ONE DAY ONLY – Thursday, November 16
Co-Presented w/ The Tompkins County Public Library
Frederick Wiseman’s film goes behind the scenes of one of the greatest knowledge institutions inthe world and reveals it as a place of welcome, cultural exchange and learning. With 92 branches throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, the library is committed to being a resource for all the inhabitants of this multifaceted and cosmopolitan city, and beyond. The New York Public Library exemplifies the deeply rooted American belief in the individual’s right to know and be informed.
Director: Frederick Wiseman
NY TIMES CRITIC’S PICK
The main branch of the New York Public Library — the Beaux-Arts landmark at Fifth Avenue and 42 Street with the stone lions — opened its doors to a ravenous population on May 24, 1911. More than 50,000 souls are said to have flowed through its marble grandeur, inaugurating what has been an intimate, mutually sustaining union between the public and its library. In his magnificent new documentary “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into those same halls as well as into more humble city branches. He sweeps into atriums and down corridors, pauses in reading and meeting rooms, and lays bare this complex, glorious organism that is the democratic ideal incarnate.
It is an ideal that emerges piecemeal in a movie that starts with a declaration of independent thinking and closes on an exultant and deeply moving self-reflexive note. In between, the practical and the philosophical meet head on in “Ex Libris” as discussions about budget concerns and the public good swirl amid orders for building renovations and larger questions about the digital divide. Places come into view as do people who read, deliberate and declaim uptown and down, largely in Manhattan though also in the Bronx. (Mr. Wiseman isn’t in the information business, so it seems worth mentioning that there are three separate library systems in the city, including the Queens Library and the Brooklyn Public Library.)
Over many decades and movies, Mr. Wiseman’s great subject has been institutions, places that he once loosely defined as having “certain kinds of geographical limitations and where at least some of the people have well-established roles.” He’s particularly sensitive to the ebb and flow of humans inside these places and, unsurprisingly, given this documentary’s focus, he seems especially attentive here to the sounds of that flow. (As usual, Mr. Wiseman recorded the movie’s sound and is its editor.) In one scene, the poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s words bounce off hard walls; elsewhere, only the rustling of turning manuscript pages disturbs a room’s tranquillity.
A master dialectician, Mr. Wiseman incessantly shifts in “Ex Libris” between quiet and noise, macro and micro, patrons and administrators. A shot of the main branch’s exterior accompanied by the city’s cacophonous din is answered by a shot of its hushed and vaulted entranceway. With rigor and clarity, Mr. Wiseman, who refrains from using voice-over, situates you in specific locations using street signs (Library Way and Fifth Avenue) as well as the names of buildings and branches, like that of the tiny Macomb’s Bridge Library at Harlem River Houses. Over time, as he skips across New York, the branches start to fit together as building blocks of the larger institution.
This incremental process is echoed by Mr. Wiseman’s own aggregate method, which gathers details ranging from the prosaic to the peculiar for his evolving mosaiclike picture. “The Gutenberg bible is temporarily unavailable for viewing,” says a librarian working on the telephone research desk. “A unicorn is actually an imaginary animal,” says another with a poker face and blissful patience. Sometimes the speakers are downright glittering: Patti Smith holds forth on one occasion and, on another, Elvis Costello introduces a charming video clip of his father, a musician, Ross McManus, singing the progressive anthem “If I Had a Hammer.” (“I’d hammer out the love between my brothers and my sisters/All over this land.”)
There are more than 90 library branches in New York, and Mr. Wiseman has said that he visited about a dozen during the 12 weeks in 2015 that he shot this movie. Again and again, though, he returns to the main branch, now formally called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. A private equity executive, Mr. Schwarzman donated $100 million to the New York Public Library in 2008, effectively buying the right to have his name on the main branch alongside quotations from immortals like Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Jefferson. Big money is a thread running through the movie, including in meetings with Anthony W. Marx, the president of the library, and other senior staff members.
For all his access, Mr. Wiseman doesn’t overtly address the Library’s Central Library Plan, a controversial proposal initiated in 2008 that would have involved a radical redesign and new focus — away from research to circulation — for the main branch. Among other goals, the library was seeking to make its flagship more public friendly, a fuzzy term that can serve as a fig leaf for anti-intellectualism. Alarmed that the library was discarding its mission, scholars composed letters that the likes of Salman Rushdie signed, and committees and lawsuits ensued. The expensive plan was scuttled in 2014.
If Mr. Wiseman doesn’t openly engage with the debate over the Central Library Plan many of the issues that emerged during that dispute nonetheless reverberate over the course of the documentary, including the overarching question of the library’s mission. Throughout “Ex Libris” both senior staff members and branch librarians speak about serving the public, service that has long extended beyond checking out physical books. In scene after scene, you are reminded that libraries serve as study centers, neighborhood hubs, babysitters and homeless shelters. They offer lectures and concerts, but also provide immigrant services, job fairs and internet service, including through a program that lets users without home access borrow mobile hot spots.
Mr. Wiseman never states outright what the library’s mission is; he doesn’t have to. It’s as clear as the recitations from the Declaration of Independence in one scene and in a passionate discussion of a racist textbook’s misrepresentation of the American slave trade in another. It is a soaring, Utopian mission in a documentary that builds with intellectual force and deep emotion as it shows, again and again, citizens — interested, questioning, seeking — joining together to listen to one another and to learn from one another. In “Ex Libris,” democracy is alive and in the hands of a forceful advocate and brilliant filmmaker, which helps make this one of the greatest movies of Mr. Wiseman’s extraordinary career and one of his most thrilling.