Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Ex Libris’ takes us to every imaginable aspect of the NYPL, creating a lovely, inspiring picture of a crucial institution. 3.5 stars out of 4.
Often in “Ex Libris,” Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the New York Public Library, the camera lingers on faces of people attending library events — lectures, concerts, performances, informational announcements. They’re a diverse crowd, and their expressions are diverse as well: rapt, curious, skeptical, nodding in agreement, bored, intrigued, worried, delighted. Each is transformed, in the tiniest of ways, by what they are hearing or seeing; each is, in the true spirit of the library, learning.
Wiseman, a legend in the documentary world, has been making films since 1967; his most recent include “In Jackson Heights,” “National Gallery,” “At Berkeley,” and one of my favorite documentaries ever, “La Danse.” “Ex Libris” follows his now-traditional pattern: no narration, no explanatory titles, no outside music, no particular throughline; instead, he creates a portrait of a place through the accumulation of small, seemingly disparate observations. Like most of his films, “Ex Libris” is lengthy — more than three hours — and, as in life, not every moment is utterly compelling. (Budget meetings, we’re reminded, tend to be on the dull side, whatever the institution.)
But, as with all of Wiseman’s films, the whole is so very much greater than the sum of its parts. With frequent pauses in the quiet, dignified marble halls of the main NYPL at Bryant Park, “Ex Libris” takes us to every imaginable aspect of the library, all over the city: book-lined rooms filled with quiet researchers; rows of busy computers; a job fair; a microfilm room; a Braille lesson; a neighborhood meeting; a seniors’ book club; a behind-the-scenes assembly line in which books are sorted for distribution; an elegant donor banquet; a photo exhibit; a queue to receive free wi-fi routers through a library program; a librarian patiently replying to a telephone query with “A unicorn is actually an imaginary animal.”
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Ex Libris,’ a documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman. 197 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday (on selected dates; see nwfilmforum.org or call 206-329-2629 for showtimes).
It’s a lovely, inspiring picture of a crucial institution; one which, as an employee describes, serves as “a warm, welcoming place that’s committed to education and committed to nurturing everyone’s passions and curiosities.”
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