Ex Libris: The New York Public Library Screen 95 of 15 reviews

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

2017

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library Poster
  • As the film unwinds, we are lead away from the surface level interactions and into the nebulous coalition of influencers that hold the whole public library project together. By the end of Ex Libris, the need for racist histories to be confronted specifically on the cultural level overwhelm the film, linking the various strands that Wiseman has spent the first two-thirds unfurling gracefully.

  • It’s radical in its own way, a kind of calculated passivity that exposes the political implications of everyday life. Once again, he ends the film with a beautiful piece of art, this time music—a tendency that can either be construed as optimistic or resigned. It’s the punctuation at the end of that fill-in-the-blank sentence, but whether it’s a period or a question mark is up to you.

  • It feels like every new Wiseman film is some sort of culmination of a lifelong Wiseman obsession — 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.

  • One of the mysteries of Ex Libris: New York Public Library is how a movie almost entirely consisting of people sitting around talking on library grounds manages to feel urgent and invigorating... There is a quiet kind of wonderment in Wiseman's latest—at the variety of modes of human expression, at the volume of the records of that expression.

  • Wiseman inundates us with the kinds of mundane details another filmmaker might take for granted. Everyone knows what goes on in a library, right? Yet it’s funny what happens when, at Wiseman’s insistence, we begin to pay attention. 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. You, in the audience, become one of them. And you walk away all the better for it.

  • In a less patient, more conventional film, these would just be glimpses. Ex Libris, however, is 197 minutes long; Wiseman loves to let his sequences go on and on. But he also knows better than anybody just how long he can keep us engaged, and as a simple viewing experience, Ex Libris is spellbinding. Wiseman makes us feel like we’re there, watching full thoughts expressed at the casual pace of real life.

  • ...In his magnificent new documentary, Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into those same halls as well as into more humble city branches. He sweeps into atriums and down corridors, pauses in reading and meeting rooms, and lays bare this complex, glorious organism that is the democratic ideal incarnate. It is an ideal that emerges piecemeal in a movie that starts with a declaration of independent thinking and closes on an exultant and deeply moving self-reflexive note.

  • It's overwhelmingly stimulating, suggesting a college course and a guided tour that have been wedded together as a work of prismatic humanist art... Wiseman's un-emphatic editing... exhibits a willingness to survey each person and corresponding action with the same lucid dignity. This filmmaker is a portraitist of ideals, of the insidious inspirations and nightmares that enable and undermine them, and, implicitly, of the political waves that have yet to balance this duality of first-world life.

  • Shot in 2015 but edited through the 2016 election, Ex Libris comes at a desperate time for advocates of knowledge, teaching, literacy, historical analysis and positive community building—the very things for which Wiseman suggests the New York Public Library is a bastion... What Ex Libris so brilliantly does is sketch the entirety of a system that has been built—and is evolving—to improve the future.

  • It's 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 revelling 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.

  • Wiseman gives the last word to the artist Edmund de Waal, citing Primo Levi: “Method is interesting,” he says. “The value of looking and thinking about how an object comes into being as an idea…The manner of what we make defines us.” By these measures, the subtle and authoritative Ex Libris stands as the most diligent and the most cogent political film of the year.

  • Wiseman is constantly finding solutions for how to represent such ideas—and thinking itself—and in Ex Libris, he even has fun portraying the experience of reading, most amusingly in a breathy audiobook recording session of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark... Above all, Ex Libris reaffirms Wiseman as an essential American artist of our time, and, in an era of crumbling institutions and cratering civic awareness, an exemplary observer and thinker.

  • The movie’s air of 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. Despite its celebration of cultural treasures, there’s little sense that much of the best art is made by people too wild or disreputable to spend time in libraries, even if their work ends up there long after they’re dead.

  • This is not one of Wiseman’s most meticulously structured recent works... But the film’s boundless enthusiasm for the idea of the library wins the day. “Ex Libris” portrays the New York Public Library system, and by extension all such systems, as a benevolent force in public life, pushing back against anti-intellectual attitudes, breaking down social barriers, and fostering a sense of community in a time of technologically induced loneliness and narcissism.

  • Wiseman peeps in on a senior citizen dance group, on live on-stage interviews with the likes of Elvis Costello and Laurie Anderson, and on many, many staff meetings in which budget details, for example, are hammered out and worried over by the minute and the hour. Wiseman wants to know how the world works, and with his inquisitive eyes and ears, he serves as a guide for us, too. Boring meetings are a fact of life, but they can be acorns of sorts, from which mighty oaks may grow.

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