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Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library is the latest in Frederick Wiseman’s formidable series of documentaries that discursively examine institutions. If you thought you knew what happens inside libraries, this latest Wiseman masterwork—which accumulates meaning and resonance as it unfurls—may come as a revelation.
I met recently with the 87-year-old documentarist in an appropriately hushed room in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Constructed of brick and three-foot-thick marble and guarded by stone lions (“Patience” and “Fortitude”), the colonnaded monument (opened in 1911) may be the flagship of New York’s 92 libraries, but that doesn’t make it more important than the others.
On the evidence of Wiseman’s film, the tourists who constantly stop to take selfies in front of the Schwarzman—as inscribed in some of Wiseman’s rueful punctuating shots—would do equally well to pause before some of the city’s more modest branches, which are hives of education and community action.
Be warned: a conversation with Wiseman can turn a corner into the unexpected. Asked to discuss the nature of truth and appearance in Ex-Libris, he suddenly reached back into his memory of shooting a shockingly violent scene for his third film 48 years ago.
Culture Trip: Do you have memories of going to a local library when you were a boy?
Frederick Wiseman: I remember going to the library in Brookline, Massachusetts, with my mother when I was quite young to take out books. I read there a lot and did whatever research one did as a fifth grader. I have quite fond memories of it. But as I grew older and had the means, I bought books and stopped going to libraries. An exception was when I did some research in the Library for Performing Arts a few years after I graduated college.
CT: So you’ve had limited experience of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, where we’re sitting now?
FW: I live in Boston, so I’ve had no occasion to use it except to visit it once as a tourist 40 years before I made the film.
CT: The Dutch architect who appears in the film talks about how the old perception of libraries as repositories of books has changed. You show how the New York Public Library is a dynamic part of the community. But do you think most people still regard libraries as places where one goes to borrow books?
FW: I can’t really generalize about other people. In my ignorance, before I started making the film, I had no idea of the extent to which the New York Public Library, and other libraries as well, have adopted the practices of cultural centers. I was extremely moved and impressed by the degree to which the library has roots in all the communities where it has branches, and the enormous diversity of programs for kids and adults that they offer. They run literally hundreds of courses: language courses, computer courses, how to set up a business. One of the things that makes a great democratic institution is the help it gives people who want to acquire general knowledge or specific knowledge of a subject or a language.
CT: One of the subtexts of the film is class difference.
FW: The library is democratic in the sense that it’s accessible, but, yes, it does suggest class issues. There are considerable differences between the members of the board and the people who use the library, in terms of education, wealth, and power, though not necessarily in ability.
CT: Was the film prompted by the threats to the library’s funding in 2012?
FW: No. The flap was already over. Maybe if I’d been making the film at the time that was going on, I’d have included it. My films are always related to what’s happening in the present.
CT: It was the notion of the library as a democratic institution that interested you?
FW: No, it was simply the idea that the library might make a good subject for a film and would fit into this series of films about institutions I’ve been making.
CT: The Schwarzman is impressive in its architectural heritage. You allow it to speak for itself by showing how the light plays on the creamy yellow walls. Its rarefied atmosphere is contrasted with that of the small branches you visit, which are less traditionally beautiful but tend to have a much greater social energy. It’s very clear from this juxtaposition that libraries serve people in radically different ways.
This relates to what I felt about the end of the film where you show a talk by the artist Edmund de Waal, who among other things mentions the influence of Primo Levi’s “passionate lucidity” on him. It’s a wonderful talk, but I admit I was moved more by a conversation among a group of African-Americans who were discussing their daily struggles at one of the smaller branches in a poor community.
FW: De Waal was talking about the value of creativity and work, and his love of process. It was a talk given in the library that contrasts with the sequences showing the robot class, the after-school math and reading programs, the computer classes for Chinese immigrants, and so on. These are all things I learned about as a consequence of hanging around the library and going to the different branches, particularly the services that are offered to poor people and immigrants who want to make their way and improve their economic position in American life.
I just wanted to show that, on one hand, you had this porcelain artist talking about his work, and then you had a group of African-Americans talking about their struggles and using the library as a meeting place to talk through some of the issues they face. As an impartial observer, one’s natural sympathies go toward the African-American community. One thing I think that’s reflected in the film is the nature of work from both sides of the fence, but they’re not contradictory.
One of the subjects that the movie deals with is the African-American experience and the continued impact of slavery. The library is, in a very direct and concerned way, doing something to help the descendants of slaves in terms of social justice. It also operates programs for Hispanic communities, for the Chinese people in Queens, and people from East Asia in Jackson Heights.
CT: The library’s executive committee gave you a great deal of access to film their meetings about fundraising, how they distribute their resources, and how they maximize their assets. Since a committee like that obviously has to be aware of its reputation, wasn’t there an inherent risk that the members could be performing for the camera, or did you feel they were speaking with complete candor?
FW: I thought there was a complete candor. I like to think I have a good bullshit meter. To me it’s pretty obvious when someone’s playing to the camera and, in my judgment, it happens rarely because if people try to do it’s so apparent you just feel the falseness of it. In the course of making these movies, I’ve recorded such a diversity of human behavior, from great kindness to great cruelty, and everything else in between. We all have our roles, and we don’t have the capacity to jump out of them. If we did, then the range of choice for actors in Broadway and Hollywood would be much greater than it is: the entire population would be candidates. It’s hard to become a good actor and the skill is in becoming somebody else, and if you change your behavior you have to become somebody else. Most people who agree to have their picture taken don’t have the skill to suddenly change their behavior. So it’s not an issue.
I think most of us, myself included, think highly of our own behavior, and we don’t necessarily see it the way somebody else does. So what I may think is appropriate behavior in a given situation may not seem so to you, and I think that’s what goes on in the making of these movies.
The extreme example of that in my films occurred in Law & Order . There’s a scene with a cop with a chokehold on a woman who is accused of prostitution. You could argue that if we hadn’t been there filming, the cop who was choking her would have killed her. To me, it’s apparent from the scene that the cop chokes her because he’s shaping her up to the [Kansas City] police-prostitute system. One of the cops says, “If you get arrested, you come down to the police station, you’ll be fingerprinted and photographed and pay a $50 fine, and you’ll be back on the street in 30 minutes. If you want to be a hooker, be a hooker, but don’t fuck with our boys.”
CT: Doesn’t putting a camera on something automatically change it?
FW: The point I’m making is that I don’t think it does. I don’t think the cop actually would have killed her or treated the woman any differently had I not been there. They treated her that way because they wanted to punish her for knocking an undercover cop downstairs when they arrested her. If they’d wanted to kill her or hurt her more than they did, they would have done. What we see is bad enough. You and I see that scene and we think it’s terrible, and rightly so. I don’t know that the cops thought it through, but they didn’t feel threatened by the camera. They didn’t say to me, “Get out of here,” because they thought what they were doing was the appropriate response to the woman’s behavior. It’s the kind of thing that goes on all the time. We don’t necessarily think somebody else is going to react differently to our behavior than we do.
CT: What was your experience shooting Ex-Libris compared with The National Gallery , another of your films about an august institution?
FW: Every experience is different in the sense that you run into different kinds of people. In each case the staff was extremely accommodating and friendly, but there wasn’t as wide a range of visitors in the National Gallery as there was in the libraries. There are school programs in the National Gallery, but it doesn’t penetrate so deeply into the communities as the library branches do.
CT: The issue raised by the executive committee about homeless people using the library is a thorny one. Anthony Marx [the New York Public Library’s President and CEO] makes the valid point that it’s the city’s responsibility to improve the situation of the homeless, but there is a moral argument that the homeless shouldn’t be turned away from the libraries if they are using it to rest or shelter.
FW: Homeless people are welcome in the library as long as they use it in the same civil way other people do. As a great democratic institution nobody is excluded from it. You don’t have to have an identity card to get in. If you want to borrow books, you have to show residence. But apart from that anybody can sit there all day long, whether it’s a rich person or a college student or a homeless person, as long as they don’t create a disturbance.
CT: When I first came to New York, I used the Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street all the time. One day, I was in an elevator with a man who collapsed and died right there. It was sad, obviously, but I couldn’t help thinking later that there are few places I’d rather die than in a library.
FW: [laughs] Because you like books.
CT: And ending your life seeking knowledge strikes me as worthwhile. I liked the comment of the librarian in charge of the small Macomb’s Bridge Library who says it’s the jewel of the library system. It is as precious as any other branch because of the work it does in the community.
FW: Exactly. It’s in a housing project at 152nd Street [Manhattan]. There’s one guy who says he learned to become a filmmaker from the library. And there’s that whole discussion about—for lack of a better phrase—”mini-discrimination” or “mini-racism.” That library was no bigger. than this room where we’re talking now and yet it’s very important.
CT: I enjoyed the film’s excerpts of talks by Elvis Costello and Patti Smith—equally so the Jewish historian talking about pastrami and salami, and how early Jewish films and art was made in New York delicatessens. He’s very amusing, but it’s great social history. FW: You see several examples in the film: that study group where they’re talking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or the woman [Professor Pamela C. Nogales] at the Jefferson Market branch who’s talking about the history of slavery. I wouldn’t mind taking that course—what she said I found fascinating.
CT: Which of the libraries in the film did you respond to personally?
FW: As I said, I really didn’t know much about the range and scope of the New York Public Library. I was very impressed with the programs in the branches and how they touch the lives of all social classes, whether it’s the Library for the Performing Arts or the library for the blind [the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library] or the employment programs you see offered at the Bronx Library Center. When you see what’s going on in Washington, D.C. at the moment—the library represents everything the Trump administration doesn’t. It’s concerned, it offers programs, it tries to help people with education, knowledge, stimulation, encouragement, and social advancement. I was quite moved by that.
The libraries that appear in the film are as follows: Andrew Heiskill Braille and Talking Book Library, Bronx Library Center, Chatham Square Library, Jefferson Market Library, Jerome Park Library, Library Services Center/BookOps, Macomb’s Bridge Library, Mid-Manhattan Library, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Parkchester Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.