Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library

Review by Lillian Crawford

Directed by

Frederick Wiseman

Starring

Elvis Costello Patti Smith Richard Dawkins

Anticipation.

What could be more exciting than three hours in a library with Frederick Wiseman?

Enjoyment.

Revel in each chapter then flick through the pages again.

In Retrospect.

If only all study sessions were as enchanting as this.

Frederick Wiseman delves deep into one of New York City’s most beloved public institutions.

This is not a film about books. Nor is it about buildings containing books. Both feature prominently, but one gets the impression that documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman isn’t all that interested in either. If you find the prospect of an eye-watering 197-minute tour through the New York Public Library off-putting, be prepared to hear him out. It is undeniably a magnum opus, but one that has been refined to the briskness of a novella.

What is Ex-Libris about then? Wiseman’s proposition seems similar to Gilbert Ryle’s concept of “the ghost in the machine” – that if you were to take away the halls, shelves and archival material, you would be left with the very essence of a library: its people. To prove his thesis, Wiseman has raced, camera in hand, between the branches of the NYPL, observing the extent of its inclusivity.

His filmmaking style is essential to this task – watching from a distance, then intricately weaving the threads together in the cutting room to subtly probe you to think. These paths rarely play out as expected: what appears to be a governing board concerned with access suddenly wonders if the “problem” of homeless people falling asleep in their buildings could be solved by barring them from the premises – please find me a student that hasn’t dozed off during an all-nighter.

Ex-Libris opens with Richard Dawkins out-Dawkinsing himself with a particularly bombastic tirade against fundamentalist “stupidity” – cut to a librarian explaining to a caller that the Gutenberg Bible is currently unavailable for viewing. Wiseman’s biting humour shines through without uttering a direct word, burying politics beneath the surface. However, the latter scene is more determined to derive respect for people whose jobs require astounding patience – the calmness of a man informing someone that unicorns don’t exist is almost as inspiring as his ability to prove this by translating its earliest recorded use from Middle English.

Judgement is not being passed, at least not explicitly, revealing the universal potential of the library’s resources. A member of a geriatric book group is enraptured by Gabriel García Márquez’s perception of human love (dismissed by another as “Lovemaking in the Time of Cholera”), while others experience similar euphoria during a dance class. Elsewhere, an elderly gentleman requests an L Frank Baum book about Glinda from The Wizard of Oz – there are no boundaries between high and low cultures, and push-pin is most assertively as good as poetry.

Wiseman applies this logic to his selection of subjects, ranging from Jewish delis to the music of Elvis Costello and Patti Smith. Each has been chosen for their emergent themes, sometimes only for a word like ‘slavery’. Intentional semblance blurs with coincidence, such as Costello mocking Margaret Thatcher before seeing a bust of her head in a later shot. With Wiseman, it is best to assume purpose and meticulous methodology, demanding you check out his urban epic more than once.

Published 11 Jul 2018

Tags: Frederick Wiseman

Anticipation.

What could be more exciting than three hours in a library with Frederick Wiseman?

Enjoyment.

Revel in each chapter then flick through the pages again.

In Retrospect.

If only all study sessions were as enchanting as this.

Read More

At Berkeley

By Jordan Cronk

Federick Wiseman brings his insightful and layered filmmaking to one of America’s most liberal institutions.

review LWLies Recommends

National Gallery

By Mark Asch

One of cinema’s Old Masters returns with this poetic and profound dissection of art and storytelling.

review LWLies Recommends

The Opera House

By Lillian Crawford

This archive doc chronicles the history of New York’s storied Metropolitan Opera.

review

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design