"In the beginning, I didn't know George Eliot was a woman."
Did you know that George Eliot was a woman? I didn't.
Did you know that the First Amendment gives you the right to sell books on the street? I didn't.
Did you know there was a movie about New York City street booksellers? I didn't, but now we do.
These are but a few of the informative tidbits I picked up from Book Wars, an "interesting" (I'll get back to this word) look at yet another sliver in the diversity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I have to say that I'm at a loss with this disc, as it's truly different than other documentaries I've seen in the past. For a movie that owes its existence to what I'm doing right now, I'm amused by the irony that I'm having trouble putting the words together.
Facts of the Case
"A Flick by Rosette." Jason Rosette, to be specific, is one of the many men you might have found on the streets (Fourth and Sixth, mostly) of New York City back in the 1990s. He earned a living by selling used books to the denizens of that metropolis, and Book Wars is his documentary that details a few years in his life.
Giving us an overall picture of the arc of his career in street merchandising, Book Wars introduces Rosette, why he became a street bookseller, how he did it, where he did it, whom he met, what he learned, what troubles he faced, and why he eventually left.
I've watched quite a few documentaries in my days, and a couple for The Verdict in particular (though the majority of those are films by Ron Mann). Book Wars has put me in an odd position because of the topic itself. On a given night, if I were to stumble across this on TV, odds are 50/50 at best that I would stop to watch it. I think the books combined with New York would have caught my eye, and I would have been intrigued to see more; however, as the odds show, I might just have easily passed it by. The topic of street booksellers isn't something that I believe anyone would be craving to learn more about. As I walk around the bustling streets of downtown Cincinnati and see a street merchant, my thoughts usually skew to wondering if the merchandise is hot or not. Bad thought, I know, and I definitely am not saying street booksellers sell stolen goods. No. The point is, beyond the fleeting random thought, I don't give these guys much of a second thought. So, what can a documentary on the subject do to entice me and make me want to watch and perhaps learn more about their stock and trade? If I had the answer to that magic question, I'd be a powerful Hollywood guru. Still, it all boils down to one thing:
Is Book Wars interesting?
That's the million-dollar question, and it leaves me grasping for the correct response. In the vaguest of terms, yes, Book Wars is interesting…but not that interesting. As I watched it, my attention drifted to and fro, never quite solidly locked to the story unfolding in front of me. Certain segments of the film piqued my interest and made me pay closer attention, but I think that Book Wars never really struck a chord with me. Do I think this will be a typical response? Do I think there's more of an audience for this Gotham Film Award winner? I'm sorry to say that I believe the appeal of Book Wars is going to be extremely limited, and it'll never find a huge audience—which is probably not its goal. However, it should find its own little niche along the way, but it'll never attain any significant cult status. But that should not be considered a failure on the film's part, just the simple limitations of the topic. The film gets points for highlighting a decidedly unique slice of life, presenting it well, and trying to impart something fresh and original.
Our movie was filmed in Super 8, and at times, Book Wars looks better than it should. The video transfer is contained in a full frame presentation that truly pops at times—the colors are unexpectedly robust, detail is abundant, blacks are solid, and errors are a rarity. My main qualm with the video comes from an artistic choice in the presentation: Rosette decided to make his video look like film. To do this, he occasionally marred the video with fake scratches and lines. It took me a while to catch on, and I originally thought it was an actual error in the presentation. I guess I'm just a sucker for a clean print, which this is, so I didn't enjoy his artistic bent and detracted a few extra points from the video score. For the audio, your only option is a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that is a touch uneven but quite serviceable. This film has no need for any aural bells and whistles with its focus on dialogue; unfortunately, the voices sometimes feel a bit thin, which is probably a problem with the source material. It's nothing significant and doesn't overly hurt the film.
Details on the packaging for the various bonus features made me think this was quite the loaded beast. After partaking in all of them, the extra content isn't as impressive as I had thought. First up is an audio commentary with Rosette and friend/bookseller Peter Whitney. Their track is a solid piece, but I found myself with quite a few unanswered questions at the end—most notably why there are so many odd "shots" in the film. At times, the commentary does mirror the film and I found my attention drifting, but the two have a good rapport (from working together for years), which helps it overall. Next is a four-minute featurette titled "A Night on 6th Avenue." I was expecting a nice piece where you'd get a taste for some of the unusual situations and people that the booksellers would meet on the streets at night. Instead, all you get is one encounter with Grady (I believe) and a customer who discuss salvation. I was quite disappointed with that. Then there's another featurette called "The Making of Book Wars." Clocking in at 8.5 minutes, this is an odd mix of making the film and seemingly unrelated snippets in the life of Rosette. Oddly, the sound cuts out at the seven-minute mark. Rounding out the material is a production slideshow (I liked this one), a still slideshow (I didn't care for this one), and a brief text-based blurb on Rosette. It really seemed like there'd be more based on the packaging.
Lastly, the universal conundrum pops up in scoring acting in a documentary. These people are simply being themselves, so acting isn't really going on. As such, I used this field to put in a number to somehow encapsulate the people we've met—how interesting, quirky, and different they were.
Book Wars is the epitome of the independent film and can only be purchased from the Camerado web page; you won't find it listed at Amazon, and you won't find it listed in the IMDb. It's an obscure film that caught my eye because of the unique title, which now vexes me. "Wars"? What wars? Everyone seemed to get along, worked together, and presented a united front, so where was the war? Is it the skirmish with Giuliani's "Quality of Life" program? As much trouble as that program caused, it doesn't appear to be the crux of Rosette's flick, so I'm a bit fuzzy on the title. But, that's really of little import. I'm sorry to say that I'm not going to give this film a recommendation. It's a well-crafted film on a well-presented disc, but I just don't think the film itself is good enough for people to go out and buy. You can't rent it at Blockbuster, so you're only stuck with the one option. I congratulate Rosette for his unique vision with the film and for working hard to present his tale. In time, I think you'll continue to polish your skills, and you'll find the right topic that will allow you to create an enticing film.
Book Wars is hereby found not guilty under the Bill of Rights. All parties are free to continue selling their wares.
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• Audio Commentary with Director Jason Rosette and Street Bookseller Peter Whitney
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