In 'Ex Libris - The New York Public Library’, the latest documentary epic from Frederick Wiseman, the 87-year old filmmaker surveys the hallowed halls and musty stacks of the titular institution. Shot over a 12-week period in late-2015, it focuses on the flagship Fifth Avenue building, but also a number of smaller branches throughout the city. Wiseman's distinctive approach to his subject, honed over more than 50 years and 40 plus features, is as effective as ever, and remains reassuringly unchanged. His camera is still keenly observant and all but invisible, his montage still among the most rigorous and subtly associative in documentary film, and as usual, his topic is two-fold: an institution, and the people who constitute, operate and collectively define that institution.
Like the floating narrative eye of a modernist writer, Wiseman and his crew seem to be everywhere at all times, and move seamlessly between various locations and social contexts. They drop in on top library executives deliberating on multi-million dollar budget decisions and local branch personnel dutifully serving their clients, grade schoolers crunching numbers in after-school programs and elderly members of a reading club bringing their wisdom to bear on literary classics. During lavishly staged events, preeminent intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates weigh in on history and the state of American affairs, while elsewhere, card-holding members congregate to discuss similarly pressing issues in more immediate terms. In one particularly memorable scene, black residents at a small West Harlem outpost hold an impromptu town hall meeting where they call attention to discriminatory practices, blatantly systematic and implicit, that harm and hinder their community. The result of these varied moments and perspectives, pieced together with adroit, artful editing, is a staggeringly intricate mosaic of the great establishment, a pointillist panorama that justifies every setup, and every last minute of its lengthy, three hour plus runtime.
If you’ve not yet picked up on it, the true subject of ‘Ex Libris’ is not books or even the buildings that serve as their repositories, but the supremely democratic, almost utopian idea of the library as a public portal to education, and thus, shared social standing. Following through on the premise of his underrated 1990 feature ‘Central Park,’ Wiseman posits a broad-minded, all-inclusive, public-private partnership as a microcosm of society as it could be, imperfect but ultimately worth aspiring to. In his benign vision, each individual who engages in the pursuit of knowledge at the library is doing his or her part to realize that ideal, from the curious schoolgirl seeking computer access to the hard-pressed man and woman sitting in an adult education class or standing in line at a job fair. Taken in the larger context of the director’s body of work, it would seem that the warm, hopeful portraitist of present has finally and definitively eclipsed the documentarian as a young man, the fierce cinematic muckraker responsible for groundbreaking exposes like ‘Titicut Follies’ and ‘Law and Order’. If that is the case, the arrival of late-career Frederick Wiseman could not have come at a better time.