Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

The post-book library


Scene from Frederick Wiseman's new documentary "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library."
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There's a bittersweet sensation in seeing that word DISCARD stamped on a perfectly good albeit perhaps somewhat unfashionable book. I feel I'm holding important pieces of intellectual history in my hands that should still adorn library shelves. But perhaps public libraries have better things to do than stockpile books, even though that is by definition and tradition their purpose. Isn't it more important for people to access the Internet and find a job? Frederick Wiseman's new documentary "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library" catches one of the great collections in the midst of an identity crisis, starting Friday at the Roxie.

About two-thirds of the way through the 197 minutes of "Ex Libris" my conscience was pricked and I stopped streaming on my laptop to hop a trolley and return a pile of DVDs, some of them overdue. San Francisco's is a much smaller version of New York's sprawling system, with its glamorous and venerable flagship branch on Fifth Avenue, complete with neo-classical columns, marble steps, and lounging lions. The problems are the same, though. Inheritor of the 19th-century's passion for documentation, collection, and edification, what's a library to do with all those pesky books now that electronic media have colonized our brains?

Producer-director-editor Frederick Wiseman, 87 going on 88, staked his claim to most uncompromising documentarist with his first film, "Titicut Follies" (1967), a narrationless montage of criminally insane patients at a gruesome grotesque institution, banned until 1991. Fortysome films later, he is himself an institution. An avatar of the documentary as art-form independent of the basic instinct to inform, he claims for his samplings of other people's realities the prestige and coherence of the novel. He's not the go-to guy for an argument, an analysis, or a fact. He's a filter-feeder, and viewers will follow his footage willy-nilly where it takes them.

So it is that "Ex Libris" teaches us nothing about the history of NYPL, nor the stakes nor players involved in the recent radical rethink and rehaul of its branches. We are, however, allowed to witness interminable swatches of bureaucratic blab sessions between the municipal government's guy and the library ladies, all nameless. If only they were criminally insane. These are intercut without rhyme or reason with long-shot, real-time clips of random librarygoers connecting with visiting experts at job fairs, concerts, celebrity lectures, and story times. Also shown are individuals staring at screens. Street shots of NYC function as an eye-wipe. Make of it what you will.

Wiseman's a bit of a wise guy, his sense of humor not immediately evident, deduced only in retrospect, and most clearly present in his first film. He's crazier than the lunatics in charge of the asylum. If you submit to his insanely long, random, repetitive, captionless, annoying barrage of samplings, you will be forced to think your way out of the indecipherable amalgam of hints, clues, vestiges, and misdirection. He ain't no Agatha Christie, he won't solve it for you. When insufferable Dutch architect Francine Houben says, "Libraries are not about books," I wanted to scream. That's my personal Rorschach keepsake.

At minute 147, the picture of a white-bearded patriarch appears alongside the quote, "A social revolution in America is a necessary complement to the political revolution of 1776. Should not such revolution or reformation come to pass, the future of American cannot fail to be a copy of Europe at the present time – the community divided into two great classes: a horde of brigands monopolizing all the advantages of society, and a multitude of landless, profit-ridden slaves, deprived of even the name of citizens." George Julian Harney (1817-97) is again relevant, only this time the brigands have gone digital.


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