The Genius of Counter-Programming Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris at Curzon

This is a plea for Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Well, not for the film. As one of the most respected documentary filmmakers in the world, Wiseman doesn’t need anyone to champion his latest feature. No, this is a plea for you to consider watching this magnificent 197-minute film in the middle of a balmy summer’s day. Moreover, on a Sunday when the finals of two major sports tournaments will be played out. 

  Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Ex Libris: New York Public Library

This is also a celebration of counter-programming. Roughly speaking, counter-programming offers audiences something different, the offer of an alternative to a main event – a David to some Goliath. 

  Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Ex Libris: New York Public Library

My first brush with counter-programming came in 1984, when the original version of the sci-fi TV series V was showing on a channel that didn’t have access to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. While millions were held rapt by track and field events in the City of Angels, I held my breath as a reptilian hoard, posing as humans, attempted to take control of the world – represented by downtown LA – with only Faye Grant, Marc Singer, Michael Ironside and their motely gang of rebels to stop them. 

In cinema, counter-programming has seen small independent distributors offering up an alternative to major mainstream releases. For instance, Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s wonderful Taxi Tehran was released at the same time as Spectre in autumn 2015. It didn’t necessarily make a dent in the Bond behemoth’s box office bonanza, but it successfully outlasted the theatrical lifetime of the 24thentry in the spy franchise.

  Taxi Tehran

Taxi Tehran

  Spectre

Spectre

Likewise, Embrace of the Serpent opened in UK cinemas in June 2016, two weeks before Independence Day Resurgence crashed into multiplexes. But it lasted longer than the lacklustre alien invasion, gradually building word of mouth throughout the summer, eventually becoming one of the must-see films of the season.

  Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent

  Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence

However, a monolithic blockbuster is a different beast to the climactic moments of two of this country’s most beloved sports. As we all know, on Sunday afternoon both the World Cup and Wimbledon men’s singles tournament reach their finals. (The equally thrilling Wimbledon women’s singles final takes place on Saturday.) There is no British participation in either any more, but millions will be undiminished in their passion for the games. As they commence, Curzon Soho and Oxford should be around an hour into screening Frederick Wiseman’s riveting account of one of NYC’s most beloved public institutions.

  Central Park

Central Park

  Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

Like his recent features on the National Gallery (2014), Berkeley University (2013), the Crazy Horse club (2011) and Paris Opera Ballet (2009), as well as revered earlier films such as Belfast, Maine (1999), Central Park (1990) and Titicut Follies (1967), Ex Libris finds Wiseman quietly observing the workings of a renowned organisation. It details the everyday activities, from the administrative functioning of this august body and the presence of the millions who use its facilities, to the appearance of guest speakers (Elvis Costello, Patti Smith etc.). As for the film’s length, it isn’t so much a hindrance as it is a necessary way of immersing us in this complex and fascinating world.

  Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Ex Libris: New York Public Library

I don’t expect to convince the most diehard of tennis or football fans to give up such a special afternoon of thrills on the court or pitch. (God knows, if England had made it through to the World Cup final, my decision wouldn’t have been so clear cut.) But for those wondering if there is life beyond sport, a good place to start might be this not-so-local library.

[Words by Ian Haydn Smith, editor of the Curzon magazine]


Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris: New York Public Library shows for one day only at Curzon Soho and Curzon Oxford, 2.15pm Sunday 15 July.

Ian Haydn Smith