Some artists lose their drive with age. Not Frederick Wiseman. If anything, the octogenarian documentarian has only grown more ambitious as he’s grown older. Half a century after Titicut Follies, his films now regularly stretch past the three-hour mark, in part because he’s increasingly selected hugely expansive subjects, like the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world or a public university. With Ex Libris, his 47th film in 50 years, Wiseman goes inside the New York Public Library, and if that sounds like a more manageable undertaking, keep in mind that he’s exploring not a single book depository but a whole network of them, stretching across Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. It’s another butt-numbing nonfiction epic from this living legend of the medium.
Through the usual complete eschewal of onscreen text and talking-head interviews, Wiseman goes about demonstrating how the New York Public Library, as the fourth largest system of its kind in the world, operates as much more than just an enormous collection of books—how it serves, in fact, as a bastion of culture for the community. Moving out from the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the main branch and nerve center, to other locations across three boroughs, Ex Libris attempts to capture the full scope of what the library offers the city, from job fairs to concerts, lecture series to book clubs, classes to on-stage interviews with celebrities like Elvis Costello. As in his recent National Gallery, the director also takes a few fascinating peeks behind the curtain, illuminating the process of digitizing print materials and gaining access to labyrinthian sorting facilities, where books travel down conveyor belts like industrial product.
Of all the institutions Wiseman has investigated over the years, libraries may come closest to embodying what’s important to him as an artist; they’re temples of knowledge, experience, and culture. But for as much as he may believe in the organization’s aims, the filmmaker is much too questioning to make a glorified advertisement for the New York Public Library. Touching again on one of the key themes of his work—the conflict between ideals and the difficulty of living up to them—Wiseman devotes several passages to behind-closed-doors meetings, where members of the board have big-picture discussions about funding and long-term goals, acknowledging a need to change with the digital times. Even the more everyday issues create challenges of values: Does throwing out the homeless who wander inside and fall asleep violate the library’s commitment to serving everyone in the community?
The power of Wiseman’s work lies less in the sheer volume of footage he assembles than in how he arranges it and what he chooses to emphasize. It’s notable that his film about libraries includes relatively few images of actual books; numerous shots of visitors seated at computers say more than one speaker’s insistence that “libraries are not about books, they’re about learning.” An uncertain future hangs implicitly over every scene, but Wiseman avoids easy conclusions. During one classical-music performance, he cuts to shots of people nodding off, glazing over, or pecking at their phones—a running motif throughout the film. Are they failing culture or is culture failing them? Two scenes later, a slam poet speaks of discarding old modes of artistic expression for new ones, and his audience looks enraptured. For libraries to survive as cultural hubs, they’ll have to find fresh ways to engage with the public.
As usual, Wiseman stumbles on a few enthralling personalities: One expert lecturing on the history of Jewish delis regales a dubious crowd on the symbolic sexual potency of pastrami sandwiches, and a nimbly edited scene with the employees in charge of calling about overdue books (“Unicorns are imaginary,” one of them explains to whoever he’s talking to) demonstrate Wiseman’s stealth gift for capturing the hilarity of one-sided telephone conversations. Such moments enliven a film that, like some of Wiseman’s recent work, is maybe a little longer and more scattered than it needs to be, with one too many scenes that just plant the camera in front of a gabbing speaker. His early movies were more urgent, in part because they kept their focus narrower; would a classic like High School have been improved by leaving the eponymous building to offer an overview of the whole school district? Of course, too much ambition isn’t the worst problem for a filmmaker of any age to possess. Wiseman, that tireless social studier, has earned the overreach.