Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Wiseman’


143 minutes | No MPAA rating

In this age of polemical documentarians, Frederick Wiseman is an aberration.

The 88-year-old Wiseman — who gained fame and notoriety with 1967’s “Titticutt Follies,” a harrowing descent into life in a mental institution — is as close to an objective filmmaker as exists.

Basically he records reality, making no comment on what his film captures.

Obviously he must make editorial choices…where to point his camera, when to turn it on and off, what footage to use in the final production, what must be left behind.

In “Monrovia, Indiana” Wiseman turns his lens and microphone on the residents of a rural Midwestern burg. Many a filmmaker would use this as an opportunity to comment on Trump country, to subtly slam or celebrate the blue-collar types who are the backbone of these United States.

Uh-uh. Wiseman is aiming for something deeper than a quick where-we-are glimpse at the political scene. Deeper, even, than capturing the current zeitgeist.

He’s looking for even bigger themes of humanity. Who are these creatures called Americans, and what are their lives like?

“Monrovia, Indiana” opens with a sequence set in a Bible study class. The theme is tribulation.

There’s lunch period at the local high school, followed by a talk and slide show presented by a teacher who recounts the town’s legendary place in the world of basketball (Monrovia is the home of coach JohnWooden, among other honors).

The sequence unfolds in five minutes of real time. It requires patience from the observer…if you look closely you can see some of the kids starting to squirm.

Well, get used to it.  This is Wiseman’s style: He turns on his camera and simply lets it run.


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“EX LIBRIS” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 27 at the Tivoli)

197 minutes | No MPAA rating

Less a conventional doc than a sort of kaleidoscopic love letter to the New York Public Library — and by extension, to all libraries — Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” initially may strike some viewers as a lazy piece of work.

Wiseman’s format is steady and unvarying and, for some, painfully straightforward.

Basically his camera sits in on all sorts of library gatherings, from public forums and lectures to behind-the-scene policy sessions.   Apparently these sequences unfold in real, unedited time, although Wiseman occasionally cuts to a shot of an audience reacting to a speaker.

Typically each sequence runs for three to five minutes. There’s no official beginning or end — we find ourselves plunged into the middle of a discussion about Islam and the 18th century slave trade, then arbitrarily jump to rocker Elvis Costello showing a ’50s performance video of his father, also a pop music entertainer.

We get bits of a talk about Jewish food and its cultural influences, a class where sighted students are learning to read Braille, a book review group discussion of Marquez’ Love in the Year of Cholera, and a disco dance class for senior citizens.

There are well known authors sprinkled here and there — Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example — though Wiseman never identifies them (no narration, no introductory titles).

There’s footage at the library’s telephone information desk where astonishingly well-informed operators steer curious callers to the resources they require (one library employee regretfully informs a patron with a question about unicorns that unicorns are, in fact, imaginary animals). There’s “backstage” footage of conveyor belts delivering thousands of books to the appropriate wheeled carts for delivery.

Nothing tremendously dramatic happens here. But over time — we’re talking three-plus hours — “Ex Libris” delivers one astounding revelation after another. Did you know that the NYPL has the world’s largest circulating free picture file,  folders of photos and artwork that have provided vital research for virtually every major artist to come out of the Big Apple?

We drop by on a library-sponsored job fair, a free piano recital of the compositions of Ned Rorem, and a reading program for grade-schoolers.

Granted, “Ex Libris” may be the year’s least commercial movie, which is not to say that it’s pointless. Just the opposite…in an era of proud numbskulls, it makes the case that a public library — whether as a passive repository of books or as an active disseminator of ideas — is one of the pillars of a democratic way of life.

| Robert W. Butler

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