No documentary is objective. Even when a nonfiction film lacks narration, a storyline, or Michael Moore, someone has to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. That’s what any kind of art is: deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. The particular art of the fly-on-the-wall documentary has been practiced and perfected for a half-century now by Frederick Wiseman, the wizened octogenarian who won an honorary Oscar last year (a very hip choice on the Academy’s part). In an age when documentaries continue to push for telling stories—easily digested, preferably with a theme of redemption, and accompanied by an insistent musical score, because the goal is to uplift and energize you—Wiseman stubbornly disdains all that. His new film, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, is like an old card catalog organized according to the Dewey Decimal System: calm, useful, elegant.
Ex Libris is, like many of Wiseman’s films, a wide-ranging look at the different functions of a complex institution. In this case, these range from Library events—including Q&As with recognizable art-world celebrities such as Elvis Costello and Ta-Nehisi Coates—to the nitty-gritty of board meetings and sorting rooms. (The sorting room at a public library is an amazing place.) Periodically we listen in as library top brass debate attendance statistics and future goals, but we also eavesdrop on those manning the information lines—including one employee who blandly informs a caller that actually, unicorns never existed. Although Wiseman spends a great deal of time at the grand central library in Manhattan, he also visits smaller branches, observing the people who try to solve issues of funding and relevance. If you think libraries are among democracy’s greatest products, behold some heroes in the cause.
Wiseman allows the film to stretch out to 197 minutes, all without a conventional through-line. But there is a recurring subject: the difficulty of defining what a library is in the 21st century. The notion of a library as a place where people check out books is only occasionally referred to; as befits a society in which libraries are distinguished by their banks of computer monitors, we only occasionally see an actual book in this film. As Ex Libris shows it, today’s library is a community center, a resource for accessing the Internet and acquiring smartphones, and, quite simply, a place where people talk through ideas and needs.
Notice, too, that in revealing a library’s deep well of information and social importance, Wiseman is reflecting on his own art. Ex Libris might seem randomly ordered, but this is where we get into that stuff about what to leave in and out. For instance, something has to go first, and Wiseman begins the film with an onstage interview featuring the articulate atheist Richard Dawkins. He speaks of the beautiful wonder found in reality and the factual world—an attitude that could easily describe Wiseman’s own rigorous method. Some of the excerpts from public programs might seem indulgent—we get it, the library has a lot of great events—until you realize that almost all of them relate to Wiseman’s purpose as a documentarian. It’s there in Costello’s thoughtful warning against the over-interpretation of his songs, and it’s there in the library’s internal debates about whether it can better serve the public with titles that are popular or titles that are obscure but might be valuable to a small minority someday. In a quiet way, everything feeds into the Wiseman approach, including a slam poet who describes the need to speak his truth outside the mainstream formats. Wiseman is too discreet to come right out and say that—or shout it, as the poet does—so he lets his methodical style speak for him.
Anyone looking for a comforting storyline will bail after 30 minutes. But if you’re curious about how a system works, and prefer not being told what to think, Ex Libris may very well uplift and energize you. Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Not rated. Opens Fri., Oct. 6 at the Northwest Film Forum.