“When in doubt, go to the library.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
There are just a few essential items tucked into any New Yorker’s wallet: the iconic yellow-and- blue MetroCard, a passport to an increasingly hellish and broken-down subway system. Then, a driver’s license—or more typically, a state ID (because who has a car in the city?). A credit card? Not as necessary as you’d think, especially if you’re a fan of Brooklyn’s cash-only hot spots. And finally, a lion-adorned New York Public Library card, almost archaic in our age of next-day Amazon delivery but never out of style, linking the bearer to a universe of scholarship and a community of readers that loves free stuff.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, made by documentary godhead Frederick Wiseman (who, at age 87, is delivering his most vital work), will have you breaking out that card again. Or getting a new one. Or, if you don’t live in the five boroughs, reaching out to your community’s local library—hopefully still there—and realizing that, in some crucial way, you need this place.
Wiseman’s film comes at a scary moment for American intellectual life, when cultural funds are being slashed and the very nature of truth is under siege with every half-smart utterance from the golf course. Ex Libris is not fake news. It’s an impossibly rich tribute to a system sustained by thousands of people, not only users, but librarians, researchers, fundraisers, branch operators and building managers. Wiseman, as is his wont, approaches his subject from all angles, methodically and inclusively, with zero judgment. His vérité style, honed on classics like Titicut Follies (1967), is a perfect match for a library: no music (sssh!), no editorializing, no narration and no limits on the depth of his inquiry. His film is a quiet palace of ideas, mostly civic and municipal in nature. Ex Libris, a meandering three hours that feels fittingly dense, has hot moments and cool ones. Elvis Costello, bookish by nature, thrives in the context of a library appearance, defending his right to lyrically trample on Margaret Thatcher’s grave. Brainiac teens program robots during an after-school program. Women of a certain age dance up a disco inferno in exercise class. A reading group dives into the throes of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
Meanwhile, absolutely nothing is going on in a quiet research room—if by nothing, you mean a few serious scholars poring over centuries-old texts. A handicapped worker in a wheelchair (admirably, the NYPL boasts a truly diverse staff) stuffs green return cards into empty cartridges. Administrators debate growth tactics in conference rooms: Should the library’s endowment be spent collecting popular best-sellers and building its online presence for young digital natives, or should it serve the back catalogue for posterity? (Answer: It must do all of it.) Party planners finesse table settings for a gala dinner. Those twin marble lions out on Fifth Avenue, Patience and Fortitude, gaze over everything with a regal serenity.
These latter “scenes”—I put it in quotes because Wiseman avoids main characters and the shapeliness of drama—are the ones you’ll think about the most. They’re intimate sketches of working people who rarely get noticed. Everyone is animated by the thrill of learning, teaching and thinking. Even the guy reporting on annual paint jobs seems purposeful in his contribution to a collective effort. Ex Libris is not a commercial; it’s not the library at its most succinct or appealing. It’s the library at its most complex. It doesn’t visit all 92 branches, but it dives deeply into the testy debates of local managers, teachers and curators. Their back- and-forth is the pulse of the organization.
Is there an irony here? So full-throated a defense of reading and nonprofit education coming in the form of a movie. Maybe. But when the film is as literary and wrinkly as Wiseman’s Ex Libris, you won’t mind. In a perfect world, it would be a blockbuster, one ending with all viewers picking up newly minted or renewed library cards on the way out. For all its length and discursiveness, Ex Libris tastes refreshing, like a lemon sorbet palate cleanser. Ultimately, it assures us that, despite our YouTubing and emoji texting, the library is still there, still ready to answer inquiries we may not know we have. They even rent DVDs.
© FIPRESCI 2017