Ex Libris: The New York Public Library




An inspiring work of great intelligence and distinction until it outstays its welcome.

Ex Libris


The first two hours of this long documentary are quite wonderful for they find the veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman at the height of his powers. Now eighty-eight years old, he has made over forty films, many of them about institutions, but it could well be that what the New York Public Library represents makes it the closest to his heart. As Ex Libris illustrates, this institute, jointly funded by public and private moneys, is not just about books but exists to foster all forms of learning. As one would expect, Wiseman's film eavesdrops on board meetings where funding and policy matters are discussed, but it is also at pains to show the extent to which the library, possessed of some 88 neighbourhood branches, seeks to serve the people of New York. It is a centre for information but also offers performances of music (there is a Bruno Walter auditorium) as well as talks - not all of them connected to literature (Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins are amongst the speakers given space here) and there is a sequence in which a signer discusses how she uses facial expressions to enhance the actual sign language whenever she seeks to convey to a deaf audience as much as possible of what actors are expressing.


Wiseman's film is immensely civilised, a work in which intelligent conversation is indulged on the assumption that viewers will appreciate it, just as they will welcome the contrast of the brief exterior visuals that provide a breathing space in the flow of words. If what is said is often paramount, Wiseman, who has a great eye for faces, edits in splendid shots of listeners and of others using the library ranging from youngsters undertaking additional education classes to those finding assistance in the reading of books in braille. Apart from an unexpected snatch of Scott Joplin, there is sensibly no music added, while John Davey's excellent colour photography is another asset.


By choosing such strong material, Wiseman minimises what I have often regarded as a drawback in his work, namely the absence of any narration. Rejecting a voice over is standard procedure for Wiseman, as too for most of the time is his fondness for making long works. Ex Libris weighs in at well over three hours and, regrettably, I have to say that the last third would benefit greatly from being half an hour shorter. This may in part be down to the fact that, with so much to take in, one in time becomes less responsive as a viewer. But it does seem to me that during the last hour the episodes shown start to seem excessive albeit shorter and often feel unnecessary (an extreme example is the inclusion of a street parade). There are good things late on, of course, but they cannot prevent a growing sense that, due to too much being incorporated, the quality has not been kept up. Nevertheless, Ex Libris contains much that is quite admirable, ranging from the poet Yusef Komunyakaa comparing his work to the blues to an insightful reading group responding to the novel Love in the Time of Cholera. In a period when America is losing respect around the world, it is pleasing to see a film like this that finds in that country a continuing idealism and human concern.




Featuring  Richard Dawkins, Elvis Costello, Carolyn Enger, Edmund deWaal, Anthony Marx, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Yusef Komunyakaa, Miles Hodges, Candace Broecker Penn, Patti Smith, Jessica Stand, Paul Holdengräber.


Dir Frederick Wiseman, Pro Frederick Wiseman, Ph John Davey, Ed Frederick Wiseman.


Zipporah Films-Modern Films.
197 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 13 July 2018. Cert. 12A.