"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

FUTURE OF CINEMA IF YOU WANT TO KNOW – Ex Libris. The New York Public Library (Interview with Frederick Wiseman)

Sunday, 26 November 2017 12:38


My loving of books



Ex Libris seems different from your other works, as your own presence is embedded in the very structure of the film. It is as if you were enjoying finding your bearings in the books, tracing your life back, putting together pieces of your past works...


Well, it’s more self-reflexive than any other film. Particularly in the beginning and in the ending..


The film starts with a sort of statement, as if you were declaring the books the opposite of religion and faith. If you visit a church or any other religious space you are there to pray, but if you visit a library it’s for learning, searching, finding..

You are the first audience of your movies...


I do what the guy is talking about at the end of Ex Libris. What I mean is that you always build bridges, create a community...

Well, at least I try to do so.


The structure of Ex Libris differs from your previous films focused on institutions or on a single place, as here the books are spaces that you open with the help of image and sound. We are in a library and, when a dialogue starts, we are moved into another time and space.


Yes, but this film is different also because the subject matter is different. The subject matter of a library offers the opportunity to deal with the ideas that you’re talking about. On the contrary, the subject matter of a hospital allows me to deal with different ideas. So, it’s not so much that I’m changed, as it is my response to the material I am filming. For example, in Law And Order it would have been impossible to deal with the same ideas that I deal with in a library.


The idea of self-reflexivity was also in National Gallery, the last painting you show it’s a sort of a mirror.. Though I wonder if here it’s the idea of library itself to give to people this kind of state of self-reflection.


Well, it allows people to reflect but also allowed me to reflect. Because I could use things that people said as a reflection of my own interests


biblioteca / libraryIs it after shooting Ex Libris that you’ve found connections with your previous works?


Yes, most of it occurred to me afterwards, when I had time to think about it. During the shooting there’s no time to think. During the shooting I had no idea that I’d open the film with Richard Dawkins... Before I arrived to that, I tried out maybe four or five other beginnings.


Did you look for writers like Burroughs or Ginsberg, whom were familiar to you since your youth, or did you film the books first, and only later decided to use them?


Yes, I had several other options, but I used Burroughs with Yeats, they are two extremes.


For us Italians it’s kind of unlikely to have a public library that is a sort of “public-private” actually. That must be normal for you Americans...


Well, it’s only that way financially and in its administration. It’s not private in the sense that is a private place where only people who give money can go... The board that you can see just at the end of the film, they have the legal power to hire and fire the director. But they also have to listen to what the City wants, because it contributes with money. I think that also the major is a member of the board ex officio.


It’s also interesting this project they have of connecting people on the Internet...


That’s a project of the library, I don’t know who initiated it, whether it was initiated by the library staff or by the board members. My guess is that it was initiated by the library staff, but it could go either way. There is one sequence towards the end of the film when they’re in a meeting talking about the strategy. The woman with gray hair who is actually in charge of fundraising, she says: “we don’t want board members to come to us with ideas that we have to implement simply because they’re giving us money. We want to use their money for ideas that we think are important”. So, that’s part of the political strategy of dealing with rich people. And I think that in the past, 30-40 years ago, if a rich member of the board came to the library and said “why don’t you do this and I’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars”, they would do it. But now what she’s suggesting is that it must be part of the overall strategy. If it’s an idea that fits into that strategy, well good, but if it’s an idea that doesn’t fit into it, they try to talk the donor out of it.


Watching Ex Libris we see a completely different world compared to that of the people in the South and in other places of the US where, in the last months, they wanted to tear down the statues of Robert Edward Lee or Colombo. It’s a radically different approach to past and to history.


It’s an interesting thing, because they are not suggesting to take out of the library the biographies or the books about Rober E. Lee... it’s not quite the same thing. There is an acceptance that intellectual heritage has to contain conflicting ideas. Nobody is saying that the paintings of Gaugin or Courbet or Balthus should come out of the libraries even if they’re controversial, but they’re saying that Harvey Weinstein should go to jail, which I think he should... I don’t know why, it’s a very interesting question.


Your movie is not about the past, actually when we open a book or we go to a library we are in the present. When they attack the statues they are thinking of the past.


Well, they’re thinking of the past but they’re also thinking that the past is present, because it glorifies Robert E. Lee, who represents slavery. He fought for the existence of slavery. And slavery is obviously the great stain on American life. So, the reacting is to the symbolism of the statues and the suggestion that Robert E. Lee is still admired. And they would say, “you wouldn’t put a statue of Hitler up in Germany or in America”. I understand the issue, I don’t know how I feel about it. Because, on the one hand, I feel that you should be able to tolerate the expression of any view, any view should be allowed to be expressed. On the other hand, with a statue it’s different...


These things can be controversial... When the film discusses Islam and slavery, for example, the guy says “we are told that Islam and slavery are connected while it is not like that, it’s not true”. In that moment during the screening that a man left the theatre with a very annoyed look...


And the speak was saying that the Imam of Islam fought slavery in reality. I hadn’t really thought much about whether people should have the same liberty to put up a statue in a park or to have a book in the library, but the difference is that you are forced to look the statue in a park, while a book is on a shelf and nobody forces you to read the book or to take it off the shelf. So it’s not really the same thing. I can see that you could be opposed to a statue but have no right to be opposed to a book.


Is Ex Libris, maybe together with Belfast, Maine, a film where you feel at home? As if you were at your place more than any previous film?


I never thought on a comparative basis, but it’s true that I felt at home. Either way... I’ve never felt uncomfortable with any other subject, because it’s always very interesting, always new. Being in a library and seeing what went on there was as new experience for me as being with the police or being in an emergency ward of a hospital because I had never done that. I mean, I’ve been to a library but 40 or 50 years ago and libraries where very different then. 70 or 80 years ago I’d go to the library with my mother and get a children’s book. And then I used the library when I was at the university to do research, but I graduated at the university in 1951, and I hardly have been in a library since.


The film has two different titles: Ex Libris and New York Public Library. This doesn’t happen very often, usually there is one title only.


That’s right.


So when I say that you seem to feel at home, I think more about Ex Libris...


Yes, Ex Libris represents my books. My loving of books.


It looks like editing this film was more fun than previous works, because you could take many directions… in the sense of Ex Libris… I mean, you describe the New York Public Library, as much as the high school or other institutions you’ve filmed, but here we have the libris that allowed to you to take so many other directions. This is why I think that you had fun in putting the man from the US army… I remember you made same kind of jokes in Central Park..


Yes, that’s in part a joke, in part to suggest many other aspects of society, and it’s also linked to the other films.


Not because you wanted to go back to your previous films, but because the subject allowed you to do that.



It’s important to clarify that Fred Wiseman didn’t want to make a “Nouvelle Vague” film in the sense of quoting other sequences of his past films, but the subject Ex Libris allowed Fred Wiseman to find pieces of other films, pieces of his life. For example, the girl that asks about the Jews from Asia, or the ads from the ‘40s about the Jewish sandwich, and then Ginsberg...


Also the reference to Primo Levi!


There is a sort of personal life trajectory embedded in the structure of the film.


Certainly some aspects of my life, yes.


But not because you wanted to talk about you! It is as if you wanted to tell the audience that in a library you don’t just find Dante or Yeats or Ginsberg, you find pieces of yourself, of the books, of the past, of your family...


Yes, it’s more specific than in any other movie, but it’s true of all movies. Because it’s me that makes the selection!


Of course, you choose things that you feel are important or interesting...


Yes. With the library movie the opportunity for a wider selection is present. But necessarily any movie that anybody makes is a reflection of the way they think or their interests. Ex Libris gave me a greater opportunity to do that, the same is true for National Gallery, probably in a more abstract and less specific way.


But, in other ways, also for Boxing Gym and Crazy Horse!


Well yes, but in Boxing Gym and Crazy Horse there was a narrower choice of material to suggest that interest. They suggest something that really interested me a lot, but it doesn’t have the same range of associations that Ex Libris or the National Gallery have. It’s more concentrated around the relation between people and animals and violence, the forms of expression and control of violence, which is a big subject but it doesn’t touch as many different themes as Ex Libris.


You know that I don’t look at your cinema as political or social...


But you can, it’s alright!


So, can we say that In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris express your points of view on the America of today, in stark opposition to Trump’s vision of an America of the past? You show that in New York, a highly symbolic place in America, there is diversity in terms of cultures, languages, etc...so these people’s crazy ideas cannot be true.


Yes, it’s completely the opposite. For a lack of a better word, it’s the good side of America. And it’s also the historical side of America. Trump does represents a strain that has always existed in American life, I mean it’s not new, the nationalism and so on. If you look at what was going on in America in the ‘20s for example, Harding and Hoover, there was a strong turn against immigrants in those days. During the ‘30s there was a catholic priest that every Sunday made an anti-semitic speech on a national radio program, father Coughlin. So Trump is nothing new, what’s new is that he’s president, that someone with his views is president. And the Republican party so cowardly used him to accomplish things like cut taxes for rich people and take away health system for poor people. Anyway, I agree with you, you’re right.


You show people that everyday’s America, in the library or in areas like Jackson Heights, is completely different and goes in the opposite direction compared to Trump’s America.


Yes, and also represents the best part of America and of the American tradition, and Trump won’t be able to suppress it. Ex Libris is a very political film, but Trump made it more political. It would have been less of a political film if Obama was still president. It wouldn’t be able to make this obvious contrast between what the film represents and what Trump represents.





Si ringrazia per la collaborazione Lucrezia Ercolani.



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