Reviewed by Harvey Karten
Director: Jason Rosette
Writer: Jason Rosette
Cast: Booksellers, narrated by Jason Rosette
My favorite Ray Bradbury sci-fi novel is “Fahrenheit 451,” made into a relatively unemotional, slow-moving movie in ’66 by Francois Truffaut–his only English language contribution. My view is that sci-fi at its best must not only tell a great story but must have an edge, preferably satiric. It must say something about contemporary society that can best be put into an imaginative, futuristic setting. In “Fahrenheit 451” all printed materials were banned by the government because, among other reasons, the government held that books can make people sad. This was to be a “don’t worry, be happy” era. But one small rebellious group of book lovers retreated to a sylvan utopian settings, each having memorized one book, each with the task of transmitting the text of that tome to future generations.
Would you be surprised if we suggested that we today in the U.S. are living in that sort of time? Look at the subways. When I was a kid, everyone read. Even if the newspaper of choice was the tabloid Daily Mirror or Daily News at two cents a pop, people were reading! Barber shop seats were crammed with all the newspapers that flourished in New York: the Journal America, The World, The Telegram, The Sun, PM, the Herald Tribune, the New York Times. What do you see today on the trains? People are wired. Walkmans have replaced periodicals just as the cell phone seems to have replaced a good deal of face-to-face conversation.
If this situation makes you mad, make you furious, you’ve gotta like “BookWars,” which won the Best Documentary award at this year’s New York Underground Film Festival last March. By the conclusion of its seventy-seven minutes, the doc may have just about reached the end of its welcome since, after all, “BookWars” is the product of just one guy, Jason Rosette, who spent five years making this on a shoestring.
Rosette, who studied philosophy at New York University and switched to the film school from which he graduated in 1991, borrowed some bucks to get the project launched, while the only establishment decent enough to give him some post-production funding was the Playboy Foundation. Maybe only a few people will look at “BookWars” as an epilogue to “Fahrenheit 451”, but as I see the picture, we’re dealing with a raggedy-taggety group of true Kerouacian entrepreneurs who defy the TV culture, and go against the mega-corporate structures of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. (Even these book businesses have turned to pushing CD’s and greeting cards and calendars and other non-book items to survive.)
Though “BookWars” gets its title from the conflict between the peddlers of the printed page and a particularly mean local government in New York City, its focus is on the dealers themselves. These folks–scruffily bearded, long-haired, bearing ethnic accents (except for the movie’s Ohio-bred narrator), opinionated, edgy–have been thought of by some local denizens as homeless, as bums, as bearers of stolen property. This is true in a small minority of cases only, if we are to believe the hard-working director-writer-editor-narrator of this unusual underground movie. Truth to tell, they get their mostly used fare–good stuff too, like Kerouac, Dostoevski, Mailer and the like which seem to sell better on the street than even popular fiction–from yard sales and estate purchases. They haul crates and boxes of paperbacks, hardcovers, some of which have seen better days and have been Elmer-glued, scissored and carefully wrapped in plastic by these street capitalists, and often put in long, long days on the curbs. Often working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. during decent weather, they consider a take of $200 to be decent enough–and that’s gross, not profit.
Despite their enthusiasm, their energy, their commitment to a literate public averse to spending $27 for a 200-pager at the local Waldenbooks and to people who insist that they are finding stock unavailable anywhere else–they are being harassed by the Giuliani administration. Because of the First Amendment, they cannot be summarily kicked off the block. But the mayor has mandated Tax I.D. cards and carefully painted borderlines under his so-called quality of life program, an approach that seems curiously designed to protect traditional business and the principal university in the area.
Rosette focuses on just a couple of blocks of Manhattan, all in the Greenwich Village area. Sixth Avenue around 9th Street sees a concentration of comic books and some porno while the good stuff is on West Fourth Street, embracing the director’s alma mater, NYU. Rosette introduces us to a variety of idiosyncratic characters who are really only a step away from welfare, who probably live on pizzas sold by the piece throughout their working days, and though he does not go into the nitty-gritty details, one wonder how they even take breaks to relieve themselves given the absence of public restrooms in our heartless town.
California-born Thomas is the mega-guy, a bearded but neatly trimmed slim guy who seems in his thirties and who eventually opened up his own indoor store. Another is Pete, a loft artist from Newark who picked up gobs of volumes to make collages and wound up selling the books themselves. Adding to the variety of types is Rick, who does street magic to pick up a few extra bucks; Boris from Russia; at least one fellow from Jamaica who is quite opinionated about the mayor’s office and another guy from Poland. The customers seem almost as odd as the sellers, but given the nature of the Village and of a large urban metropolis like New York, that’s to be expected. A couple of young girls are fooling around with passersby asking to get a better look at their butts. An elderly woman with a colorful hat is being flattered shamelessly by one salesman and predictably enough, she buys.
A few of the so-called customers are downright deranged and give these enterprising workers a hard time by leaning on their tables. One clean-cut fellow has a volume in his hand about the size of War and Peace. The camera stares at him for what we are told is twenty minutes, the implication being that he’s not the Big Spender from the East but someone who shows up every day at the same time to read another chunk of printed material from that tome, standing up, only to replace it gently when lunch hour is over.
This doc is not as amusing as something that could come from the camera of Upper-West Sider Michael Moore, but then again Moore has a lot more dough at his disposal than Rosette–who has yet to pay off his student loan at NYU. Nor do we expect the camerawork featured in John Woo’s “Mission Impossible 2,” given the dimes and quarters that were used to finance “BookWars.” The film sometimes looks as grainy as the sellers are scruffy, as Rosette used Mini DV, Super 8, Regular 8 and Hi-8 video and Super VHS and what’s more he had to keep his cameras as unobtrusive as might James Bond. “BookWars” gains variety from its combination of eloquent narration and some patter from the sellers and kibitzers that would set Henry Higgins’ hair on end. In the final analysis, this movie is as urban as the World Trade Center, a reminder of what makes us Gothamites live in and love the Big Apple.
Not Rated. Running time: 79 minutes. (C) 2000 by Harvey Karten, firstname.lastname@example.org