The selling of books is another story, almost as endless, although if you watch a couple of recent movies that touch on the subject, you might think the end is nigh.
D.W. Young's The Booksellers is an affectionate, sprawling look at the rare book business as seen through the eyes of many of its stalwart participants. Books, as someone says early in the film, are "a way of being fully human." (What does it say if we note that the current occupant of the White House is a man who never reads books? Or the warnings on bottles of bleach?) Jumping off from the annual New York Book Fair, Young offers a slightly unguided tour of the history of U.S. antiquarian bookselling, depicted by Hollywood in "a wonderful romanticized vision," as one bookseller puts it, a quick profile of a few of the more famous participants (Rosenbach, Rosenberg and Stern), then quickly leaps to profiles of several contemporary denizens.
If that sounds a bit scattered, well, it is. Young's film is cluttered with delightful vignettes, powerful witnesses and historical tidbits of singular charm. What is lacks is any basic structure. The important issues are all here: the effect of the Internet, the rise of the e-book, the overwhelmingly male, white and middle-aged population of the selling community. And each receives a solemn and thoughtful glimpse, but there seems to be no reason for where they are discussed, speakers often aren't identified, and little effort is made to connect the issues into an overview of the business. There are isolated gestures towards using the book fair as an organizing principle for the film, but these come to naught. The result is a brain-dump of some charm and one that will provide 90 minutes of pleasure to those of us who have haunted the used bookstores of America for most of our lives.
The Booksellers is currently streamable on the Film Forum virtual theater website.
Circus of Books is a vivid contrast with Young's film. The director, Rachel Mason, was an indirect participant in the events she recounts and the structure of the film is pretty much ready-made, a more or less chronological telling of the rise and eventual fall of one of the best-known gay bookstores in Los Angeles, owned and run by her parents, Karen and Barry Mason.
Circus of Books: Karen and Barry Mason
The Masons are transplanted Midwesterners, married Conservative Jews whose careers began in journalism and cinema, respectively. They stumbled into their unlikely fame and for many years resisted the spotlight, and one has the uneasy feeling that when their daughter Rachel decided to make a film about them, Karen, for one, was less than thrilled. Barry, on the other hand, takes everything in stride, responding as naturally to the camera as he did to the odd career moves that led him from special effects work (he contributed to 2001: A Space Odyssey) to inventing monitoring devices for dialysis machines. Neither of Rachel’s parents sought a career as purveyors of gay sex films, magazines and toys, but they brought a dedication to their work that is refreshing.
Ironically, when one of Rachel’s two brothers, Josh, came out to his parents, it was a transformative experience for them, and one that finally led them to activism as founding members of the Los Angeles branch of P-FLAG, the parents’ support group for gay and lesbian children and adults. That turn of events provides some of the most emotionally powerful moments in Circus of Books, but along the way this otherwise very funny film is also shadowed by the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the witch-hunting of the Meese Commission on Pornography, which led to serious felony charges against Barry for distributing “obscene” materials.
Circus of Books: Uh, not the front of the store
Rachel Mason handles these moments, and the wild mood swings they provoke, with aplomb and rather more grace than she does her mother’s constant “advice,” which extends to suggestions about the filming. Circus of Books is a family project by both design and happenstance, purely delightful, funny and gentle and deeply committed to an increasingly unfashionable platform of tolerance and acceptance.
It is streamable on Netflix.
Tomorrow I'll start to haul my tired carcass through the cornucopia that is the Tribeca Film Festival.