We don’t actually see that many books in Ex Libris, Frederick Wiseman’s massive new film about the New York Public Library. “People think that [libraries are] just storage spaces for books,” one administrator observes, when in reality they’re “about people [who] want to get knowledge to them.” That’s a central idea here: A film that is as contemplative and dense as its subject, the lovely Ex Libris explores the breadth of New York’s complex library system as a way of showing the different ways that its users today seek knowledge and direction.
A curious, welcome strain of utopianism has crept into Wiseman’s recent projects. Over the years, this director has chronicled every sort of institution — from mental asylums to high schools to hospitals to department stores and zoos and modeling agencies. And the films have changed in style and substance. The early works were anxious, driven and messily, wonderfully human. In later years — as can be seen in an ongoing retrospective of his midperiod documentaries — Wiseman’s subjects were often large, unwieldy institutions that seemed to be at serious risk of crumbling. But in recent years, I’ve noticed something far more optimistic and universal in Wiseman’s pictures. Films like At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights and National Gallery document places and institutions that, despite challenges, fundamentally work. The almost idealistic sincerity of this vision, crossed with the clear-eyed patience of his filmmaking, has made for a striking combination.
While much of Ex Libris centers around the NYPL’s iconic Main Branch building on Fifth Avenue and East 41st Street — the one with the lions out front — Wiseman tours other branches as well, showing us a spectrum of events and services and even textures. We see a group of children studying in a small, nondescript room at the Jerome Park branch. A piano recital at the tony Bruno Walter Auditorium. A job fair at (I think) the Bronx Library Center, where a fireman, an Army recruiter, a construction worker and a Small Business Administration representative all make their pitches to patrons. We see board meetings where administrators discuss how to allocate resources. A drama class where students learn about the wealth of images available for research in the massive photo archive. A riff on Alice in Wonderland that turns into a slam poetry performance. My favorite bit: a presentation where a sign language interpreter invites two people to read a passage from the Declaration of Independence using different emotions (“angry” versus “pleading”) as a way of showing how one’s posture and stance while interpreting can convey mood and tone.
In a less patient, more conventional film, these would just be glimpses. Ex Libris, however, is 197 minutes long; Wiseman loves to let his sequences go on and on. But he also knows better than anybody just how long he can keep us engaged, and as a simple viewing experience, Ex Libris is spellbinding. Wiseman makes us feel as if we’re there, watching full thoughts expressed at the casual pace of real life. All the trimming and nipping and tucking the director does — and he does do quite a bit — is largely invisible. I don’t know how long these aforementioned sequences go on; if you told me it was 20 or 30 minutes, I’d believe you, though in reality they’re probably closer to 10 or maybe even 5. That sort of disorientation is central to the director’s work. He wants us to lose ourselves a little bit in this movie. A library, for Wiseman, seems to contain the whole world. What better place to be cast adrift?