Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (2017; Frederick Wiseman)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 13, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Somewhere in the middle of this 44th feature-length Frederick Wiseman documentary, a typically sprawling and reflective look at the New York Public Library system, someone says the words, “Libraries are not about books…they’re about people.” That sentiment could serve as the subtitle for just about every Wiseman film. It’s not about high school, it’s about people. It’s not about an insane asylum or a welfare office or whatever, it’s about people, and so on.
As opposed to the straight-to-camera smarmy-ness of most modern documentaries, Wiseman allows ample space for discovery and digression. Over 197 mostly compelling minutes, disconnected vignettes shot at various branches of the NYPL gradually form into a portrait of a community. Wiseman’s approach is the essence of democracy, giving equal weight to packed-house celebrity interviews and amateur recitals. He allows audiences to make personal connections rather than forcing the issue down their throats.
Ex Libris portrays the library not just as a storage space for books, but as a place where the community gathers for self-betterment and the free exchange of ideas. That could mean students doing research or seniors dancing to Kool and the Gang. Never one for unnecessary sugarcoating, though, Wiseman also lets us see that for all its majesty and necessity, the library remains in constant danger. It remains continuously threatened by unpredictable public funding, as well as the two-headed monster of apathy and ignorance.
In other words, the catastrophically bored faces of the children and teenagers throughout Ex Libris speak more volumes than could ever be housed in the NYPL.