Most of Frederick Wiseman’s films are long, but very few of them — possibly none — are too long. There’s a good reason for that. Actually, there are a lot of good reasons for that, but one tends to rise above the rest: Boredom is fundamentally antithetical to his work. Cinematically vivisecting American institutions since 1967, Wiseman has been able to sustain interest throughout endless documentary epics like “At Berkeley” and “Belfast, Maine” because his observational approach insists that drama is woven into the fabric of everyday life, and because his shrewd instinct for non-linear storytelling proves that point beyond any shadow of a doubt. His best films frame reality in a way that allows us to see it more clearly through his camera than we can with the naked eye,. All of his films are his best films.
All the same, the hypnotic and thoroughly essential “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library” stands out as an especially definitive example of — and testament to — Wiseman’s style and mission statement. Never before have his goals as a documentarian so perfectly dovetailed with those of his subject.
“Libraries are not about books,” someone says in the film, “libraries are about people.” As “Ex Libris” makes overwhelmingly clear, the NYPL is more than just a repository of dusty hardcovers, more than just an extensive network of cold buildings and quiet rooms. It’s a tree with 92 branches, and deep roots that bind New York City together. It’s a living organism that allows people to better discover and contextualize their place in this world; a testament to how public institutions are fueled by individual power, and how individual power is fueled by public institutions.
The same could be said of the director’s work, which is just as vast and easily taken for granted, and which is always about people, even when it’s about schools or towns or budget meetings or whatever. So while Wiseman maintains his usual distance from the material, defaulting to a deceptively objective approach that all but erases the presence of his camera, “Ex Libris” almost borders on the stuff of self-portraiture.
Wiseman’s 43rd film in 50 years begins by introducing the NYPL as a public-private partnership, and not one of its 197 minutes strays far from that idea. Whether sitting in on free talks by great thinkers like Patti Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates (these uncut sequences lasting long enough for us to get lost in the subject at hand), observing a job fair in the Bronx, or peeking into the downtown recording studio where a tireless employee is recording every word of “Laughing in the Dark” so that blind patrons will be able to enjoy Nabokov’s bitter tale of lust and deceit, Wiseman bounces between three different boroughs without ever losing sight of how the Library survives by giving people the resources they need to return the favor.
This might be the nerdiest sentence ever written in a movie review, but there’s a little jolt of excitement each time Wiseman cuts to a new library branch — over time, the value “Ex Libris” helps us to see in the New York Public Library melts into a visceral appreciation for the intrinsic value of all libraries.
Of course, one of these libraries stands out from the rest, and Wiseman returns to it between almost every scene. If the New York Public Library is a tree, then the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 41st Street and Fifth Avenue is its trunk. A massive palace of granite and marble (or “the one with the lions in front,” depending on who you ask), the Schwarzman Building is the central hub for all of the NYPL’s administrative business, where CEO Anthony Marx presides over board meetings about everything from fundraising to the library’s conflicted policy about how to treat their homeless guests.
Wiseman finds amusement and/or conflict in the smallest of scenes, proving time and again that everything is interesting if you find it at the right moment. But the main source of contention — and the answer to the “why now?” of this film — is the question of digitization. Wiseman, who’s never met a board meeting he didn’t love, is fascinated by how an institution of this size and significance transitions from a passive archive to an active part of the community, and Marx’s regime has seized on this moment as a major opportunity for the NYPL to play a larger role in the lives of New Yorkers, particularly the two or three million of them who don’t have access to the web at home.
That overarching question is more interesting than any of the documentary’s individual parts, as a cornerstone of the city’s cultural enrichment is forced to look in the mirror and reconsider what its purpose will be going forward.
Wiseman is characteristically unconcerned with the answer, and at 87 he doesn’t really have enough time to stick around and find out. It’s not that the filmmaker doesn’t care about New York and what the future holds in store for it — “Ex Libris,” more than most of his work, dispels the foolish notion that observational documentaries are inherently dispassionate — but rather that he’s more interested in systems than results. To watch Wiseman’s films is to understand that nothing happens on its own, that we are smaller than we think and the world is bigger than we can imagine, but also that it can’t keep spinning without us.
These portraits don’t have a hint of didacticism or preachiness, but “Ex Libris” achieves a certain emotional velocity all the same. It will make you awe at the New York Public Library. And the New York Public Library in turn will make you awe at the private citizen who helped us to see the forest for the trees and marvel at all of its branches.
“Ex Libris — The New York Public Library” premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It will play at the Toronto International Film Festival, and open at Film Forum on September 13.