Is there any other filmmaker who falls in love with institutions as much as Frederick Wiseman? Whether a museum (“National Gallery”), the ballet (“La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet”) or now “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” the master observational documentarian loves organizations, from the nitty-gritty details of directors’ meetings to the public who benefit from decisions made in those boardrooms.
With “Ex Libris,” he’s really fallen hard, ensuring the NYPL, as it’s known, is seen not as a hidebound grande dame but a vibrant place of lectures, workshops and community outreach. So enthralled is he with what people are saying that’s it hard to recall another one of his films that spends so much time just listening to people talking. In consequence, he won’t be winning new fans, but for devotees, this is an enriching way to spend three-plus hours.
Shot in the fall of 2015, the film treats the library’s stately Main Branch on Fifth Ave. at 42nd St. as a kind of sun that has 92 planets spread out across the five boroughs. Time and space constraints limited Wiseman to just 11 satellites in addition to the mother ship, always returned to via shots of its iconic Carrère and Hastings façade alongside its grand entrance hall and corridors. He’s gone out of his way — too much so — to avoid presenting the library as a repository of books, emphasizing how its enlightened managers are ensuring the institution stays up-to-date and relevant in the lives of the myriad communities it’s dedicated to serve.
That means frequent sequences at public on-stage discussions with people like Elvis Costello and Patti Smith, community reading groups, job fairs and computer literacy programs. In the Bronx, librarians discuss math workshops and lending patterns among teenagers; in Chinatown, residents are shown how to use laptops; at the Performing Arts Library, there’s a presentation of sign language; in the Main Branch’s genealogy division, amateur researchers get tips on how to find their ancestors. The Schomburg Center’s vital work in preserving and engaging with the African-American experience gets significant, and much deserved, attention, and overall the NYPL’s dynamic role in serving diverse communities, including the blind, reinforces just how active this surprisingly nimble behemoth is in ensuring it remains an open and welcoming space for all.
Because such policies don’t just happen by osmosis, Wiseman spends a lot of time filming meetings, especially with the NYPL’s deeply engaged and personable president Anthony W. Marx and the omnipresent Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy. The directors’ fans know, if you get easily bored sitting in on meetings, his documentaries aren’t for you. Major topics discussed are the push for increased internet access across the city; digitization; the availability of eBooks; and how best to use municipal funds in a way that reflects the NYPL’s mission of serving the greatest number of residents.
Wiseman’s delight in the Library’s outreach means he neglects the research branch: We never see the off-limits stacks or the pages who bring the books, and never glimpse inside the Rose Reading Room or the Bill Blass Catalog Room, two of the grandest public spaces in the United States. The Berg Collection of Manuscripts gets a peek inside, but one suspects the filmmaker is so concerned the institution may feel elitist that he neglects a vital aspect of its mission — not so president Marx, who in a meeting expresses concern that the research branch tends to be forgotten in the rush to ensure eBooks of the latest bestsellers are available to all.
What the film does do is situate the libraries within their communities via establishing shots of the streets around them, bustling with cars, people and noise. People sunbathe in Bryant Park, just behind the Main Branch, congregate in lecture halls and pick up library modems they can bring home with them. Their interactions — with the staff, with each other — make the film vibrant.
For all of Wiseman’s love of institutions, he’s always maintained an emphasis on the human face of these places, and in the case of the NYPL, their diversity acts as a silent, pointed commentary on the country’s current divisions. In fact, as much as “Ex Libris” is a hymn to the NYPL, it’s also very much a love letter to the multi-ethnic, relatively integrated makeup of New York City.
All of Wiseman’s trademark stylistic traits are here, meaning a non-interventionist camera, no identifications and excellent sound. Could some of those meetings have been trimmed? Sure, but who’s going to deny the master his indulgences when the overall impression is so satisfying?