BOOKWARS

Directed by Jason Rosette

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THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III

Directed by Penelope Spheeris

Distributed by Abbey Entertainment

Opens in New York July 7

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Possibly as a response to the authoritarian "objectivity" implicit in the concept of  cinema  vérité, directors as different as Nick Broomfield, Ross McElwee and Nanni Moretti  have made adamantly first-person films about their experiences (including, for Broomfield, the work of making a film itself) and mingled fiction and documentary. While BOOKWARS doesn't resemble any of their films, it puts subject/director/writer/editor/videographer Rosette's sensibility center stage,  transcending navel-gazing by accomplishing one of the documentary field's most valuable tasks: speaking about a subculture from its inside. I've yet to see a  fictional feature explore S/M as compassionately and thoroughly as Kirby Dick's SICK: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST. (On the other hand, Broomfield's FETISHES shows that a documentarian can be as exploitative  as any Hollywood hack.) The subculture of street booksellers described by Rosette may not be as misrepresented by the media as sadomasochists, but they've become more and more marginalized over the course of Manhattan's gentrification. His look at their world dispels quite a few received notions: very few  vendors are homeless, and most acquire their books from private collections and small-town thrift stores and library sales, rather than theft. Rosette himself fell into the "career" by accident. After graduation from NYU, he wound up unemployed,  living with a junkie roommate and one valuable asset:  a huge book collection that could readily be turned into cash. He wound up selling books - on the stretch of Manhattan's West 4th Street in front of the NYU library, ironically - for three years and documented much of his experience, including interactions with customers and other booksellers, on video.

Although  marred by Rosette's  glib voice-over, BOOKWARS does a fine job of exploring various aspects of his trade, as well as the hardcore bibliophiles attracted to it. While a few of them have the kind of troubled background one might expect - several are recovering alcoholics or drug addicts - most are bohemians who simply prefer it to the 9-to-5 office grind. Thanks to Rosette's loose, digressive structure, BOOKWARS often seems to have edited rather aimlessly, but it builds towards a climax - courtesy Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign - based around the growing harassment of street vendors, despite their First Amendment right to sell books on the street without a license, and his subsequent burn-out.  (Oddly, he never discusses the racial disparity between the mostly white vendors on 4th Street, who sell  literature and philosophy, and the African-American ones on 6th Ave., who usually sell old comic books and magazines, especially porn, although he does show that the latter are more often harassed by the police.)  Rosette may be painting an overly rosy view of the bibliophile subculture, but he gives us a fascinating look into a world most New Yorkers have had a brush with - I've bought plenty of books from the West 4th Street crew - but know little about.

Even in the relatively non-commercial world of documentaries, it helps to have a catchy hook. Sex (AMERICAN PIMP, THE LIFESTYLE: GROUP SEX IN THE SUBURBS, the porn star profiles THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY), drugs (GRASS) or music (BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, THE FILTH AND THE FURY, BETTER LIVING THROUGH CIRCUITRY) always help  attract an audience that  avoids bland PBS fodder . However, THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III feels more like an ethnographic study than a music video or concert film. The final installment in Penelope Spheeris' trilogy about the L.A. music scene, DECLINE III picks up where her first part, made in 1979 at the height of the American punk movement, left off. The first DECLINE concentrated on the bands, capturing some great music (X, the Germs, early Black Flag), as well as the proto-Eminem gay-baiting of Fear and the rather forgettable Catholic Discipline, with a few interviews with fans - most of them racist and/or idiotic - thrown in as an afterthought. This time around, she uses music (a dull set of nth-generation hardcore punk bands, the best of whom make even Catholic Discipline sound as powerful as the Sex Pistols) as a backdrop for an exploration of the "gutter punk" subculture.

Most Americans who live in big cities have probably seen the local counterparts of the kids DECLINE III profiles: heavily pierced and tattooed punks who spend their days begging for change and their nights drinking and going to see bands. If there any middle-class slummers in the L.A. scene, Spheeris left them on the cutting-room floor. In 1977,  Johnny Rotten probably  intended "no future for you" as a warning, but it's a matter-of-fact statement to these kids, who casually mention that they expect to be dead in five years. They live the nihilism 70s punk bands merely sang about, and it doesn't seem like exaggerated youthful bravado. Almost all of them drink heavily and ran away from abusive families. While they avoid the racism of the punks profiled in the first DECLINE - in fact, many are people of color themselves - and have found a positive camaraderie in  street and squat life, they still haven't found much direction for their anger, and most seem well on their way to drinking themselves to death. Even at 88 minutes, Spheeris' film gets a bit repetitive, especially since she over-uses the technique of asking a dozen people the same question and  cross-cutting their responses, but it builds a surprising amount of pathos, especially once the long-term consequences of the gutter punks' grim lifestyle sink in. (One of them burns to death in a squat fire, largely because he was too drunk to be woken by a roommate.) Their lives are a real-life corollary to Spheeris' 1984 fictional L.A. punk film SUBURBIA and the sad flipside to the jovially dim suburban teens she depicted in WAYNE'S WORLD. Both BOOKWARS and DECLINE III make up for their formal flaws by humanizing the kind of people whose "quality of life" is the last thing on urban planners and politicians' minds.