Frederick Wiseman’s latest extraordinary documentary is “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.” (Courtesy Zipporah Films)

Frederick Wiseman’s latest extraordinary documentary is “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.” (Courtesy Zipporah Films)

‘Ex Libris’ a mesmerizing tour of NY libraries

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. Anthony MarxElvis CostelloEx Libris: The New York Public LibraryFrederick WisemanLiteratureMovies and TVPatti SmithRichard Dawkins

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Deputy public defender Chris Garcia outside the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
As pandemic wanes, SF public defender hopes clients will get ‘their day in court’

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has… Continue reading

Hyphen hosts a group show at Space Gallery in San Francisco in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Albert Law/Pork Belly Studio)
What’s in a name? Asian American magazine fights to keep its identity

An investor-backed media group laid claim to the moniker of SF’s long-running Hyphen magazine, sparking a conversation about writing over community history

A warning notice sits under the windshield wiper of a recreational vehicle belonging to a homeless man named David as it sits parked on De Wolf Street near Alemany Boulevard on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. A proposed SF Municipal Transportation Agency law would make it illegal for overnight parking on the side street for vehicles taller than seven feet or longer than 22 feet. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Fight over ‘poverty tows’ heats up

‘What can we do to ensure the vehicle stays in the hands of the owner?’

Crab fisherman Skip Ward of Marysville casts his crab net out off a pier near Fort Point. (Craig Lee/Special to The	Examiner)
San Francisco came back to life, and we captured it all

Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, the bestselling authors… Continue reading

Revelers at Madrone Art Bar in the early hours of June 15, 2021 (Courtesy Power Quevedo).
No social distancing at Motown-themed dance party

‘I don’t care how anyone feels, I just want to dance!’

Most Read