A documentary directed by Jason Rosette. Unrated
(R-equivalent for language and pictures of nudity).


As unquestionably decent as Bookwars turned out to be, it's still a real disappointment because it has one of the most fascinating documentary subjects I've seen in a long time. I visited New York recently and wondered about the booksellers that were so prominent on the streets. Do they make a living selling books? A profit? Who are they? Are they homeless. Jason Rosette's movie tries to answer those questions and succeeds only periodically. Still, I cna't say that I'll ever look at street booksellers the same way again.

Rosette found himself out of film school and completely broke. Struggling to pay the rent and put food on his table, he saw no other choice but to take what belongings he had, go out on the streets of New York and try to sell them. Since most of what he had were books, he quickly realized that he'd fit right in with the people who set up sidewalk tables full of eccentric reading material at discounted prices.

His discovery was that those people whom we often look upon with scorn, aren't the homeless bums we might expect them to be. The folks Rosette met out there in the bookselling world were a lot of times intelligent people trying to make an honest living. Many of them truly love literature. One of Bookwars's virtues is that it manages to genuinely humanize these often eccentric people, dismantling stereotypes and evoking something other than pity.

The documentary was shot on video and it looks surprisingly good, considering that Rosette had to actually sell the books in addition to filming his surroundings. Color me a purist, but I still prefer film to video even in documentaries; this one, however, seems to have been custom-tailored to the camcorder. Its cheap, bare-essentials feel is certainly appropriate for the subject and alleviated all the more by Rosette's deftness with the camera. He is a film school grad, after all...

The problem, which is in fact so big that it almost does the film in completely, is that Bookwars is maddeningly disorganized. Instead of dealing with specific aspects of his subject at specific times, Rosette chooses to spread everything out and the result is a bit of a mess. In the middle of everything, he edits in seemingly random comments from either booksellers or passers-by that don't have anything to do with what came before or what comes after. His intention in doing this may have been to simply "paint a picture" of the bookselling scene but the result is sometimes more akin to a Jackson Pollock painting than to a collage.

In the end, when Bookwars gets into the devastating effect of Giuliani's "Quality of Living" campaign, it becomes ponderously Orwellian (a comment is made about a force within the city, bigger than any one politician, intent on getting books off the street), but by that time I had made a real emotional investment in the fates of these booksellers. Despite the documentary's haphazard structure and somewhat pretentious wrap-up, it suceeds in its sympathetic portrayal of these little-known but nevertheless heroic (in Rosette's eyes, anyway) warriors. I don't want to say that the movie needed a bigger budget to do its subject justice -- that would be blasphemy, considering the subject's nature -- but it couldn't have hurt. B-

--Eugene Novikov
©2000 Eugene Novikov