Culture / Richard BrodyTech

Frederick Wiseman’s Utopian Vision of Libraries in “Ex Libris”

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, “Ex Libris: The New York Public
Library,” which opens today, revels in the glorious paradox of his
half century of directorial work. The modern documentary, born in 1960
with Robert Drew’s “Primary” and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s “Chronicle
of a Summer,” is defined by the presence of the filmmakers. It’s a
holistic, existential cinema rooted in the filmmakers’ shared
environment with their subjects—and in their subjects’ conspicuous
interaction with, even performance for, the camera. This is true of the
work of documentary filmmakers who got their start in the sixties, too,
such as the Maysles brothers and D. A. Pennebaker—but Wiseman, whose
first film, “Titicut Follies,” dates from 1967, seems to be different.

When editing, Wiseman rigorously excludes his interactions with the
film’s participants or subjects; he isn’t heard talking with them, they
aren’t heard responding to him, and they aren’t seen looking into the
lens. Where, then, is Wiseman’s presence in his films? Does he embody an
ideal of the “fly on the wall,” the unnoticed observer whose presence is
only a necessary evil of the reporting process?

“Ex Libris,” a meticulous and wide-ranging
three-hour-and-twenty-five-minute display of the library’s varied
offerings and activities, whether open to the public or occurring behind
closed doors, displays the aesthetic power of Wiseman’s cinematic
practice and the distinctive presence on which his films are based. The
work—his forty-first documentary—involves far more than the mere fact of
directorial decision-making, the selection of subjects and shots, the
analytical composition and editorial organization that so evidently
distinguishes his films both from passive recording and from less
accomplished documentaries.

Beginning and ending with a pair of public discussions in the library’s
main building, on Fifth Avenue between Fortieth and Forty-second Streets,
Wiseman visits branches throughout the city (actually, in Manhattan and
the Bronx, because Brooklyn and Queens have their own library systems)
and the neighborhoods in which they’re located. He shows patrons using
the facilities, and librarians and other officials working with them,
keeping the libraries running and planning their evolving uses. Along
the way, and by way of the things that he sees taking place in and
around the New York Public Library, Wiseman is getting at something that
is embodied by what he finds and shows, and by the way that he shows it:
what he sees inwardly, in his mind’s eye. His films are as much a matter
of his comprehensive imagination as of his observations.

Wiseman’s films have always emphasized and examined institutions, and
their titles (whether “High School” or “Hospital,” “Welfare” or “Model,”
“Public Housing” or “Boxing Gym” or “National Gallery”) have made this
focus plain. But Wiseman is no mere analyst; in filming institutions, he
films the ideas on which they run and the ideas that they embody—and
also the ideals that they’re meant to realize and, for that matter, his
own ideals, to which these institutions measure up to varying degrees.
When Wiseman films an institution, he films the community of people who
keep it going, the community where it’s placed, the community that it
both fosters and serves. His films evoke a sort of utopia, a vision of a
society that isn’t quite real but that can be—and that these very
institutions are, ever so incrementally and imperfectly, helping to
realize. “Ex Libris” may be his clearest, most explicit exposition of
the principles and activities on which this ideal depends.

“Ex Libris” is about an ideal of reason and knowledge—and about the gap
between that ideal and what takes place beyond the library’s walls. With
Wiseman’s series of extended scenes of lectures, discussions, and performances
(no mere snippets but fully realized sequences that allow ideas to
develop), he is also issuing a series of correctives to widespread
misconceptions—whether in opening the film with a scene of Richard
Dawkins, speaking in the library’s main building, affirming the truth of
evolutionary science or, near the film’s end, showing a discussion in
the Macomb’s Bridge Library among patrons and librarians, all of whom
are black, about the falsehoods perpetrated in widely disseminated
high-school textbooks about enslaved Africans in the United States, who
are lumped in among immigrants entering the labor force.

Discussions of the library’s central administration are focussed on
funding (both private and public), and that quest for financing is aimed
principally at the ongoing reshaping of the library’s mission toward
education. The library’s president, Anthony Marx, emphasizes that the
new century’s informational frontier is digitalization and universal
access to information, and he emphasizes that the purpose of this
transformation is essentially political and democratic, declaring his
belief that widespread access to information is central to reducing
inequality. (He also is keenly concerned with the financing on which
this project depends.)

Yet he also emphasizes, subtly but firmly, the library’s other core
mission—the preservation and dissemination of the esoterica or arcana of
culture and science for the purpose of fostering future scholarship.

Observing the library in its daily functions, Wiseman suggests an
essential connection between the nuts and bolts of universal education
and the highest realms of scholarship. A branch’s discussion of
educational materials for students in a largely nonwhite and immigrant
neighborhood appears, in Wiseman’s vision, as much a matter of social
progress and self-determination as a range of scholarly library events,
such as a lecture regarding nineteenth-century political philosophers’
views of slavery, a talk by a social historian about the political role
of food in the integration and increased acceptance of Jewish immigrant
families at a time of forceful anti-Semitism, and a public discussion by
Ta-Nehisi Coates calling for a redefinition and reorientation of
rhetoric about “black-on-black crime.”

Throughout “Ex Libris,” Wiseman’s political vision comes through with
sharp and clear lines. He emphasizes the connection between knowledge
and power—and between culture and power. In a public discussion at the
library, the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, asked about the politics of his
poetry, answers, “Language is political.” Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the former
director of the Schomburg Center, cites Toni Morrison’s reference to
libraries as “pillars of our democracy,” and suggests that libraries play
a crucial role in preparing for what John Lewis called “necessary
trouble”—protest, and the awareness of the conditions that call for it.
The very subject of “Ex Libris” is the development and sustenance of an
informed citizenry and an informed electorate, and Wiseman’s point is
that an institution that preserves, fosters, and disseminates scientific
and humanistic knowledge enables ordinary people to make reasonable
decisions about their lives and about the country at large. (It’s also a
matter of practical reason and empowerment, as in scenes showing readers
using library computers and microforms to research colorectal cancer and
to lodge a complaint about bank fraud.)

“Ex Libris” is a vision of a virtual utopia of knowledge rendered
accessible, and, like almost all utopian visions, it veers at times toward
sentimentality. Like many films involving libraries, it also veers
toward sanctimony regarding the fundamental value of reading, of
consuming and producing culture. (After all, plenty of illiberals write
theses, too.) Wiseman is very much at home in the discourse of
bureaucracy and administration, of managers sustaining the institution
with respectful consideration of diverging forces and interests,
positioning it with respect to electoral politics and personal
relationships while keeping focus squarely on the library’s mission and
values. The movie’s air of benign, benevolent calm suggests at times the
sense of an official culture of impersonal gentility. If there’s a
shadow to the splendor and the clarity of Wiseman’s idealistic
intellectual vision, it’s the need for something other than the
sweetness of angels.

Despite its celebration of cultural treasures, there’s little sense that
much of the best art is made by people too wild or disreputable to spend
time in libraries, even if their work ends up there long after they’re
dead. For all its documentary ardor, Wiseman’s ideal often takes
precedence over the real, and the one thing that never comes through is
the reason why the devil gets the good lines.


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