Author Maurice Sendak said, “There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.” A new documentary, “The Booksellers,” is a Valentine to books and the people who understand that the printed word is just the beginning of our relationship to a book.
“The Booksellers” begins with some sobering facts. The New York City, the center of antiquarian bookselling, in the 1950’s had 368 book stores. Today there are less than 100. The suggestion is that changing tastes and the ease of buying a book on line has destroyed a once thriving industry but while there may be fewer shops, the passion for the business remains undiminished.
After a quick history lesson of bookselling in New York City we meet the people who form the backbone of the modern-day trade. Stephen Massey’s family has been involved in the business so long that their store is mentioned in James Joyce’s Dubliners.
Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample and Alina Cohen took over the Argosy Book Store in midtown Manhattan from their father and refuse to sell to the developers who come knocking on a weekly basis. “People would ask our father how he got all three daughters to work for him,” says Lowry, “and he would say, ‘I guess I’m just lucky.’”
Nancy Bass Wydern, is the third-generation owner of The Strand Bookstore, situated on Book Row, a once bustling area now whittled down to one lone book store.
Talking head Fran Lebowitz looks back on the Book Row of the 1970s. “One thing I remember about those guys is that they were very irritated if you wanted to buy a book,” she says. “They wanted to read all day.”
From there we get into the nitty gritty, the obsessive collecting that drives the antiquarian book market. We meet a man who spent over a million dollars to reinforce the walls of his NYC apartment so his laden bookshelves wouldn’t collapse. We learn about the collectors, including Bill Gates who paid $30,802,500 for a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci in 1994.
We also learn how collecting has changed. “Collecting is about the hunt,” says one seller. “The internet has killed the hunt.” Another mentions how the internet changed the way collectors speak about what is rare and what is not.
The film, which also covers a collector of vintage hip hop ephemera and the millennials who inject some new life into this old field, isn’t about books. We see shelves stuffed with books and a book covered in human skin, but this is about the devotion of the collectors and sellers. They are an eccentric bunch, but director D.W. Young does a great job of showing how their devotion to books as part of our cultural DNA drives them.
Richard sits in with Marcia McMillan to have a look at the the rollercoaster action of “Jason Bourne,” the heartwarming (and slightly raunchy) comedy of “Bad Moms,” “Cafe Society’s” period piece humour and the online intrigue of “Nerve.”
In this mixed-up, shook-up world there are fewer and fewer things we can count on as absolutes. One of them is that there will be a new Woody Allen movie every year with a jaunty jazz soundtrack and credits written in the Windsor Light Condensed font. His new film, “Café Society,” the story of a frantic young romantic trying to find himself in 1930s Hollywood, is slice of comfort cinema with all of Allen’s trademarks intact.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a native New Yorker who jumped coasts to take up in Los Angeles. The slightly neurotic east coaster is not a natural fit in Tinsel Town, but his powerhouse uncle Phil (Steve Carell) helps out, giving him a job at his powerhouse talent agency and introducing him to a beautiful secretary named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). By day he does odd jobs for Phil—“Menial errands are my specialty,” Bobby says, “but I don’t see a great future in it.”—while on the weekends he slowly falls for Vonnie. They share a disdain for industry talk and Hollywood’s catty innuendo and a love of cheap Mexican food but she doesn’t share his feelings. Unfortunately (for Bobby) Vonnie has a mostly absent boyfriend.
Enter romantic plot complications and Bobby hightails it back to New York where he goes into the nightclub business with his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stall). Finally successful, he marries and has a child with Veronica (Blake Lively), who he nicknames Vonnie, betraying the feelings he harbours for his west coast love. When Vonnie number one returns to New York for a visit the film offers up a line that sums the situation up, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”
A light-hearted tapestry, “Café Society” is embroidered with the odd punch line and hints of melancholy. It’s a comedy tinted with heartbreak, a look at true love and unsatisfactory options. It returns Allen to the fertile ground he ploughed with “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” and while this film isn’t a classic on those terms, it’s an engaging look at life and love buoyed by great performances.
Eisenberg does the best Woody Allen impression we’ve seen on screen in some time, but there’s more to him than simply aping the master. His journey from nebbish to notable is believable and gives the movie its heart.
Co-star Stewart hands in what may be her first truly adult role. She plays Vonnie as level-headed in a sea of dreamers. When Bobby describes Joan Crawford as “larger-than-life” she replies, simply but compellingly, “I think I’d be happier life-sized.” It’s the line that sums up her character and Stewart makes the most of it and Vonnie.
“Café Society” is a welcome uptick after Allen’s last two films, “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man.” For Woody’s fans it may feel familiar but in the most soothing of ways.
Steve Martin, who studied philosophy at California State University once joked, “If you’re studying Geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but Philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.”
Such is the case with Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) the eponymous “Irrational Man” of Woody Allen’s fiftieth movie. A university professor about to start a new job at a new university, he’s brilliant but has fallen into the kind of existential funk that can only come from a lifetime spent studying philosophy. He’s the kind of guy who uses “As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out…” as a conversation starter and drinks single malt scotch from a flask in public.
He’s lost his zest for life, but not his appeal to women. Within days of the beginning of the semester he’s sleeping with the age appropriate but married Rita (Parker Posey) and is fighting off the advances of a student, Jill (Emma Stone). “He’s a sufferer,” she says with stars in her eyes, “and very conservative in a liberal sort of way.”
When he and Jill overhear a conversation regarding a crooked judge, suddenly his life has meaning. He decides to “make the world a better place” by getting rid of the judge. Planning the perfect murder, a crime he feels will benefit humanity, brings zest back into his life and puts a spring in his step.
From here “Irrational Man” becomes part character study and part romance and while it’s not exactly a whodunnit—more of a whydunnit—there is a procedural element to the last quarter of the film.
Subject wise Allen is in his element here, giving a raft of characters a chance to talk philosophy and the meaning of life but while the story should have forward momentum the farce ever escalates. Instead Allen relies too heavily on narration slowing down the action to a crawl.
Despite appealing performances from all, the story feels like a talky celebration of Abe’s dysfunction—the poor tortured genius—than a true study of a person pushed to extremes in search of happiness. Allen makes a movie a year, and while he often hits pay dirt there are years when it feels like he should have taken some time off, maybe vacationed in the South of France and recharged. This is one of those years.
Early on in “Irrational Man” Abe says, “Much of philosophy is verbal masturbation.” I said the same thing about the movie as the closing credits rolled.