Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)

July 15th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Frederick Wiseman | Doc | US | 197′

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman (In Jackson Heights, National Gallery) takes his cameras within the walls of the New York Public Library for his forty-third film in fifty years which again throws light on a great institution – and is again well over three hours. It would be rash to say that Wiseman is losing it – but his tone is more and more lecturing, and we find ourselves in the position of students, well aware that the professor is talking down to us. Or perhaps, Wiseman has perfected his style to the point that he really needs no audience any more: who can argue with an encyclopaedia? There is no recourse, no questions, no room for doubt: Wiseman’s documentaries are the bible on his chosen subject.

The NY Public Library system with 92 branches, was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911, the headquarters, a beautiful Art-Deco building on 5th Avenue/42nd Street, is impressive, and rather British with its dominating lions. But Wiseman visits many branches, and the libraries could not be more different. The same goes for the activities: a librarian is recording all of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, there are talks by Patti Smith and Ta-Nehsi Coates, poetry reading with P. Hodges and endless quotes: from Karl Marx, Primo Levi and Malcolm, to name a few. Wiseman even includes a job-fair in the Bronx in his meanderings in the city. “Libraries are about people” is the motto of Ex-Libris: true, but people are irrational and very contradictory, because they are alive. But in spite of the motto, Wiseman seems more interested in discovering structures, showing off how clever he is. AS


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