Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman (In Jackson Heights, National Gallery) takes his cameras within the walls of the New York Public Library.
Ex Libris - The New York Public Library
Frederick Wiseman has described his documentaries as "reality fictions" and frequently compares his art to novel writing. Now, after 50 years of training his camera on institutions, he finally channels his passion for books to get inside the New York Public Library. Its photogenic Fifth Avenue main branch has served as a backdrop in numerous films from Breakfast at Tiffany's to Ghostbusters to Sex and the City: The Movie. But with Ex Libris, Wiseman observes many more unseen layers.
Over several weeks in 2015, we observe multiple facets of the library, not only in midtown Manhattan but also in less frequented neighbourhoods. As in Wiseman's last film, In Jackson Heights, he pays close attention to immigrant communities. Scenes of citizens taking advantage of the library's Braille classes and book clubs are juxtaposed against gala fundraising and boardroom decision-making. In recent films such as National Gallery and At Berkeley, Wiseman has demonstrated a knack for observing how leaders of cultural institutions interact with their staff. Here, we get to eavesdrop on meetings with NYPL president Anthony Marx.
The film takes full advantage of the library's guest speakers, capturing snatches of public conversations with authors Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others. Newcomers to Wiseman should be mindful that his methodology is to show, not tell, what's going on, leaving viewers to do their own thinking about what's onscreen. His body of work is an institution of its own.