Review: Ex Libris: New York Public Library

The film suggests a college course and a guided tour wedded together as a work of prismatic humanist art.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library
Photo: Zipporah Films

A sense of quiet defines Frederick Wiseman’s films that cannot be found in unmediated society, embodying a dream of unencumbered meditation. In this context, it’s inevitable that this titanic documentarian would chronicle a library, a seemingly miraculous institution in which a few notions of an ideal society are imperfectly realized, particularly a widespread availability of education and art. Throughout his career, Wiseman has forged an incomparably epic survey of bureaucratic institutions, understanding that knowledge begets personal engagement which leads, in turn, to empathy.

In Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Wiseman films dozens of the titular institution’s branches, identifying each building’s location with a pillow shot of intersecting street signs. That’s the sort of astute stylistic choice that characterizes Wiseman’s cinema, which offers no identifying titles on screen and is composed of no talking heads. We’re immersed in the New York Public Library, asked to find our bearings as if we wandered into one of its buildings, as elegant tableaux show people of varying colors, economic stations, ages, and cultures in poses that particularize their existences in seconds.

Wiseman’s aesthetic is governed by a masterful sense of control, as the filmmaker carefully selects and prunes anecdotes to utilize the New York Public Library as a synecdoche of America, while allowing for a pleasing and resonant sense of individual mystery. In a computer lab, a man looks up a screening for colorectal cancer while someone utilizes Google Earth nearby. Elsewhere, we see library employees fielding phone calls, one of which is a haunting request for a book on bereavement. Later, a woman ascends stairs to an unseen floor, exiting the film to continue her life, while another woman surveys a floor below her, clearly searching for someone. These vignettes, which are often centered on tapestries of faces that reveal a wide spectrum of human emotion and experience, suggest the wealth of life that exists in any given public space, engulfing us, to which we’re often oblivious.

Wiseman captures various functions of the New York Public Library, showing how it serves as a multi-purpose social hub—which we learn is a conscious step to keep such institutions alive in an increasingly digital culture. We see Patti Smith discussing Genet’s influence on her writing, and Yusef Komunyakaa observing the “politics of language.” A teacher discusses Karl Marx, George Fitzhugh, and the debate of real estate for solving the ongoing conflict between labor and capital. Fitzhugh famously insisted that slavery was an ideal institution for directly addressing the essential requirement of bourgeoisie society: an inferior class that serves the superior, affording the latter time for study and contemplation. As disgusting as that thesis is, Fitzhugh confronted a truth of modern society that even liberals would prefer to brush under the carpet, suggesting that class warfare is a distraction designed to remain unresolved so that castes may stay in place.

Seen late in Ex Libris, this teacher’s seminar casts a pall over the documentary, as the exhilarations of the library are fruits that are enabled by said bourgeoisie hypocrisy. Yet, the books, workshops, interviews, concerts, and study halls also suggest a hope for knowledge as a fount of democracy as well as for a more diverse economy via job training—the sort of infrastructural revisions that Hillary Clinton failed to sell to the country in the lead-up to last year’s presidential election. But the hypocrisy sticks in the viewer’s throat, especially when we look at the attendees of the 90th anniversary of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and witness a sea of predominantly wealthy and Caucasian faces—the very faces that must be courted so that this library may continue to receive private funding.

Like National Gallery, At Berkeley, and In Jackson Heights, Ex Libris is obsessed with the precarious existence of institutions that get by on the ruling class’s fickle interests. The library is a communal paradise, a step toward an unrealized ambition of this country to make good on its promise of existing as the land of the free. The film suggests a short story collection that gradually coheres into a novel. The scenes blur together and form thematic patterns, as Komunyakaa’s “politics of language” is illustrated by the meetings of the library’s board and by critiques of racism in Texan textbooks.

Led by President Anthony W. Marx, the board is always concerned with funding, crafting PR messages each year so as to continually renew urgency of public interest in order to disguise the unsurprising truth: that they seek unconditional “baseline” funding. A particular concern for the board is the democratization of the internet for those too poor to afford it, which eventually leads to the dispersing of portable “hot spots.” Though such potentially uplifting scenes are complicated by the wariness on customers’ faces and by other moments in which the board of the “people’s” library attempts to euphemistically discuss ways to discourage the homeless population from loitering. The board meetings come to suggest anxiety dreams of comic futility, in which people are forever discussing intricate blends of private and public funding, speaking mostly in platitudes that Wiseman understands as necessary for affecting accumulative change.

Ex Libris is overwhelmingly stimulating, suggesting a college course and a guided tour that have been wedded together as a work of prismatic humanist art. Wiseman is a master of dramatizing the relationship between the macro and the micro of society, building to epiphanies in which we see how board meetings come to influence, say, the rapture that’s experienced by an elderly dance class as they move to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” We’re not even allowed to take the ability to return borrowed goods for granted, as Wiseman films—with a wry sense of elaborately mundane geometry—the conveyor belts that sort books and electronics into various boxes.

Wiseman’s un-emphatic editing—itself a kind of democracy—exhibits a willingness to survey each person and corresponding action with the same lucid dignity. This filmmaker is a portraitist of ideals, of the insidious inspirations and nightmares that enable and undermine them, and, implicitly, of the political waves that have yet to balance this duality of first-world life.

 Director: Frederick Wiseman  Distributor: Zipporah Films  Running Time: 197 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2017

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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