If you think of great libraries as archives of the human condition, maintained to preserve everything we’ve thought and done, then you’d figure Frederick Wiseman would eventually make a film about the New York Public Library. He, too, carries the totalizing virus.
Over the course of a 50-year career, Wiseman has sought to capture the living essence of an entire world’s worth of institutions—from madhouses and wards for the terminally ill to great theater companies, universities, and ballet schools; from welfare offices, zoos, and meatpacking plants to nuclear-weapons training facilities, art museums, state legislatures, and Central Park. At his most optimistic, he turns his attention to towns or neighborhoods where he sees multiple forces interacting for the common good: in Belfast, Maine, or the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York. At his most scathing—in Public Housing, for example—the institutions he studies seem almost deliberately constructed to make people fall apart.
Look at libraries differently, though—as providers of services to the urban masses—and it will seem just as inevitable that Wiseman would get around to them. He, too, is an agent of social change. The title of “muckraker” is, of course, too simple for him, despite the scandal of his first films: Titicut Follies (1967), which the State of Massachusetts tried to ban from public view, and High School (1968), which, in the words of one reviewer, showed the systematic conversion of “warm, breathing teenagers” into “forty-year-old mental eunuchs.”
Still, just as an activist streak runs through the branches of the New York Public Library, so too does it animate all but Wiseman’s most contemplative works. He is, famously, an observational filmmaker, who refuses to conduct interviews, add explanatory texts or voice-overs to the image, layer extraneous music onto his scenes, or even provide a caption to tell you who’s talking. You get nothing except what you would have seen and heard if you’d been present with him when the action was happening. And yet, through his choice of what material to show and how to sequence it, he often constructs implicit arguments that address not so much the arrogance of power as its mindless, grinding indifference. These implied polemics are all the more persuasive for seeming to emerge from the evidence before you.
In his 42nd film, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, which receives its theatrical premiere in September at Film Forum in New York, Wiseman looks at his subject from both his Olympian and activist perspectives, and with attention to both major aspects of the NYPL’s mission: a center for scholarship and a resource for the city’s poor, ill-schooled, and homeless. Following an organizing scheme he’s used before, Wiseman bounces back and forth in his scenes between the marble palace on Fifth Avenue and a scattering of humble branch libraries in the Bronx and Harlem; public events and back-of-the-house labor; executives planning the system’s future and ordinary people using what the NYPL offers.