Frederick Wiseman is 87, so one worries that each film might be his last, but as yet he shows no signs of slowing down.
In person, the legendary Boston-based documentarian is a delight: mild of manner, strong of opinion, a wit as dry as bone. In his films, he’s invisible, a silent guiding intelligence behind the camera. Wiseman’s curiosity is infectious, and his films make you realize how rare that quality — simple human curiosity — has become in a world consumed by the narcissism of its screens. Whoever will show us to ourselves when he stops watching us?
In “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library,” Wiseman may have found his great subject. You could arguably say that about all his movies — more than 40 astringent masterworks of institutional observation in 50 years of filmmaking — but New York City’s library system is an institution like no other. Idealistic and seemingly infinite, it’s an organization dedicated to bringing all knowledge to all people at no cost, an outrageously radical notion made practical through day-to-day functionality. “Ex Libris” has no narration and it lasts three hours and 17 minutes, which sounds like torture (or, alternately, 3½ episodes of “Game of Thrones”). Somewhat surprisingly, the movie rushes by at the speed of life.
As ever, Wiseman wants to figure out what makes his subject tick, which is his way of learning what makes us tick. His films are about groups of people working in concert, but he never loses sight of the individuals. “Ex Libris” spends a lot of time at the imposing main library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, but it keeps traveling along the nervous system to many of the 92 branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens have their own separate library networks.) It’s in these far-flung outposts, ironically, that the film finds the institution’s heart.
That heart is made up of equal parts public service and public forum. One of the most stirring early episodes in “Ex Libris” takes us to the Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library on 20th Street in Manhattan, where we watch instructors train the sightless in reading and writing Braille. At one of the Bronx branches, there’s a job expo; at another, they’re handing out home Internet “hotspots” for people who can’t afford Comcast; at a third, the talk is of how to get math textbooks to parents struggling to help their kids. Late in the film a gathering at a Harlem branch finds the talk turning to the history of predatory white business practices used against small black store owners; in a corner sits a high school kid pretending to do homework while soaking up wisdom from his elders.
We pop in on book groups for the elderly; public talks given by Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Ta-Nehisi Coates; the astonishing chutes-and-ladders conveyor belt system by which books travel from their shelves to bins marked for distant branches. And we spend a lot of time at meetings. God, does Wiseman love meetings. I think he thinks they’re kind of a miracle, proof that civilization exists and that we’re not just apes hitting each other over the head with rocks. Meetings for him are process, the very functioning of the institutional body — how it gets from the present to the future, how its people come together in collaborative action. Meetings for Wiseman are democracy.
He’s lucky this time to have a subject like NYPL president Andrew Marx, who on the basis of what we see here leads with charisma and easygoing humor while delegating specific initiatives to staff. The bulk of the meetings concern the future of the library and what that future might look like when e-books are rapidly replacing the physical article. One conversation about the homeless who use the library is instructive: The discussion hinges on how best to serve their needs in balance with other library patrons.
The social reach of the
NYPL, “Ex Libris” reveals, is vast. The library has always existed as that civic unicorn, a public-private initiative, and the upper reach of the economic scale is glimpsed in preparations for a fund-raising gala; typically, Wiseman spends more time with the waiters than with the guests. Occasionally he pauses to simply drink in the spaces — the vaulted arches, the reading rooms extending to the horizon, the daily theater on the steps of the main branch, the hush of Bryant Park out back — but he always, always comes back to the humans who inhabit those spaces and the hope that drives them to pick up a book, to attend a program, to better themselves and others. “Ex Libris” is a profoundly hopeful movie. We could use that right now.
Ex Libris — The New York Public Library
Directed by Frederick Wiseman. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Sunday and various dates through Oct. 18. 197 minutes. Unrated.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.