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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on August 15, 2018

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue [a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004] and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditorium with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performance in auditorium but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator check the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male works working on a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the |New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing [with liberalism] vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping Afro-American user at a desk. This points up, [as do other parallels], that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way.: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of Afro-American women at a branch [Queens I think]. They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an Afro-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. . In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The management are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviours was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound [August 2018] review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries,.

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