Active Ingredients: Incisive editing linking ideas
Side Effects: Occasionally too swift despite runtime
The pace and structure of Frederick Wiseman’s latest in-depth exploration of an American institution will be familiar to those who have seen his recent work, or indeed any of his nearly 50 films in as many years. With patience, curiosity and an unerring sense of rhythm, Ex Libris documents the people that come and go through the New York Public Library’s many branches and outreach efforts, from high-profile speakers to local community organizers, from board members shaping the entity’s mission to workers sorting book returns in the bowels of the library. All are components of the same whole, Wiseman shows us, just as he has with London’s National Gallery, or Berkeley University, or the streets of Jackson Heights. But the familiar pace and structure of Wiseman’s films shouldn’t blind us to his indispensable brilliance. Each of these works are masterpieces of the poetry and politics of the everyday, and Ex Libris is no less incisive and revelatory.
Chief among Wiseman’s virtues is his ability to tell the viewer so much while saying so little. The filmmaker never injects himself or any interview subject’s direct address into the film, but each juxtaposition of images tells a story both about individuals and the broader values of an institution whose goal is to provide access to knowledge. The lack of conventional narrative devices makes Ex Libris no less instructive than other documentaries. Indeed, the film achieves even more through the proliferation of connections it creates. You can sense a word or an image acting as fulcrum, pivoting the film from one location or idea to another, and with each pivot I can feel my own mind filling in the gaps. Ex Libris doesn’t just teach you about the library; it stimulates thought by immersing you in its workings.
Among the ideas Wiseman draws out through this cinematic cognitive fusing is the politics of instruction. The New York Public Library system, it turns out, represents much more than simply lending books. It encompasses efforts to bring lower class New Yorkers out of the “digital dark,” to teach the blind to read Braille, to introduce the workforce to their options at a job fair, and much more. Each of these interactions is a valuable effort to engage and empower the community, but also a manifestation of the library’s broader mission: to provide access to knowledge.
Each interaction has its own unique dynamics and challenges, and in many we see the same ideas play about in the topic of conversation. For example, the film features fascinating glimpses into lectures from authors, teachers and artists about a range of topics: the struggle between science and religion, the historical misrepresentation of slave narratives, Lincoln’s reading of Marx. Through Wiseman’s editing, a single metanarrative begins to emerge: Knowledge can be wielded like a weapon, and while institutions like the New York Public Library provide access to knowledge, its application is up the learner.
This is just one of the innumerable strands that emerge from Wiseman’s fleet and often funny editorial voice. Each viewer may discover a different strand in Ex Libris, but the film never fails to stimulate new thoughts, producing a third idea through the marriage of two others placed into dialogue across a cut. Just like the library itself, Wiseman does us all a service: he provides the viewer access to knowledge, but he leaves it up to us to make something of that information.