A documentary by Frederick Wiseman. Rating unavailable
Documentary pioneer Frederick Wiseman is not for everyone. But he is for all time. This unobtrusive New Englander has made almost 50 films in as many years, usually as his own lensman, capturing the fly-on-the-wall stuff of ordinary—and sometimes extraordinary—life. Unnarrated vérité movies like 1969’s High School and 1997’s Public Housing may have helped influence the rise of reality TV. Still going strong at nearly 88, Wiseman would be unlikely to recognize his interests coinciding with those of any commercial producers.
He finds a worthy subject in the New York Public Library, one that merits this film’s three-and-a-quarter-hour length. Aside from its massive main building, with those famous stone lions, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, the NYPL employs thousands of people at 87 branches, displaying more than 50 million books, documents, photographs, and other artifacts (including the real-life toys of Winnie-the-Pooh’s Christopher Robin).
Its geography is as dense and well-trafficked as that of any major airport, although most travel is done by mind, and feet. Wiseman certainly wore out his shoe leather at various outposts, especially those in poorer boroughs, where recent infusions of cash (the library functions with a roughly even mix of private and public funding) have enabled the institution to engage with families previously deprived of resources. There’s considerable time spent at the lively Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, an extension in Harlem.
Still, much of the film is taken up within the marble halls of the main branch, with its massive reading rooms, changing displays, and vast archives. There are public visits with well-known figures, generally discussing their new books, and these include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello—with the last-named sharing rare footage of his jazz-singing dad attempting to rock out in the early ’60s on British TV.
We visit rooms devoted to recording audiobooks for the blind, and there is also training in using Braille machines and sign-language performance at theatrical events. And, of course, meetings for the tedious but necessary efforts of administrators to guide such a gigantic ship. Through it all, there’s the awareness that such institutions operate at the mercy of the elite; they generally began as noblesse oblige gestures by robber barons, after all. But this only underlines the precious, and increasingly tenuous, nature of knowledge itself.