“Ex Libris: New York Public Library” is a three-hour, 17-minute documentary that does, indeed, look at the New York Public Library system.
Major snooze, right?
Well, yeah. But then again, not really.
True, the legendary documentary director Frederick Wiseman (“In Jackson Heights,” “National Gallery”) lets things drone on a bit longer than he likely should have here (and by the way, such a statement is blasphemy in film critic circles, so revered is Wiseman).
There are a few too many administrative meetings, more community outreach projects than needed and one or two of the author-speaker interviews could be trimmed (although arguably the film’s unexpected highlight has author Elvis Costello screening a clip of his father singing “If I Had a Hammer” with a British big band).
Still, Wiseman, the master of the fly-on-the-wall observant documentary, delivers a compelling look at a sprawling behemoth of information delivery that is undergoing radical change as it struggles to adapt to the digital age. In truth, actual hand-held, made-with-paper books are only intermittent players in the film, as they’ve become intermittent players in the modern library.
Wiseman’s quiet camera observes endless meetings as unnamed library officials worry about how to deal with the system’s public/private financing, how to handle homeless people who come to the libraries to sleep and where to allocate resources. He flits from famous author-speakers at the library — Costello, Patti Smith, Richard Dawkins — to the more obscure (a guy expounding on the importance of 20th-century Jewish delis).
And he tirelessly wanders the halls of the libraries, dropping in on blind students learning braille, seniors in a dance class, students looking at massive photographic archives and countless patrons hunched over library-owned laptops — researching, reading or just playing games.
No one is named, unless someone happens to mention them. Jobs are not described, functions are not clarified. There is no narration or even apparent direction. Yet Wiseman serves up an often-stirring portrait of a massive institution and community center dedicated to the unbiased dissemination of information, a huge collective hive of intelligence and activity.
It’s fascinating, if overlong. “Ex Libris” is the kind of film that makes you realize what wonders we too often take for granted, and how much work and passion go into such wonders. It could be more pointed, but it certainly has a point.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Ex Libris: New York Public
Running time: 197 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre