Frederick Wiseman has been one of America’s greatest filmmakers for decades, but the evidence of his greatness has been maddeningly hard to come by. While Wiseman’s documentaries, which usually function as collective profiles of institutions ranging from public high schools to mental institutions, have typically gotten theatrical runs in a handful of U.S. cities as well as a single PBS airing, they’ve been prohibitively difficult to see after that, especially online. That changed today, when Wiseman’s Zipporah Films announced today that his entire back catalogue—nearly 50 features spanning the last half a century—will be made available via the streaming service Kanopy, which offers free monthly rentals to library card holders.
It’s an especially apt pairing since Wiseman’s latest documentary, Ex Libris, is about the New York Public Library—and especially since at its core is the tension between providing a wide range of services to a wide range of patrons with vastly different needs and maintaining the “public-private partnership” that allows the institution’s continued existence. The movie feels newly relevant in the wake of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s plan to start charging admission to out-of-state visitors, replacing the formerly suggested donation with a mandatory bar to entry. As the digital divide yawns, libraries are taking huge strides towards digitizing their collections and putting resources online, as well as providing public forums for the sharing of information, whether it’s an author talk or a job fair.
Over nearly three and a half hours, Ex Libris takes its audience to dozens of the NYPL’s branches, and it illustrates just how massive a civic institution’s reach, both literal and figurative, can be. When Wiseman’s work finally becomes available to a wider audience, they’ll discover the same is true of his movies.
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