EX LIBRIS: Another Triumph From Frederick Wiseman
Mannered, but direct, like the institution it portrays, Ex Libris is an open book that invites any inquiring mind to explore its many avenues.
It’s impossible to name a director, let alone a documentarian who has been more consistently stalwart than Frederick Wiseman. He’s rounding his fiftieth year and his latest Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is an ideal extension of Wiseman’s growing oeuvre; he’s maintained, quite possibly the most consistent, self-sustained career of anyone, and with over forty feature credits to his name his ambition and scope are subtly becoming more and more expansive.
Institutions, public services, and private businesses are fixtures in Wiseman’s aptly titled inventory, Hospital, High School, Boxing Gym, but in the past few years he’s digging into more diverse subjects and territories: Central Park, Belfast Maine, At Berkley, and most recently with In Jackson Heights – one of his best efforts from his post millennia career.
Ex Libris: Growing Scope
His growth means he’s investing more time, providing more footage, and producing a more extensive view in these documentaries because they are more than a subject of interest, but a converging point, where cultural traffic is dense, and the diversity of people make a rich tapestry for exploration. Which is why the Wiseman method applied to New York City’s public libraries makes for a perfect creative marriage that enables the best elements of the director’s aesthetic tendencies, making Ex Libris an engrossing documentary that transcends anthropology and art.
Wiseman’s documentaries are self-sustained in their brevity and are timeless in a way, as well as being representations of when they were made, but Ex Libris has arrived at a pivotal juncture during our digital age. Ex Libris is analogous to the career of Wiseman, in his latest feature he crafts a catch-all omnibus of an institution that’s been a public fixture for centuries, and he burrows into the New York Library, and it’s 90+ branches as they are forging new ground acclimating to the world of the digital age, eBooks, and the proportion of knowledge provided by the proliferation of the internet. Like the library system, Wiseman is growing with the times, and he’s not lamenting the expansion of digital content in lieu of the printed page but applies his trained eye to a new era that begets the development of knowledge.
There’s subtle power throughout the three-hour-and-seventeen-minute runtime of Ex Libris, and that’s attributed to Wiseman‘s straightforward approach to making movies. There’s a dissolution of content with modern documentarists, who, instead of taking stock in the substance of their subjects default to confectionary techniques (voiceover narration, stock footage, shock cutting, recreation shots), whereas Wiseman exists without the need to satisfy as an entertainer, without pandering to critical approval and appeasing popular opinion.
Punks, Professors, and Philosophers
So in his typical low-flying fashion Wiseman records a roster of faces, and in an atypical turn for this outing, there’s an abundance of more recognizable cultural luminaries. While his hovering observations are commonly populated with everyday people, Ex Libris treats us with Richard Dawkins (who makes it a point that we know it’s none other than, Richard Dawkins), Elvis Costello, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Patti Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa and Harvard Professor of race and public policy Khalil Gibran Muhammad.
What brings such a variety of figures, whether they are punk/new wave musicians, authors or journalists? This might sound as if it was culled from an after-school special but that’s what a library has to offer, and that’s the substance of Wiseman‘s elemental import. New York libraries are vast yet intimate, and throughout the film Wiseman proves capable of recording the immense architecture, both interior and exterior; capturing the historical import in appreciating the artistry of NYC’s many immense structures.
Simplicity is, more often than not, the best method. We see Elvis Costello discuss his father, Ross McManus’ singing career, as well as his influences; Richard Dawkins seems to enjoy his favorite subject (himself), Patti Smith shares some artistic insights regarding her varied career. Equal time is devoted to the NYPL employees, their meetings, speakers at job fairs (whether they be from the fire department, border patrol, or military), volunteers at the circulation desk, and these simple vignettes are what Wiseman does best: capture life in motion and shape it into an engrossing narrative.
Leaving the Libraries
Engaging with Wiseman’s work comes from a pure appreciation for the footage he’s assembled; there’s an organic rectitude in his aesthetic. Mannered, but direct, like the institution it portrays, Ex Libris is an open book that invites any inquiring mind to explore its many avenues.
With so many institutions and public works covered in his body of work, what do you think is the next viable subject for Frederick Wiseman?
Ex Libris is available to buy on DVD and BluRay on Zipporah.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.