—Frederick Wiseman’s voluminously fascinating documentary “Ex Libris” is ostensibly about the New York Public Library system and its many branches, but, like all of this 87-year-old director’s best work, it’s about a great deal more than its stated subject.
Since 1967, with “Titicut Follies,” Wiseman has looked deeply into the lives of the people who regulate and inhabit metropolitan hospitals, domestic violence crisis centers, dance companies, art galleries, state legislatures, public colleges, meatpacking plants, zoos, high schools, boxing gyms, welfare offices, juvenile courts, and so much more.
He does not tell us how to think about what he puts before us. There are no off-screen or on-screen interviewers in his films, no identifying labels to guide us, no tacked-on music soundtrack. Without any overt editorializing on his part, he and his longtime cinematographer, John Davey, want us to comprehend these institutions as repositories of experience. The slow accretion of detail in his films is essentially novelistic. They offer up a full-scale immersion in the human comedy.
I have been writing about Wiseman in these same terms for so long that at this point, I fear sounding generic. But it’s not my fault that he has been so consistently first-rate over a span of more than 40 films. I don’t know any other living director, of fiction or nonfiction films, who has created a comparable body of work. And I don’t know of any other director who has made so many exceptional films well into his 80s.
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