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Grievance of a book lover


MOVIES KEEP taking from books but don't always return the favour. (I'm not being fair to cinema I know, but April being World Book Month, I'm going to side with books.) My quibble as a book lover who also happens to be a movie lover is this: why do books and bookshops feature only fleetingly in movies? When you glimpse a bookshop in a movie, it's usually for a few seconds as some movie character darts in and out of one. If it's a woman, you can at least hope to see her leave with a book. If it's a man — forget it. No lingering is allowed; nobody browses either.

You don't see the camera pan over bookshelves or stop to look at the books on it. And you never see a book in close-up. What we get instead is the camera languorously moving over curtains, sofas, bathroom fixtures — you get the picture.

The exceptions: Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey browsing in a lovely, old New York bookstore in "Hannah And Her Sisters." Angelina Jolie in "The Bone Collector," frantically looking for a rare, out of print pulp mystery in a dusty antiquarian bookstore.

The most beautiful close-ups of books and bookshelves are to be found in Neil LaBute's "Possession," where Gwyneth Paltrow visits several breathtaking old libraries, and in "The Ninth Gate" by Roman Polanski. He worships books and in his supernatural thriller about the world of antiquarian occult books he suffuses the movie with exquisite shots of old books. He bathes the books in burnished gold lighting and sun-spangled light.

Offhand, there are only four movies I can think of that are devoted to books. "Fahrenheit 451," "84 Charing Cross Road," "Crossing Delancey" and "Bookwars". You're wondering what happened to "You've Got Mail"? Well, it qualifies only as an also-ran because, though it is about (not one but two) bookshops, it uses books only as backdrop. (When Hollywood uses bookshops this way, it is to give the movie a little unearned class — like in "Notting Hill." Except for an unusual meeting place for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, the little bookshop on travel literature serves no other purpose in the film.)

I'm still partial to Nora Ephron's "Mail" because it at least addresses the issue of how huge chain bookstores are putting little, independent bookshops out of business.

"Black Books" from BBC is a comedy about an eccentric bookseller "who loves his books and hates his customers". And Ismail Merchant's "The Mystic Masseur" is a top-notch comedy about books and bookishness.

You can catch "84 Charing Cross Road," "Crossing Delancey" and "Fahrenheit 451" on cable but "Bookwars," a documentary, is rare. This one-of-a-kind documentary looks at how street book vendors on pavements and carts ply their trade in New York city. It was made by a street vendor who struggled to make a living selling books on the streets to students. It reveals how these vendors source their books (they have a code — they do not touch stolen books) and how knowledgeable they are about what they sell.

Since most book lovers are familiar with "84 Charing Cross Road", I'll only say a few things about it and move on to "Crossing Delancey" and "Farenheit 451," two book-movies that you may have missed out on.

"84 Charing Cross Road", starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is a literary correspondence between a charming, witty American antiquarian book collector and a knowledgeable, reserved English bookseller. Here you can feast your eyes on as many books as you want to. It spends so much time inside an old London bookshop, you can smell the books.

If you are one of the few who managed to catch "Crossing Delancey," you'll know that it also uses a bookstore, albeit a very beautiful one, as merely background to the romance between Amy Irving and Peter Reigert. But it offers characters that are passionate about books, and a plot that is fairly literary in tone. There are several scenes featuring the bookshop and some lovely lines strewn with literary references.

The film opens with a literary party in progress at the store and its owner (played to perfection by George Martin) welcomes the guests this way: "It's an aesthetic shock to see so many writers, readers and critics gathered in the same room."

Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" is based on the Ray Bradbury sci-fi classic about a future world that has banned books. But there are secret libraries run by book lovers. When they are found out, the fire squad burns the books — 451 is the temperature at which paper burns. The hero of the film is a fireman who hides one of these books and secretly reads it at night by torchlight. The book turns out to be "David Copperfield" and thus does he discover reading.

The story's end is one of the most unforgettable tributes to books because it doesn't involve books! — yet nothing could mean more to readers and writers.

Our hero escapes to a hidden island where the only inhabitants are book lovers whose only job is to commit to memory an entire book.

The book-loving fireman watches women, men and children walk around the island, reciting the books out loud. The guide who has been showing our hero around points out to various people saying, "Oh, that's `The Spy Who Came In From The Cold', that's `The Secret Garden', that's `Lolita', that's `War and Peace' — Part 1 and that's `War and Peace' — Part 2". These ardent, dangerous book lovers, these compulsive, subversive readers have become living, breathing, walking, talking books!

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

(pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com)

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