Few filmmakers have a greater interest in The Way Things Work than Frederick Wiseman. Since making his debut with the landmark Titicut Follies in 1961, the documentarian has made a remarkable career from delving deep into labyrinthine topics, while also giving the viewer enough room to figure out how it all comes together.
Ex Libris: New York Public Library is exactly what the title states, a sprawling, 3-plus hour venture through the various branches, nooks, and crannies of a venerable institution. Newcomers may initially be taken aback by Wiseman’s approach, where budget meetings are given equal weight alongside the random grab bag of celebrity appearances from people such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Dawkins, and Patti Smith. Once you get into the film’s unforced rhythms, however, the time starts to fly by. The small details form a fascinating gestalt.
Filmed over a span of weeks, Wiseman’s 43rd feature captures, well, seemingly everything about its subject, ranging from deadpan hysterical help desk conversations, the constant struggle in adapting to changing technologies, and just the wide-ranging hustle and bustle of daily events. A scene where an impassioned poet has to power through the distraction of the universe’s loudest crying baby during a reading captures both the wonders and annoyances of public performance beautifully.
Documentaries have become more overt over the years, and viewers accustomed to the upfront Michael Mooreization of the form may be taken aback by Wiseman’s seemingly invisible touch, where the camera just finds a perfect spot and observes. As Ex Libris progresses, though, a clear, guiding intelligence makes itself known, ranging from the no-big-deal dignity afforded everyone on screen, some gorgeously mundane glimpses of everyday routines, and the way that the topics of slavery and freedom keep surfacing in conversations. Even for non-bibliophiles, Wiseman’s latest is an absorbing, ultimately optimistic work. Long may he continue to poke around.
To learn about the documentary by the art-house A-list Frederick Wiseman, visit Movie Times.