The Booksellers

 

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A fresh view of New York in a film that features the city's dealers in antiquarian and rare books.

 

  Booksellers, The  

 

My rating for this film is one that some might regard as harsh but which I view as kind. The positive aspect of D.W. Young’s documentary is that it has obvious value in portraying the antiquarian book world in America as it exists today. Towards the close of The Booksellers, voices are heard suggesting that, just as the reading of books is on the wane, so too this trade is in danger of fading away due to the impact of the internet as a source for those seeking out rare books. Furthermore, it is pointed out that many of those who have made a living out of collecting, buying and dealing in such books are now elderly and lack obvious successors. Other voices do challenge this view of the trade but, if it is right, then The Booksellers will take on real historical value as a picture of a disappearing world. That is something to which I have given recognition in awarding what I see as a generous rating for a film that in my eyes is singularly inept in the way that it has been made.

 

If you are satisfied with a jumble of authentic impressions, then it's fine. But if you want a clear exposition or a film that has been given an apt shape you won't find it here - you won't even get a work that properly identifies the many people seen in it. Some make frequent contributions without ever being properly introduced, but even when an individual is featured in one of the ten named sections the naming does not extend to the surname and in any case other figures, often unidentified, are also to be seen alongside the person who is central. However, the muddle extends beyond not knowing who is who and that's because there is no logical progression as the film moves from one segment to another covering a whole range of issues. The subjects touched on include the history of this trade, the pricing of books, the value of a book as an artefact, the impact of the kindle, the design of book covers that can give added value (The Great Gatsby is the illustration here), how auctions have changed in character over time and the way in which, as large archives now confirm, items once seen as ephemera can today be regarded as valuable centres of interest.

 

Undoubtedly there is potential fascination in all these areas, just as there is in discovering what contrasted interests drew particular booksellers into this world in the first place (we learn that one was inspired by a set of Balzac's works and another by the books of Frank Baum, while others were brought in by a passion to unearth overlooked narratives about women by women or invigorated by a desire to preserve hip hop articles in magazines of the 1990s). But, when the presentation of the material wholly lacks flow and would make the same impression if presented in more or less the reverse order, then for any viewer like myself new to this field the experience is frustrating in the extreme. Trying to sort out and identify the talking heads is a distraction and the film's disjointed approach makes it all the more difficult to get a clear overview. There is some help in that the colour photography of Peter Bolte is particularly effective when it comes to showing us some of the oldest surviving books and at least a number of written quotes that appear during the course of the film are attributed. But D.W. Young, who has heretofore mainly made short films, persists in being his own editor and that surely contributed to my response. I did indeed come to this work eager to be introduced into this unfamiliar sphere, but watching The Booksellers felt so frustrating for so much of the time.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Fran Lebowitz, Gay Talese, Dave Bergman, Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample, Adina Cohen, Adam Weinberger, Bibi Mohamed, Justin Schiller, Jim Cummins, Stephen Massey, Henry Wessells, Heather O'Donnell, Rebecca Romney, Arthur Fournier, Susan Orlean, and the voice of Parker Posey.

 

Dir D.W. Young, Pro D.W. Young, Judith Mizrachy and Don Wechsler, Ex Pro Parker Posey, Ph Peter Bolte, Ed D.W. Young, Music David Ullmann.

 

Blackletter Films-Republic Film.
99 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 29 June 2020. Available on VOD. Cert. 15.