Argumentative married couple Greg Bruce and Zanna Gillespie review The Booksellers.
Quantity of books: 5
Quantity of interviews: 5
Admirability of bookshelves: 5
The movie consists mostly of interviews with borderline obsessives in impossibly book-dense spaces, particularly crumbling New York apartments thick with books, rich with character and resplendent with views of the Manhattan skyline.
I was transported by the power of these images and of these lives immersed in books among the improbably beautiful neglect of these incredible apartments in this great city. But a life can be immersed in books in different ways.
Books are primarily the works of authors but this is a story about books as the works of publishers, printers and designers - about books as objects to be bought and sold rather than read. This is a movie in which, when people debate the value of Cervantes vs Ian Fleming, they're talking about monetary, not literary, value. It's a visual story about the fiscal importance of a primarily verbal medium. The people in the movie rarely, if ever, express any interest in the contents of the books they're buying and selling. Their interest is the buying and selling.
It's a documentary not about the thrill of reading but about the thrill of acquisition. I don't mean to sound angry or resentful about this - I'm not - I'm just trying to work through some feelings.
In a world that needs the imagination and consideration of books more than ever, the existence of a movie reducing them to the scale of money is quite depressing. To open a book is to open yourself to a world, but this movie focused on a world in which Bill Gates once offered US$28 million for a book he had never even seen, let alone opened, at an auction he couldn't even be bothered attending.
None of this is a judgement on the movie itself, which does a good job of telling an interesting story about the people who buy and sell rare books. As I say, I'm just trying to work through some feelings.
The writer Fran Lebowitz, whose soundbites are the highlight of the film, talks of how the New York booksellers of the mid-20th century hated it when customers talked to them. They weren't in business to make money; they just wanted to sit in their shops, surrounded by books and read all day. As economic units mired in the global heart of capitalism, these people were failures; as people, they don't sound especially successful either. But what lives they must have led! Somebody should definitely write a book about them.
In a bygone era when we sat down in front of live television and flicked channels until we stumbled across something watchable, The Booksellers would be the perfect late-night stumble. Now though, our ability to choose whatever we want to watch, whenever we want to watch it, means we rarely if ever persevere with something that doesn't completely grip us and The Booksellers, unfortunately, doesn't.
It's not exciting. It's not shocking. It's not even that weird. If it wasn't for this review, I never would've watched it to completion, yet it was a perfectly pleasant insight into the obsessive world of rare book collectors and sellers.
Greg and I have watched a lot of gripping documentary films and series in recent years and one thing they all have in common is unexpected twists and turns - moments when everything you believed you were watching is turned on its head and you question your very existence. I waited patiently for that to happen in The Booksellers - I thought perhaps one of the collectors might've been creating fraudulent original copies and selling them for millions on eBay. Then I thought maybe someone's collection might have been stolen from the Louvre or that someone else's might have been a front for a child pornography ring. But none of those things happened.
This is to say that The Booksellers lacks the kind of narrative structure we've all grown to know and expect. Whether this is a fault with the film or whether it's the fault of our stupid little brains demanding to be thrilled constantly, I'm not quite sure, ut there's no real story to this film. It is a collection of interviews with booksellers and collectors, each of whom are relatively interesting - but not more than that.
One thing going for it is lots of footage of bookish New York City and that is something of which I will never tire.
Still, it strikes me as the kind of documentary that is made for itself. By that, I mean the people in it and those who are part of the industry, will love it and I'm happy for them. I, on the other hand, could happily have flicked on to it, watched 10 minutes of admirable bookshelves, then changed the channel.
The Booksellers is in cinemas now