Frederick Wiseman “is 87 now,” as Tom Charity notes in the new issue of Cinema Scope. “It may be a little presumptuous to suggest he’s reaching for a summation, but it is sure that he’s only making the films he wants to. Over the last decade, those projects have taken him to Paris (twice) for La danse (2009) and Crazy Horse (2011), to London for National Gallery (2014), to Berkeley and to Austin, Texas (for At Berkeley  and Boxing Gym  respectively), and twice now to New York City (his previous film was 2015’s In Jackson Heights). It’s a cosmopolitan itinerary, and taken together these expansive and enjoyable late Wisemans are a far cry from the punishing confines of his first film, fifty years young in 2017, Titicut Follies, even if his methods remain similar. There is an apparent shift of emphasis away from social subjects and towards aesthetics and culture, though Wiseman would no doubt be quick to reply you can’t separate the two. Indeed, that is one of the themes of Ex Libris: how does Andrew Carnegie’s mission to bring knowledge to the masses hold up in the 21st century? Or to put it another way: is the library an anachronism in the internet age?”
“All of his films are his best films,” declares David Ehrlich at IndieWire. “All the same, the hypnotic and thoroughly essential Ex Libris – The New York Public Library stands out as an especially definitive example of—and testament to—Wiseman’s style and mission statement. Never before have his goals as a documentarian so perfectly dovetailed with those of his subject.”
“Ex Libris – New York Public Library has the drive of a vociferous reader checking out and renewing the maximum number of books their card will allow,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. “Its running time of three hours and seventeen minutes is generous enough to succeed on multiple levels. The most prominent theme is the divide between rich and poor, and what the NYPL means in different neighborhoods. The gorgeous main branch on Fifth Avenue with its marble lions serves a different function than the outposts in the economically disadvantaged outer boroughs. On Fifth Avenue, a ‘Books at noon’ guest like Richard Dawkins will wax about the Enlightenment; off Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, the community huddles up for job interview tips.”
“So enthralled is he with what people are saying that’s it hard to recall another one of his films that spends so much time just listening to people talking,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety. “Shot in the fall of 2015, the film treats the library’s stately Main Branch on Fifth Ave. at 42nd St. as a kind of sun that has ninety-two planets spread out across the five boroughs. Time and space constraints limited Wiseman to just eleven satellites in addition to the mother ship, always returned to via shots of its iconic Carrère and Hastings façade alongside its grand entrance hall and corridors. He’s gone out of his way—too much so—to avoid presenting the library as a repository of books, emphasizing how its enlightened managers are ensuring the institution stays up-to-date and relevant in the lives of the myriad communities it’s dedicated to serve.”
“In one extraordinarily edited scene, energetic job recruiters storm the Bronx branch of the library to make their case for becoming a fireman, a soldier, an IT worker, a paramedic,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “Outside, gaudy signs and For Rent notices preside over trash-blown avenues. The library is depicted as not just a haven, but a community center for children, teen and adult education. There are special branches for people with disabilities, classes in Braille, an interpreter for the deaf who demonstrates sign language while the Declaration of Independence is read. Wiseman is at pains to stress the library’s welcoming, inclusive attitude toward all New Yorkers.”
“Simmering just below the surface is a political message about libraries as places of social and intellectual engagement, empowered memory and pursuit of the truth in an America where such values are under attack,” notes Lee Marshall in Screen.
Update, 9/6: For Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold, “thanks to Wiseman’s editorial selections, Ex Libris becomes a breathtaking work of erudition, attaining Godardian or Straubian levels of quotation and association. Among the referenced and discussed on screen are Karl Marx, Orientalism, George Fitzhugh, Albrecht Dürer, Malcolm X, and Primo Levi—not to mention the in situ arts and letters of [Ta-Nehisi] Coates, [Patti] Smith, Miles Hodges, and Elvis Costello. Which gets us closer to the heart of Wiseman’s genius: through—not despite—his granular detail and editorial collage, he in fact shoots a living cinema of ideas constantly reflecting on the way we live as a society.”
Updates, 9/7: “Ex Libris comes at a desperate time for advocates of knowledge, teaching, literacy, historical analysis and positive community building,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “In 2015, as we can very well see by the sometimes shabby interiors, strained arguments, often underpopulated events, and understaffed facilities, this redoubt was already under siege, perhaps most of all by those who think the mere existence of digital technology renders what a library is—as an idea, as a repository of knowledge, as gathering of tools and experts for public use, and as a physical space—a thing of the past. What Ex Libris so brilliantly does is sketch the entirety of a system that has been built—and is evolving—to improve the future.”
“Touching again on one of the key themes of his work—the conflict between ideals and the difficulty of living up to them—Wiseman devotes several passages to behind-closed-doors meetings, where members of the board have big-picture discussions about funding and long-term goals, acknowledging a need to change with the digital times,” notes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Even the more everyday issues create challenges of values: Does throwing out the homeless who wander inside and fall asleep violate the library’s commitment to serving everyone in the community?”
Updates, 9/8: “Just one question: Where are the books?” Anthony Lane in the New Yorker:
That omission is deliberate, and Wiseman has picked his moment well. Steeped in the study of institutions, he understands the value, and the thrill, of delving into them as they undergo a sea change, and no place could be richer or stranger than a library that is swept up in the electronic age, with its dissolving reliance on print. One person calls books “physical books,” as if they were an inconvenient subset, and another refers to libraries as “passive repositories”—a phrase that wrinkles its nose in perceptible scorn. Libraries are now focussed less on books than on “people who want to get knowledge,” and the getting, as becomes clear in repeated meetings of senior library figures, is a matter of connectivity, digitization, broadband rollout, and, my favorite, “e-content licensing purchase strategy.” As the film proceeds, you suspect a quiet joke in its title, which means “from the books of,” as one used to see on a personal bookplate, but also “out of books,” as if they were a point of departure. Something perused on a Kindle, you might say, is an ex-book.
The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang predicts that “there will be no better new movie at TIFF this year than Ex Libris — The New York Public Library, Frederick Wiseman’s almost indecently rich and stimulating new documentary, which represents a landmark achievement even in the context of this master filmmaker’s career.” And it “offers a troubling reminder of what we stand to lose if greedy, short-sighted policies are allowed to prevail. But the movie is the opposite of pessimistic: It suggests that the desire for knowledge, creativity and community is its own sustaining, revitalizing impulse.”
Update, 9/10: “Like National Gallery, At Berkeley, and In Jackson Heights, Ex Libris is obsessed with the precarious existence of institutions that get by on the ruling class's fickle interests,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “The library is a communal paradise, a step toward an unrealized ambition of this country to make good on its promise of existing as the land of the free. The film suggests a short story collection that gradually coheres into a novel.”
Updates, 9/15: “Wiseman will sit down and look through every frame, sometimes as many as 250 hours of rushes,” writes Sean Cooper in an extensive profile for Tablet:
“That can usually take me six or eight weeks, seeing what’s there and taking notes,” he tells me. “By the time I’ve gone through the material, I’ll have put aside 40 or 50 sequences to edit. At that point I’m not thinking much about structure, only creating good-candidate sequences. Going from one hour of a sequence to four minutes, it’s rare that I get what I want in the first pass. Say it’s a group of people in a meeting. I’ll isolate all the parts of the exchanges, edit it verbally, edit it for language, and keep reducing it and reducing it until it’s exactly the verbal exchange that I want it to be. Then I’ll go through and pick out the cutaways, which allow me to edit the sequence to appear as if it took place the way you’re watching it until I get a rhythm that’s internal in the sequence. Then I begin to work on the structure. Different people work in different ways, but I’m not very good thinking about the structure in the abstract; I have to look at it. So after seven or eight months of editing the sequences, I know the material—every word spoken, every part of the frame—and I make an assembly relatively quickly, in three or four days. Then it’s six or eight weeks to polish the structure, so the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm of the sequences are working together. I’ll also tune up the shots between any of the major sequences. I’ll go back through all the discarded material and sometimes find things that solve some editorial problem, to connect this sequence to that sequence. And a lot of it, even after 50 years, is still trial and error. But once you begin, it’s totally consuming because you’re on the hunt for the film.”
“Wiseman is a natural storyteller, creating surprising, intimate portraits of individuals and their communities,” writes Daniel Witkin for Forward. “Taken together, his films amount to a great repository of American life—call it the Fred Wiseman Cinematic Universe (which has now expanded into France and Great Britain as well). As a reflection of the sheer variety of strangeness of the United States, his work can take on a certain quasi-encyclopedic value, not unlike, say, The Simpsons. And like that particular American institution, it is also frequently very funny. ‘I’m not the first to recognize that many aspects of human behavior are quite funny, my own included,’ Wiseman tells me.”
Back to the film at hand, and we begin with Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: “Mr. Wiseman never states outright what the library’s mission is; he doesn’t have to. It’s as clear as the recitations from the Declaration of Independence in one scene and in a passionate discussion of a racist textbook’s misrepresentation of the American slave trade in another. It is a soaring, Utopian mission in a documentary that builds with intellectual force and deep emotion as it shows, again and again, citizens—interested, questioning, seeking—joining together to listen to one another and to learn from one another. In Ex Libris, democracy is alive and in the hands of a forceful advocate and brilliant filmmaker, which helps make this one of the greatest movies of Mr. Wiseman’s extraordinary career and one of his most thrilling.”
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody suggests that, “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.) . . . 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.”
“The early works were anxious, driven, and messily, wonderfully human,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “In later years—as can be seen in Film Forum’s retrospective of his mid-period documentaries—Wiseman’s subjects were often large, unwieldy institutions that seemed to be at serious risk of crumbling. But in recent years, I’ve noticed something far more optimistic and universal in his pictures. Films like At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights, and National Gallery document places and institutions that, despite challenges, fundamentally work. The almost idealistic sincerity of this vision, crossed with the clear-eyed patience of Wiseman’s filmmaking, has made for a striking combination.”
“An extraordinary plethora of topics are discussed in Ex Libris,” notes Nick Pinkerton, writing for Artforum, “but two return with a regularity that belies how thoughtfully structured Wiseman’s deceptively ambling movie in fact is: slavery and freedom. . . . At the Macomb’s Bridge Library way uptown, there is a lively discussion of a McGraw-Hill textbook graphic in which a map of immigration patterns refers to African slaves as ‘workers.’ A lecturer at Greenwich Village’s Jefferson Market Library—one of the most beautiful buildings in New York—dissertates on the nineteenth-century writings of social theorist George Fitzhugh, whose Slaves Without Masters expounded the superiority of antebellum southern life to that of industrial capitalism, before bringing in a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: ‘The free society is not and will not be a failure.’ The sense of the imperative in Lincoln’s statement runs throughout Ex Libris.”
“This is not one of Wiseman’s most meticulously structured recent works,” finds Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “It’s not as searing and revelatory as his two Domestic Violence documentaries set in shelters for battered women, as compact and intimate as his 2010 classic Boxing Gym, or as symphonic as In Jackson Heights . . . But the film’s boundless enthusiasm for the idea of the library wins the day.”
“The chronology, such as it is, seems to be seasonal,” suggest Mark Jenkins, writing for NPR: “summer in Bryant Park, behind the main library, followed by a Halloween parade on Fifth Avenue and finally a Christmas tree inside the lobby. But sometimes we return to a place and time we’ve apparently visited before. The administrators’ meeting or meetings, for example, begin to feel redundant. So do many of the establishing shots of various libraries’ neighborhoods. Yet Ex Libris’s graceful exit suggests that Wiseman always knew exactly where he was headed.”
Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey: “The democracy of his filmmaking is, as ever, striking; this is one of our most American artists, and Ex Libris is the very definition of what he does well.”
“As always, Wiseman, who at 87 is just as structurally rigorous and observationally precise as ever, morphs this institutional study into a story about people,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer.
“It’s when the film juxtaposes the haves and have nots, that it proves to be one of the most relevant works to have premiered since the 2016 election,” argues Jose Solís at the Film Stage.
Updates, 9/16: “It feels like every new Wiseman film is some sort of culmination of a lifelong Wiseman obsession,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “so much so that one hesitates to trot out that same conclusion here again. But even on the deeply embedded, fascinated scale of his recent milestones, Ex Libris feels like a peculiarly vivid elision of subject matter and filmmaker. Wiseman’s meticulous, cerebral, engaged yet dispassionate perspective has always felt a little like that of a librarian, like he’s curating, condensing and collating volumes of valuable information and making them available for the public good.”
In a similar vein, Neil Young, writing for Sight & Sound: “The huge canvas becomes an inadvertent self-portrait of this most self-effacing of auteurs, whom one senses entirely shares the NYPL’s noble aims and belief in the power of education, community and hard work. Ex Libris is thus an illuminating, informative and gloriously productive match of artist and subject; Wiseman—now approaching his 89th year—embraces the vast ambition of the NYPL while reveling in its multifarious minutiae. It also feels very much like the defiantly optimistic summing-up of a colossal, unique corpus. But on this evidence there is no ebbing of either patience or fortitude, and further chapters may yet follow.”
Updates, 9/19: “Ex Libris begins with a long excerpt from a book talk with the scientist and secularist Richard Dawkins,” notes Stuart Klawans in the Nation:
Calling for nonreligious people to make themselves heard, Dawkins insists that some ideas are simply not true—the theories of young-earth believers, for example—and must be labeled as such. As for the supposed absence of awe and wonder from atheists’ lives, he says that nothing could be more moving than to contemplate the reality of a living cell, in all its stupefying complexity.
And so, by borrowing Dawkins’s words, Wiseman suggests the terms that will describe the NYPL through the rest of the movie. The institution is thrilling in its complexity and resolute in its service to the truth. The complexity of the library’s operations is, of course, seen everywhere in Ex Libris. But when it comes to the issue of propagating the truth, Wiseman has decided to focus on one fact among all the others that the library addresses: the continuing legacy of slavery.
“I finished the editing two days after the election so the election didn’t guide me,” Wiseman tells Jose Solís at the Film Stage, “but I think Trump did me a great service because everything he represents is the opposite of what the NYPL represents. The library represents democracy, openness, inclusiveness, diversity, educational opportunity regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class. I don’t need to outline what Trump represents. The consequences of Trump’s election underline the importance of the library, which in a sense, not deliberately, represent the opposite of what he is. The library is perhaps the most democratic institution. It’s open to everyone.”
Updates, 10/9: The Chicago Reader’s J. R. Jones grants that “Wiseman is a master editor, capable of sustaining a documentary for two, three, or even four hours, but compared, for instance, to his 1997 masterpiece Public Housing, which also ran about 200 minutes, the new film can feel static and self-indulgent, the work of an octogenarian (born in 1930) who thinks he's earned the right to relax and enjoy himself. Fortunately you can catch 40 winks in a darkened theater and no one will be any the wiser; if you sleep in the library, they'll throw you out.”
“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,” writes Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly. “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.”
“In an early interview for the American Bar Association, Wiseman explained his method,” notes Matthew Wills at JSTOR Daily. “‘There’s no such thing as an “objective” film. I try to make a fair film. By that I mean that the final film is in a sense a report on what I saw and felt in the course of the shooting and editing.’ Many hours of footage are edited down to a few hours of final film that is, he says, ‘subjective, impressionistic, and compressed.’ In an argument for the sociological value of Wiseman’s work, Timothy Jon Curry notes that the filmmaker has a ‘persistent interest’ in ‘power, ideology, values, and the discrepancy between values and behavior.’ Institutions are, after all, collections of individuals, working with and/or against the rules and rituals of particular systems.”
The latest episode of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Close-Up podcast (68’49”) combines two conversations with Wiseman, one conducted in 2006, the other in 2013.
And the New York Public Library presents, on video, a conversation between Wiseman and Errol Morris (81’59”).
Update, 10/30: For Seventh Row, Alex Heeney talks with Wiseman “about the unique challenges presented by the film, his editing process, and how he approaches sound and music in his films.”
Update, 11/13: The people who work at the NYPL are “genuinely interested in helping other people,” Wiseman tells Will Tizard in Variety. “It’s interesting for Europeans to see [the film] because a lot of them have never been to America and all they know about is Trump. And it gives them a sense of another aspect of American life.”