“Ex Libris,” Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the N.Y. Public Library, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center at 2 pm on Sunday, Dec. 3. Best of all, this fascinating film will screen for free, thanks to the M.V. Library Association, the Friends of each of the Island’s libraries, and the M.V. Film Society.
America’s foremost documentary filmmaker, Wiseman turns a perceptive eye on the workings of a revered institution. As it moves through the 21st century, NYPL is in the process of transforming itself to meet the needs of its clients. Who knew what a host of facilities and functions this library provides?
It serves as a magnet for New York’s many communities through its 92 branches. Wiseman, who won an honorary Oscar this year, takes his cameras into 11 of them, illustrating how they address different constituents and needs. One of the more than 30 Bronx branches sponsors a job fair, where “Ex Libris” watches as firemen and a border patrol officer describe the many varieties of employment their fields offer. In Chinatown’s Chatham Square branch, a volunteer helps a woman negotiate a computer.
At the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book branch, a blind volunteer helps a blind patron learn how to read Braille. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosts a reception for black art. At the nearby Macomb’s Bridge branch, local residents air their concerns about misleading information on black history in one educational publisher’s books.
Wherever he points his cameras, Wiseman focuses not just on the NYPL’s administrators and its president, Anthony Marx, but on the people who use the library, listen to its lectures, and enjoy its many ancillary activities. Each speaker receives the film’s full attention.
The big message is that libraries operate as a lot more than storage places for books. Author lectures at the 42nd Street hub include celebrities like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello, as well as many other writers.
Board members discuss how to meet the needs of a city where too many remain in the digital dark without access to the Internet. They consider the public/private dimensions of fundraising. Even the issue of how to accommodate the homeless comes up. Other pressing problems include how to balance research needs with ebook funding.
Starting with “Titicut Follies” in 1967, Wiseman’s shocking depiction of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the director has built his reputation on the examination of institutions. Using a “direct cinema” approach, where the camera functions like a fly on the wall, the director does not utilize captions to identify people or rely on voiceovers. He simply offers reality as it appears on film.
Starting with massive amounts of footage, Wiseman constructs “Ex Libris” with images of the handsome architecture of the 42nd Street building, as well as many other branches. He situates library buildings in the city’s streets and neighborhoods of which they are part. He uses street signs to make transitions, and gives ample play to library interiors — their hallways, stairwells, and lobbies. Even employees setting up for a banquet find their place through the director’s interlacing of employees, activities, and locales.
Part of the pleasure of “Ex Libris” is that it will remind viewers how lucky they are to have the Island’s own libraries. The film’s three hours and 17 minutes may make viewers wish for the old days of intermissions for epics, but “Ex Libris” is worth every minute of its lengthy viewing time.
Island librarians will attend, and refreshments made by West Tisbury library director Beth Kramer will be served. Members of the audience are encouraged to bring nonperishable Food Pantry donations or unwrapped toys for the Red Stocking Fund.
Information and tickets are available for this event as well as other Film Center films at mvfilmsociety.com.