camerawork. Where the Criterion disc has the edge is in its commentary track, which is consistently enthralling and information packed, although a little of the ground covered there is repeated in the interview with Albert on the MoC disc. Take your pick. The commentary track just wins it for Criterion in my book, but as a fan of the film I wouldn't want to miss out on the new interview, the Kennie Turner Q&A or the booklet, so I'd have to have both either way.

Salesman

USA 1969
91 mins
directors
David Maysles
Albert Maysles
Charlotte Zwerin

DVD details
region 0
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Interview with Albert Maysles
Albert and Kennie Q&A
Theatrical traiiler
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
30 April 2007
review posted
3 May 2007
related reviews
Salesman
[US DVD review]
Grey Gardens
The Gates

See all of Slarek's reviews