Frederick Wiseman is an elder statesman of documentary filmmaking whose long-form works require a certain commitment from the viewer. His latest, a three-and-a-half-hour exploration of the New York Public Library system, might seem like a daunting proposition for a night at the movies—and it is.
But the film is so heartening, so enriching, that you owe it to yourself to make time for it. (Look at it this way: it's three-and-a-half episodes of whatever you're binge-watching these days.) Ex Libris is an elixir for anyone who feels sickened by what's happening in America right now. It's a reminder that we've got a hell of a good civilization going here—one that's worth preserving if we can just get the right people in charge.
Wiseman has been making documentaries for more than half a century, often focusing on American institutions. His method is to immerse himself in his subject, film for hundreds of hours, and then assemble a moving picture mosaic with no narration, onscreen titles, or traditional narrative.
Ex Libris plunges into the day-to-day operations of the NYLS, a public-private institution dedicated—and that's the key word—to disseminating information and improving lives in the communities it serves. We see patrons reading books, of course, but we also see job fairs, instructional seminars, and community forums. Volunteers teach blind kids how to read Braille. Black teenagers wander an African art exhibit. Some celebrities drop in: Elvis Costello, Richard Dawkins, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
No moral is provided, but with every sequence, every edit, Wiseman is directing our attention. There are hidden structures throughout, dots that connect, emotional and notional through lines that combine to speak volumes. We don't need to be told about the importance of education, science, diversity, and facts. We see it in every frame.
It's probably important to note that Ex Libris isn't an overtly political film. But anyone paying attention knows that, right now in America, the stakes are as high as they've ever been, and everything is political. Wiseman's celebration of the very concept of the public library has the effect of a utopian vision. I sat there thinking, Imagine if our federal government were run by the people we see guiding this institution. Imagine if our leaders were this thoughtful, curious, and dedicated to principles of knowledge and progress. I'm saying: put the librarians in charge. No, really.