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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2002 / 19 Shevat, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Reality can quietly
travel door to door -- DON'T know why, but I've been watching my copy of the old documentary movie "Salesman" lately. It's as good as non-fiction filmmaking gets -- it's as good as filmmaking of any kind gets -- and I don't think it could get made today. If it did, it would never see the inside of a movie theater.

"Salesman" -- filmed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin -- was released in 1969. Its premise is unadorned: The documentarians follow four door-to-door salesmen of Bibles on their rounds as they travel the country. What they record is shattering. If a motion picture can change you and break your heart, "Salesman" is that motion picture. The desperation, fear, and hunger seen in every frame of the movie -- both on the part of the four men whose job it is to sell the Bibles, and of the men and women who answer all those doors -- is a part of American life that has always been with us, but too seldom translated into art.

The concept of door-to-door sales has all but gone away in our skittish new world, and the sight of men in suits and ties pounding the sidewalks of America, working for a national company that stays afloat by selling Bibles in such a way . . . the specifics of "Salesman" feel like something from another century, which, of course, they are.

But that is not why the movie likely would not be made today -- and that is not why, if it somehow were to be made, it would probably never be booked into a theater.

The reason is that in the last several years, America's perception of reality on film -- or on videotape -- has been so altered and cheapened that you have to ask yourself if anyone would even sit through something like "Salesman." Its reality was . . .

Well, it was real -- or as close an approximation of real as the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin could get onto film. There was a story out there -- the lives of those Bible salesmen no one noticed, the lives of the people to whom they had to sell their wares for their own survival -- and the filmmakers hit the road and captured that story.

Today? Look at something like "Survivor" -- a trick, a fraternity game. Casting sessions and location scouting and rough scripts and a genial host, "Survivor" is now the prototypical "reality programming," in that it is the opposite of real. The events that millions of people tune in to watch would not have occurred had the producers not decided they should occur. The very postulate is a fiction.

"The Real World" on MTV, and that network's "Road Rules," set the tone: Audition a group of attractive young people, put them in a house they never would have lived in had the network not financed it, or on a trip they never would have taken had the network not come up with the itinerary, and then record what happens. It is the converse of reality, successfully sold as the true thing.

The new quiz shows where people are physically tortured as they try to guess the answers, the proliferation of TV programs where young people are encouraged to belittle and humiliate each other in odd-man-or-woman-out dating situations . . . this is what America is now being asked to accept as non-fiction visual programming. You always know what is around the next corner -- a titillating development, a tawdry revelation about one of the cast members . . . it is set up to play like fiction because it essentially is fiction.

And -- here is the key -- the cast members have eagerly tried out and signed up because they like the idea of being stars. All they have to do is be themselves -- or some exaggerated version of themselves -- and they will be famous throughout the land. They aren't being caught in unguarded moments -- they are making movies, without a script to memorize.

What's wrong with this? Among other things, what is wrong is that it would make it so difficult for a documentary like "Salesman" to succeed before an audience today. Those four men in that black-and-white film weren't trying to be movie stars. They were trying to sell Bibles. By this time next year, will you recall who the cast members on last year's "Real World" were? I will never forget the faces or the voices of the Bible salesmen. Which is the definition of real art.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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