Critics' Pick

Ex Libris: New York Public Library (NR)

Documentary 197 min. October 6, 2017
By Bilge Ebiri
We don't actually see that many books in Ex Libris, Frederick Wiseman's massive new film about the New York Public Library. "People think that [libraries are] just storage spaces for books," one administrator observes, when in reality they're "about people [who] want to get knowledge to them." That's a central idea here: A film that is as contemplative and dense as its subject, the lovely Ex Libris explores the breadth of New York's complex library system, as a way of showing the different ways that its users today seek knowledge and direction.

A curious, welcome strain of utopianism has crept into Wiseman's recent projects. Films like At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights and National Gallery document places and institutions that, despite challenges, fundamentally work. While much of Ex Libris centers around the NYPL's iconic Main Branch building -- the one with the lions out front -- Wiseman tours other branches as well, showing us a spectrum of events and services and even textures. So, we see a group of children studying in a small, nondescript room at the Jerome Park branch. A piano recital at the tony Bruno Walter Auditorium. Board meetings where administrators discuss how to allocate resources. Students learning about the wealth of images in the massive photo archive.

In a less patient, more conventional film, these would just be glimpses. Ex Libris, however, is 197 minutes long; Wiseman loves to let his sequences go on and on. But he also knows better than anybody just how long he can keep us engaged, and as a simple viewing experience, Ex Libris is spellbinding. A library, for Wiseman, seems to contain the whole world. What better place to be cast adrift?
Frederick Wiseman Zipporah Films

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