A three-hour documentary about the New York Public Library probably isn’t at the top of your must-see list, but don’t let this film’s length or subject dissuade you from watching. Though its subject is a building and the history within it, the film is a very subtly charming story of people. Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” supplies its audience with a unique journey from a contemporary yet nostalgic perspective. Its completely naturalistic exploration of humanity communicates many substantive ideas beneath the surface.
The documentary is a simply-filmed and modestly-orchestrated compilation of vignettes spanning the numerous branches of the New York Public Library. The feature is interspersed with pedestrian views of the expansive library and seasonal glimpses of the astounding city itself.
Wiseman shows brief fragments in the daily lives of countless patrons and employees of the library. And the anonymity, so present in everyday life, takes on a cinematic expression. The viewer silently spectates people influencing the world, spreading their ideas, working, sleeping, performing, discussing, helping or trying to live meaningful lives; a tragedy, a song, an argument, a political statement or a speech is heard.
There is no tangible narrative but the film does occasionally return to one board of directors of the library, though each subsequent time the viewer wishes they were watching anyone else. “Ex Libris” does not close on a particularly strong note, but it does circle back to its first vignette with this wholesome and honest thought: you can ponder something’s existence, but don’t ignore its creation, for that typically carries a lot of meaning.
One expects very little sound in a documentary about a library, even in New York. However, “Ex Libris” reminds the viewer that there are many voices in this world. There are walls of literature, volumes upon volumes — sometimes you catch the title, sometimes you flip through the pages, sometimes you do not even register the color of the book on the shelf. But each one is unique with its own subject, language and purpose, just like people. Wiseman made New York, and her citizens, the perfect parallel canvas to communicate this idea.
Documentaries are typically either love poems or think pieces. “Ex Libris” manages to be both. It reminds of the wondrous mental orientation, realizing just how much one can accom- plish. Then, the eventual tragic disillusionment that there isn’t enough time and there’s too much information to know it all, too many people in the world to meet them all, too many dreams to reach them all. So, we compartmentalize, we find what interests us and we live our beautifully simple lives holding close the minuscule number of things we choose. And everything else becomes momentary faces or vague titles on a spine, masking immeasurable information.
“Ex Libris” is full of quiet emotion and vocal thought, and offers different interpretations. It is difficult to recommend such a simple film that is also lengthy, but pieces like this are essential — they are so dense with knowledge and ideas that they hold a much-needed truth.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 11 print edition. Email Tristen Calderon at [email protected]