In Ex Libris, Frederick Wiseman explores the inner workings of the New York Public Library. This is one of many films Wiseman has made over the years that have looked closely at public institutions. He has directed documentaries about museums, ballet companies, universities, hospitals for the criminally insane, schools and courts. In the film, one character observes that libraries are not about books, they’re about people. The same could be said of most of the other institutions Wiseman has focused on in his documentaries. “My approach is the same, in that the technique from which the film is derived has remained the same over the years,” the director says.
Even Wiseman’s most enthusiastic admirers have been known to grumble at the length of his documentaries. (Ex Libris – The New York Public Library clocks in at three and a half hours.) “They have every right to grumble. It’s a matter of taste. I feel I have an obligation to the people who’ve given me information and are in the film to make a film that accurately represents my response to the subject matter.”
The director remembers earlier in his career being contacted by CBS, who’d seen his film Basic Training (1971), about basic training in the army. It was the middle of the Vietnam War and the American TV network wanted to show the film. CBS representatives told Wiseman how much they loved it, but said they would need to cut it from 89 minutes to just under an hour. He refused to let them do so. “If you liked it, one of the reasons you liked it was because of what it dealt with in the length I made it,” he told them. “It would be a completely different film at 58 minutes.” That has been his attitude ever since. His films vary in length from 72 minutes to 6 hours, and he wants them to be shown just as he made them.
Don’t expect Wiseman to fill his film with intertitles or voice-over explanations either. In Ex Libris, some very well-known figures – Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins among them – are seen at the library. He doesn’t name them. He cites the example of his film La Danse (2009) on the Paris Opera Ballet. “People who know the dance world know the stars who are dancing. For people who don’t know the dance world, it doesn’t make any difference. The dancers should be judged on the performances you see in the film.” Besides, if he started naming the characters, he wouldn’t know where to stop. If he named the dancers, should he then name everyone else in the corps de ballet too? “What about the orchestra conductor? What about the soloist? The screen would get very crowded. So I don’t do it.”
As ever, Ex Libris is a film discovered in the editing. Wiseman shot 150 hours or so of material, then winnowed it down. “I am on a search for the movie,” he says. “The whole idea of the editing is to impose a form on the material.” The process can take a year or more. “I find the editing completely absorbing. I get very involved in it.” As for how he chooses his subjects, that is very straightforward. “I basically try to do things that I like to do or interest me and that I want to try out.”