Onscreen/Offscreen: Completing the dialectic in Ex Libris

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      1. In theorizing a dialectical approach to film form, Soviet Montage experimentalist Sergei Eisenstein once adamantly proclaimed that “language is much closer to film than painting is.” This counter-intuitive comparison gives primacy not to the analogy of static images as similar to moving images but to the analogy of written phrases as similar to associative montage. Traditional pre-modernist painting depicts its meaning using concrete representations; the form of cinema Eisenstein favours uses an abstract system of symbolism and semiotics similar to the written word. It’s no surprise then that he was an advocate for films that are distinct from traditional narrative. For Eisenstein, shots are concepts and montage is the synthesizing mechanism that binds them together, forming a dialectic in the viewer’s own mind. In his own words, “to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific nature of cinema.”

      2. Documentarian Frederic Wiseman, 87-years-old and a contemporary to D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers—filmmakers that used a fly-on-the-wall camera to capture “life as it is”—has developed one possible solution. A glance at the over 40 films Wiseman made since his debut Titicut Follies (1967)—High School (1969), Hospital (1970), Public Housing (1997), and more recently, At Berkeley (2013) and National Gallery (2014)—reveals the primary subject of his rhetorical practice. His subjects are private and public institutions but his subtextual inquiry is into the abstract notion of capital-I Institution—generalizable studies of the individual’s relationship to power and politics.

      3. Ex Libris: the New York Public Library, now playing at Vancity Theatre, is an elucidation of epistemological processes and a portrait of the many faces of the modern library. With the library—a symbol of liberal civilization which very literally contains its wisdom—the institution Wiseman is interrogating is that of knowledge itself and the means by which it is created, preserved, and disseminated. The film is aware of how truth can be distorted at these three levels of knowledge production. Without the democratization of ideas within a secular democracy (“the Gutenberg Bible is temporarily unavailable for viewing”), the foundation of liberal society might as well have been built on top of loose sand.

      4. On the surface, Wiseman’s film seems like the opposite of what Eisenstein advocated for. The director’s quintessential style is characterized by shots of arduous length, images of bureaucracy, and reliance on the realist qualities of moving images. Nevertheless, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Wiseman is an unexpected heir of Soviet Montage philosophy. Few other filmmakers I can think of have made cinema out of syllogisms.

      5. Since knowledge is created through language, and language, as Eisenstein implied, is a dialectical process that gets to the heart of intersections between race and class, capital and labor—“contradictions of being” in the Soviet’s floral phraseology—it is an optimal point for Wiseman to perform his exegesis and the exegesis of his exegesis. Asked about the politics of his work, poet Yusef Komunyakaa in the film simply declares: “Language is political.” Method is not neutral. Neither is Wiseman’s.

      6. Ex Libris can’t stop talking about itself and particularly about the critical thinking skills necessary for the viewer to transform the film into a functioning and self-sustaining organism. What the political language of Ex Libris asks us to analyze about language is summarized in the film’s final scene. In an artist talk, Edmund de Waal, quoting Primo Levi, explains: “Method is interesting.” He continues: “The value of looking and thinking about how an object comes into being as an idea…The manner of what we make defines us.”

      7. Ex Libris makes the viewer think about how the library’s programming comes into being as an idea. Wiseman’s camera positions us as a consumer and observer of the NYPL, moving us between its network of branches that extend from Manhattan to the Bronx, offering us a tapestry of initiatives as diverse as the regions the libraries are situated within. In turn, these various pedagogical and artistic programs reflect upon the coming-into-being of various societal structures, with events ranging from a lucid and passionate talk about Marxism, a discussion with Elvis Costello about Margaret Thatcher, and a presentation by Ta-Nehisi Coates about the assumptions implied by the term “black-on-black crime”.

      As the film oscillates between these seemingly shapeless sequences to meetings with the NYPL’s directors, we see the reasoning behind the programs as we experience them. For Anthony Marx, the NYPL’s president, the library plays the seminal part of democratizing knowledge necessary to bridge income inequality, which means offering internet and computer access to those who can’t afford it, which means training those who are digitally illiterate, and which most crucially means securing enough funds to pay for all this by luring wealthy private donors.

      8. Ex Libris makes the viewer think about how the film itself comes into being as an idea. The overarching arguments in Wiseman’s work coalesce by gradual induction and in between scenes. Ex Libris is no different. As we move from affluent neighbourhoods to low-income ones, from discussions about politics in the abstract to visual evidence of the effects of these systems of power, the contradictions of being are perceivable in the collision of a thesis with its anti-thesis. We complete the dialectic.

      Conclusion: Ex Libris’ form, a language, is its rhetoric and its politics.