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‘Ex Libris’ a mesmerizing tour of NY libraries

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Frederick Wiseman’s latest extraordinary documentary is “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.” (Courtesy Zipporah Films)
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Since the 1960s, Frederick Wiseman has been taking his camera into the boardrooms and public spaces and seemingly every cranny of major institutions and capturing what goes on. He edits this footage into intricate, humane, fascinating documentaries. “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” is his latest such adventure.

Wiseman, who has directed more than 40 films about everything from high schools to London’s National Gallery, has long adhered to his own code of filmmaking, which doesn’t allow for talking-heads commentary, narration or explanatory text. He never stages anything for the viewer. He alternates between close-ups and long shots, illustrating both big-picture and intimate elements. His films are long (197 minutes, in this case).

This time, Wiseman explores the sprawling New York Public Library system, visiting both its main site, at 41st Street and Fifth Avenue, and about a dozen of its approximately 90 branches.

He explores the library’s longtime mission of providing everyone with access to knowledge. He looks at how the library, while remaining true to that cause, is evolving to serve patrons’ needs in the age of the e-book.

Wiseman shows both behind-the-scenes and public activities. Luddites may be saddened by the lack of “physical books” seen in this movie, but the immensity of library services depicted is heartening.

In the boardroom, CEO Anthony Marx and colleagues discuss budget priories and digital services the library provides, which are essential in a city where more than 2 million people lack adequate internet access at home.

In lecture rooms, music-world stars Patti Smith and Elvis Costello and biologist Richard Dawkins speak. Another talk deals with Islam and slavery.

We visit a children’s room and Braille and talking-book centers.

Elsewhere, public-information researchers respond to caller inquiries: “A unicorn is actually an imaginary animal,” explains one researcher, politely.

A book group discusses “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Another discussion addresses a racist textbook’s inaccurate descriptions of slavery.

Not everything is equally compelling. Some of the budget-related discourse may challenge the attention span, and the absence of text identifying who is speaking can be frustrating.

But there is no filmmaker like Wiseman, who again has combined his old master’s skill, his child’s capacity for enthusiasm, and his gift for drama (and sometimes comedy) in this vital, mesmerizing portrait of an institution that merits such spotlight.

Sequences containing shots of library users researching subjects ranging from Beat writers to colon cancer are particularly affecting.

“Ex Libris” is a quietly powerful film about how libraries, by giving individuals and communities access to information, are crucial to a democracy’s ability to survive.

You may want to hug your local library after seeing this movie.

REVIEW
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Three and a half stars
Starring Anthony Marx, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Richard Dawkins
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Not rated
Running time 3 hours, 17 minutes
Note Katherine Jardine of the San Francisco Public Library and Marie Ciepiela, director of Friends of SFPL, appear at the 7 p.m. Oct. 13 screening at the Roxie.

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