Friday, October 27, 2017

Appellate Court Hearing on View-Blocking Brooklyn Bridge Park Development: Who Knew What And When As A Community Needed Protection? (In the audience Mr. Gutman nods.)

Outside after Friday, the 20th Appellate Court argument: Center background in suit and blue shirt Hank Gutman member of the defendant Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, Center in trench coat Otis Pratt Pearsall who sought protection for views from the Promenade, foreground in red tie Steven Guterman who started plaintiff Save The View Now organization to object to view-blocking Pierhouse hotel/residential complex being oversized.
Friday, the 20th, there was an Appellate Court argument on Monroe Place about whether the already mostly constructed “bulky Pierhouse hotel/residential complex in Brooklyn Bridge Park” should be reduced in size because it is 30 feet taller than the view plane height limit negotiated with the community in 2005.   Technically, the hearing was about whether the community group Save The View Now was within the statute of limitations when it brought its lawsuit.  In bigger picture terms, the discussion and questions being asked by the judges involved who knew what when in terms of protecting the community from the encroachment that now blocks the iconic view of the Brooklyn Bridge the public previously enjoyed when visiting the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

It was explained to the court by a lawyer defending the development and the quasi-governmental Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation that oversaw it that there were decisions to alter the building by putting additional (view-blocking) mechanical equipment on top of it because of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City as Superstorm Sandy October 29, 2012.

When after that was it that, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation made the decision and was the building’s taller height ever made official with any sort of publicly released and available approval document?  That did not appear clear from any response to the judge’s questions.  And, presuming something like that actually happened, when it was incumbent upon members of the public to notice that the assured height limit negotiated in 2005 was being cast aside so that the public needed to take action to protect itself.

One thing I found particularly interesting during the hearing arguments of the lawyers for the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and the developer (Toll Brothers) was to watch Hank Gutman (Henry B. Gutman).  Although sitting in the audience, Hank Gutman tends to be very much a central player:
    •    Mr. Gutman is on the board of the  Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, which, with him there, has been promoting maximum development within the “park” for some time now.

    •    Mr. Gutman is also a trustee on the Brooklyn Public Library board, which has been promoting sale of its libraries to turn them into redevelopment projects, like the Brooklyn Heights Library sale benefitting developer David Kramer and his Hudson Companies (plus also benefitting Kramer’s architect, Marvel Architects, the same firm working on and doing the calculations determining how tall the Pierhouse Building would be.)

    •    Mr. Gutman was also on the board of the Brooklyn Heights Association (having also been an officer there too) until the beginning of 2011 when he resigned in protest over a lawsuit the neighborhood brought against improper development in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

    •    Lastly, Mr. Gutman (along with a fellow BBPC trustee also involved in pushing library sales, David Offensend) was one of the first to buy condos in the extra-tall Pierhouse building that was the subject of the litigation.  In theory, any applicable law was interpreted such that the trustees’ purchase of apartments was not considered a breach of ethics.
What was interesting to watch about Mr. Gutman was the way he was nodding his head affirmatively to help communicate to the court that everyone knew that the building was going to be extra tall, so much taller than originally expected.  `Did the community know?’  Gutman nodded his head.  `The Brooklyn Heights Association knew?’: This was when the fellow in the chair immediately in front of Gutman swiveled around happily excited to confer with the nodding Gutman.  That man looked like a lawyer; you know, the briefcase, the suit, the haircut, etc.  Gutman is a lawyer too.
Nodding Mr. Gutman was first out of the court house.
The nodding, or subtle gestures to hopefully communicate with the court, is typical and permitted courtroom decorum.  Members of the audience are not supposed to actually talk or be disruptive, but, like a public hearing, you sort of hope that maybe you’ll have a lot of people on your side of the case in the court room and that subtle facial expressions during the arguments will get picked up upon. . . .  Then there is the subject of chuckling (sometimes absurdities will provoke that reaction in you if you don’t want to actually cry): The United States Justice Department is prosecuting a woman who chuckled during a United States Senate hearing when it was asserted that the record of racial discrimination by Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions was a “clear and well-documented” record of “treating all Americans equally under the law.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced and kicked out of the Senate Chamber for attempting to introduce facts that would have set the record on this straight.

I was fascinated by how firm and opinionated Mr. Gutman seemed to be about how everybody knew what they supposedly knew.  I remember back to February 3, 2015 when the there was a vote by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Advisory Committee (CAC) calling for a halt to the building’s construction.  The CAC is supposed to be comprised of members from the community to represent it and is supposed to exist to help keep track of what is happening with respect to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The CAC that night voted for a halt in construction partly based on the fact that the CAC had not been informed of how the building would be extra tall blocking the views that were supposed to be protected.  The CAC may have no actual powers, but at the meeting the BBPC described the CAC as the “primary vehicle for communicating with the public.”
Brooklyn Eagle coverage of the CAC vote meeting attended by a public very upset about the oversized development.

At the meeting the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation representatives provided their explanation of how the building had become so extra tall.  What I remember asking myself and listening carefully for at that meeting was what the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation board knew and approved.  That’s the BBPC board that Mr. Gutman is on.  It seemed to me that violating the agreed upon view protections, something so important to the community, something giving so much extra benefit to the developer in terms of extra building rights, was something that the BBPC board should have approved. . . What did the BBPC board know and when?  - It would seem that in a rational world the board should have had to debate and formally approve it.  I didn’t hear anything about that.

Instead, I heard the most obfuscatory explanations about how the much bigger building just sort of happened at staff level, ostensibly for a conglomeration of strange and obscure technical reasons.  I quote:
When you are dealing with height, height should be a very easy thing to understand, but when you are dealing with a building’s it’s more complicated to understand, which involves a question of where are you measuring from and where are you measuring to?  One of the questions I like to bring up on that is with respect to One Freedom Tower and, is it the tallest building in America or not.  Do you count the spire as height?  There are a lot of questions. . . .[the public audience got impatient at this point and started complaining volubly] . .

     . .  So we got questions from developers about where do you start counting from and where do you count to?  And we went to the ESDC [the Empire State Development Corporation, the nominal state authority parent of the city-controlled BBPC, an obscure quasi-governmental authority famous for having the freedom from being exempt from rules and getting to make them up instead.  The exemption enjoyed by ESDC and BBPC as its nominal subsidiary includes exemption from the standards of NYC zoning and NYC’s normally applicable ULURP process for public review]  A construct that ESDC uses for a lot of project plans is that whenever you have project plan those project plans are specific, and then you have a design attached to them. The general plan you have for Brooklyn Bridge Park, as you saw, is actually very general, and people have had problems with people asking questions that are not covered in the general project plan.  And what they have done in order to deal with that discrepancy is that in those cases they would defer to the local zoning plan [from which they are exempt].  The project plan does not actually say what the hundred feet is or where you measure it to.  Let’s look at how the New York City zoning code answers those two questions, and then the New York City zoning code there is a height restriction and there are lots of ways to calculate .
One would think that in order to implement the agreement with the community about preserving views, one would naturally look first and foremost to the BBPC's overall basic project plan for the building.  That plan had no need to be subject to any limiting constraints, but the BBPC representative went on to explain how BBPC instead chose to go outside the project plan to refer to NYC zoning (to which it was not subject) to pick a higher-up starting point to measure the building (referring to the floodplain calculations) and also allow things like “basically mechanical things, back of generators, HVAC equipment, elevator overrides, things like that . . to exceed height restrictions.”  He said, they then told developers they could exceed the height limitations these ways, “having got that instruction from ESDC.”

Thereafter when Superstorm Sandy happened, the BBPC representative said things got even worse for the community in terms of the building’s extra height.  The representative explained, floodplain elevations were changed to raise the building up higher “and that changed all the math that was involved.”  That extra elevation for the starting point at the bottom of the building was additional to the other changes blamed on Sandy at the court hearing about moving view-blocking mechanicals to the roof to make it taller at its top.  Naomi Klein warns us about “disaster capitalism”: When disasters strike, the monied interests take advantage of those disasters in self-serving ways.

The logic of these calculations didn’t go by unchallenged when they were explained at that February 3, 2014 CAC meeting: Local community activist Tony Manheim said that given that the BBPC project plans "trump" New York City zoning when desired, “It’s a little bit disingenuous to take advantage of avoiding New York City zoning when it’s convenient to do so and then cherry pick zoning practices to allow the exceeding of height limitations by bulkheads which somehow seem to also include a bar and café.”

The Sandy related changes that made the building still bigger were, according to the ESDC representative, being made until September 2013.  If construction of the building started in summer of 2013 as was stated at the court hearing, that would mean that Sandy related design changes were being made even after construction started.  At the hearing it was discussed that people in the community were first beginning to notice that the building was getting too tall in September 2014.  The plaintiff organization Save the View Now was formed because of this in December of 2014.

Mr. Gutman’s nodding of his head doesn’t necessarily indicate anything beyond that fact that he wanted the court to rule that the community knew and that Brooklyn Heights Association knew about the extra large size of the building at times early enough to cause the statute of limitation impediments the team of development supporting attorneys were arguing should defeat the case.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr. Gutman (a BBPC board member), or the BBPC board knew at these or these (or other even earlier) times of the building’s extra large size.  (Rather than it being just the BBPC staff engaging in technical interpretation somersaults).  But it makes me wonder and sort of gives me that feeling that this was pretty much the case. . . .

. . . And if that is so, I have to ask: Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation is a governmental entity endowed with enormous governmental power- Doesn’t it thereby stand to reason that it owes a responsibility to the public to be absolutely clear, and should clearly alert the public when it is not planning to honor an agreement about protecting an important identified and agreed to public interest?  Is the BBPC entitled to play cat and mouse games about what it is doing?

Notwithstanding Mr. Gutman’s head nodding, it was not until very late in the game that public really figured out or knew what was going on.

At the hearing the development defending attorneys argued that the community reacted to the size of the building with “Rip Van Winkle” tardiness.  It was asserted that community had “inquiry” notice, “constructive” notice, and “actual” notice of the bigger building and the mechanicals “above the roof of the building.”  Leave it to lawyers to come up with assertions involving such parsed out multiplicities.   There was no assertion of “information gotten by pulling teeth” notice, “cat and mouse game triumph” notice, or “able to decipher technological gobbledygook” notice.  I also heard no direct explanation of what notice the Community Advisory Committee, the BBPC’s “ the “primary vehicle for communicating with the public,” got when it believes it got no notice and that instead the BBPC “dribbled out” information in a way that was deliberately intended to be uninformative.

It was even hinted that maybe notice letting the public know didn’t even matter: A development lawyer made the dodgy assertion that the “view was improved” by the project.  It was affirmatively asserted there was no stealth or concealment on the part of BBPC.

Respecting the Brooklyn Heights Association the argument was particularly interesting.  The lawyers defending the development’s size argued that by virtue of a December 2011* letter from BHA President Jane McGroarty that referred to an acceptable height for the building that was “exclusive of mechanical equipment” the record showed that Brooklyn Heights Association, the “the dominant civic organization” of a community of what was “not a bashful community,” had notice and was aware and was not objecting to the ultimate height of the building.

    (* Hank Gutman had left the BHA board earlier that year.)

Really?  Is that a good argument?  December 2011 was nearly a year before Superstorm Sandy and the cascade of rejiggering alterations with all the “math” involved changing (concluding September 2013) that, among other things, put an unexpected and atypical amount of extra stuff on the building’s roof making it taller.

There is other stuff we could brawl about here like what people are referring to the “bulkheads” being permitted on top building.  If you think you know buildings “bulkheads” might sound relatively innocuous and if you Google images of “bulkheads” for examples, the small slant-roofed minimalist protrusions you’ll see are not likely to suggest to you what has been constructed atop this building under the “bulkhead” rubric. .  including, as Tony Manheim put it, “a bar and café” ?
Crowd lingers to analyze after the hearing. Plaintiff attorney Jeff Baker on highest steps.
 This article is not intended to parse the exact legal arguments that forayed into the field at the Friday appellate court hearing, nor analyze the relative strength of the arguments and why certain arguments should perhaps logically prevail.  This musing over the situation is more for the purpose of giving a general feel for what is happening and the overall context in which it is taking place.
Closer up: Plaintiff attorney Jeff Baker on steps, Steve Guterman in red tie.
Will the appellate judges issue an order that could result in 30 feet being removed from the top of the unexpectedly tall view-blocking building?  People find that outcome startling to imagine, but it is absolutely within the judges' power to do so, although situations of this type presenting precedent are rare.  And, as counsel for the plaintiffs told the court, the defendants knowingly proceeded to build at their own risk.

The judges by their tone and skepticism seemed to at least consider that the community was likely treated badly.  But when do judges these days ever decide against the money?  One thing we might expect is something we have seen before in these situations: An opinion that scolds the BBPC and public development officials (including its board?), but then protects the monied interests from lose of their ill gotten gains despite such a judicial upbraiding.
This was in the first posting of Save The View Now December 31, 2015 to alert the community about the building's height.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Scandals: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump- One! Harvey Weinstein- Two! Bill de Blasio Library Pay-To-Play Scandal- Three?

If you have been catching up with the news recently you know about the scandals involving Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.  . .

Vance's office was ready in 2012 to prosecute Ivanka, the daughter of Donald Trump and her husband Jared Kushner for real estate fraud, “allegedly duping prospective buyers in a failed Manhattan project dubbed Trump Soho” (a violation of the Martin Act).  Reportedly, against his staff's recommendations (and despite some damn good email evidence), Vance did not prosecute.  His receipt of campaign contributions was involved. . .   Now under the spotlight, Vance just gave back money, a $31,000 donation from Father (Donald) Trump's lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, he took in 2013 after dropping the case.  Another $9,000 from employees at Kasowitz’s law firm and $9,000 more raised at a breakfast hosted by Kasowitz was not returned.

That's one scandal!

Then there is the case of movie production mogul Harvey Weinstein whom a slew of women have now accused of sexual assault and harassment.  Vance made a decision not to prosecute Weinstein in 2015.  His decision not to prosecute was despite an very damning police sting audio tape that documented his harassment of an Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in a Manhattan hotel.

Again, Vance's receipt of campaign contributions was involved.  . . The lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, who helped Harvey Weinstein avoid charges (Vance's former law partner) reportedly donated $26,550 in campaign cash to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. (including $2,100 after Vance let Weinstein walk) plus, according to campaign finance records, his law firm gave Vance another $11,500, before Vance's Weinstein decision.

That failure to prosecute is scandal number two!

The media is beginning to notice and connect the two because of the similar behaviors on Vance's part.  The New York Times editorial board issued an editorial saying: "that eyebrows understandably soar skyward when a district attorney pockets cash from a lawyer who may have a client facing charges that could send that client to Attica.. . .  As lawyers might say, res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself."

Is there one more? 
. . . Now you might remember that until recently Cyrus Vance was working with US. Attorney Preet Bharara to investigate pay-to-play deals by Mayor Bill de Blasio.  And you may remember that one of those pay-to-play deals was the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.  Then Donald Trump fired Preet  (March 11, 2013) and just a few days later (March 16, 2013) all these investigations were dropped. . .  And?  We'd love to know more about what was involved.

Preet Bharara has since lifted the curtain to say that he believes that before he Trump fired him Trump was trying to “cultivate” a relationship with him where he'd be asked by Trump to do the wrong thing.

How hard do you think it would be to trace aspects of the Brooklyn Heights Library and other pay-to-play deals being investigated back to campaign contributions to Vance from those close to de Blasio or Democratic party operatives or involved developers wanting de Blasio's real estate favoring reign to continue undisturbed?:  The Times editorial noted that the list of Vance's donor's "is strewn with law firms and individual lawyers" some of whom "may have unsavory motives when they open their wallets."

But we don't even have to get to that kind of extensive cross-checking to bring us full circle to the Vance contributions we have already discussed.  We need only note that the Brooklyn Heights shrink-and-sink-a-public-library scheme replicated the previously executed Donnell shrink-and-sink-a-library and replace it with a luxury tower scheme.  That Donnell deal also involved a woefully lacking excuse for a valid "bid."  For both deals there was a significant overlap of people involved behind the scenes.  And, if you could have flipped people to get them talking, the trail led back to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner as a principal financial beneficiary from the sale of Donnell . .

. . . It's probably not exactly what Trump supposedly had in mind when trying to "cultivate" a relationship with Bharara unless you want to think generally in terms of privilege exercised by a well-connected elite prone to take advantage of the commoners.

It's been suggested that an excuse for Vance's decision not to prosecute is that it is waste of his office's resources to prosecute the powerful who can fight back and bollix up prosecutions by hiring expensive lawyers and pay for 14 carat obfuscatory PR maneuvers regular folk can't afford.  (Similar to the Weinstein case, in 2011, Vance abandoned a sexual-assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund.). . .

. . .  On the other hand, shouldn't our first priority be to prosecute the powerful whose conduct entrenches corruption at the core of our system and warps our most important institutions?

Coincidentally or not, The New Yorker magazine got the ball rolling with major stories it respectively ran about both the Kushner/Ivanaka Trump and Weinstein failures to prosecute. . .

. . . We could hope that another New Yorker story might get the ball rolling on a third such story about the non-prosecution of de Blasio.  Maybe not: David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor is a trustee of the New York Public Library and investigating the Donnell Library sale or anything leading back to it would be unconformable for the NYPL trustees (and perhaps particularly Trump buddy Stephen Schwarzman).

Or we could hope that another prosecutor with power and authority, most obviously New York State Attorney General Eric Schniederman, could pick up the scent . . . But maybe not: It has been noted that Schneiderman also takes political donations from those he could or should be investigating-  How was it that the Times editorial put it about eyebrows understandably soaring skyward when a prosecutor  pockets cash from a lawyer who may have a client facing charges that could send that client to Attica?

Vance is running for office unopposed in the November 7th election.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

“Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”- Reviewing A Film By Film Maker Frederick Wiseman- A “Love Letter” That Exposes NYC libraries To Attack?

Center: film maker Frederick Wiseman being interviewed at the NYPL by Errol Morris.  Upper left and counterclockwise from there: Erroll Morris commenting on what was "risky" to say at the library, "Fred" Wiseman as guest of honor at NYPL trustee meeting, Wiseman with NYPL president Tony Marx after Errol Morris interview, Wiseman's camera filming NYPL trustees in November 2015 as they meet in a room lined by empty book shelves two-flights high.
Frederick Wiseman is esteemed as a maker of documentary films.  He has a new product out showing at the Film Forum in New York City.  As it was partly financed by PBS, we may soon see it on TV in a while too.

The film is being fervently embraced by its titular subject, the New York Public Library: In the Film Forum’s theater lobby you cannot only buy DVDs of other Frederick Wiseman films, you can buy an NYPL tote bag and other merchandise to support and help fund the NYPL. . . .

. . . One must wonder then whether Wiseman’s latest product is a documentary or a public relations document.  If it is a documentary then it is desperately in need of a considered review because at 3 hours and 17 minutes it is a substantial commitment for any moviegoer to decide to see.  If it is a public relations product then . .  what sort of consideration does it deserve and what warning signs perhaps need to be posted?

It’s probably a cruel question to ask if Frederick Wiseman’s  “Ex Libris: New York Public Library” is actually a documentary?  My instinct is to go easy on Mr. Wiseman and not criticize him too much.  Wiseman is a prepossessing fellow.  There is something impish and almost instantly endearing about him as a human being.  The quality, no doubt, helped him along in his career.  And there are additional things that prejudice me towards him, that he’s a pack rat who hates to leave anything on the cutting room floor, his love of sustained observation, including of human foible, and the way he seems to see everything as interconnected . . . he appears to care about liberal values, if viewed through a jaundiced eye.

I will endeavor therefore to review “Ex Libris” as a documentary which offers rich detail to tell us how wonderful libraries in New York are, but at the same time I’ll point out it’s central failings, which means posting those warning signs about the film’s tendency to masquerade as a misleading PR exercise.

Did you know that there is enormous scandal about how the NYPL management has been working at selling libraries, turning them into real estate deals that benefit real estate developers, not the public, eliminating books and librarians in consolidating shrinkages?  If you don’t know this walking into “Ex Libris,” you are not going to walk out of the film being informed of it either.

Interestingly, however, if you are sufficiently armed with the facts, the film’s amplitude and what may be Wiseman’s perhaps surreptitious satire probably undermine the film’s trustworthiness as truly dependable PR.-

No matter, as there are few who will actually go to see such a long documentary about a deceptively benign subject, there are few who will realize or note in passing regarding the film that anything lurks about it that is negative concerning the NYPL or its management.  That’s the secret sauce for success in the tactically tight embrace of this film by NYPL’s management as a `positive' message, . .  and it’s what you’ll glean from most of the other reviews of this film.  It’s also what your takeaway would be from the film’s 2:23-minute trailer, which with thousands of views already, probably many more people by far are going to see.  The trailer, the failings of which are far worse than the film, comes across as pure saccharin propaganda and it ends insidiously with a hinted endorsement for the NYPL’s ongoing elimination of books: An NYPL hired architect (from Mecanoo) working on the consolidated shrinkage of the Mid-Manhattan Library explains in a likely focus-tested phrase intended to support selling library real estate:
“For me libraries are not about books.  As a lot of people think they are a storage space for books: No, libraries are about people.”
Before I get into a more thorough assessment of “Ex Libris,” a few caveats.  While I have devoured perhaps more than my fair share of documentaries, until now I’ve been largely unacquainted with Mr. Wiseman’s volume of work, over forty films since, 1967.  And with some of Mr. Wiseman’s films running very long (“Near Death” six hours, “Belfast, Maine” four plus hours, “Public Housing” almost four, “High School II” and “State Legislature” both over three and a half, “National Gallery” three hours), that is a deficit that I am not quickly going to make up. .

. . .  I will fill in to an extent with things I learned about Mr. Wiseman when I went to watch him chat, interviewed by fellow-documentary maker Errol Lewis.  Where was that?  At the 42nd Street Library, where he was introduced NYPL president Tony Marx lauding his “amazing film” as heartily as if it were a promotional release, not the documentary he was introducing it as.

Bottom line, my defect is I come to Mr. Wiseman’s films knowing very little about his previous movie making, but knowing a lot, through my own intent observation, about the subject of his latest, “Ex Libris: New York Public Library.”  In fact, I am so close to the subject of the film that in one scene I caught a few glimpses of myself, intently observing the same NYPL board of trustees meeting that Mr. Wiseman was at that moment focusing on.

The film is not just about today's NYPL; it is also obviously intended to be about the NYPL’s possible  future, where it is headed, how it is steering there.  That is very much what I am interested in too.

Mr. Wiseman came to the NYPL as his subject at a particularly tumultuous time.  He was filming for 12 weeks in 2015, September through December.  It was just months after Scott Sherman published his book savaging of the NYPL’s management and direction with its much decried Central Library Plan implosion (assisted by public activists including myself and Citizens Defending Libraries of which I am a co-founder): “Patience and Fortitude- Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library.”  The book consummated a devastating critique of how off-course the NYPL had veered for which Sherman got huge attention beginning when he wrote a series of articles for the “The Nation.” And Sherman’s was far from a lone voice.

In addition, although the film somehow avoids noting it, the filming was during the extended period the iconic Rose Reading Room was closed following an reported accident with a chunk of ceiling falling just days after the Central Library Plan was derailed.  Visually, other spaces in the 42nd Street library have to substitute in the film to suggest the grandness of that space.

Wiseman’s apparently adulatory film doesn’t contain the even faintest whiff of what was up that allowed a thorough lambasting of the NYPL by Sherman and others. You’d never ever know from the film.  But Wiseman knew about Sherman’s book.

On Twitter it was recently wondered why Wiseman took “a swipe” at “Scott Sherman's excellent book when asked about NYPL trustees' transparency?” What Wiseman said about Sherman, published in an interview about the film Vanity Fair, was:
I didn't start with a thesis. I wanted to learn something about the library. In one sense, what I learned about the library is what you see in the film. And if I could say it in 25 words or less, I shouldn't have made the movie. Scott Sherman started out with a thesis about the library, and that's not my cup of tea.
It sounds pretty awful for Wiseman to say that.  The only thing that defuses the remark and makes it less of an indictment leveled specifically at Sherman is to know that the 87-year-old Wiseman has sort of a personal thing, a point of pride, about not having “a thesis” when he, himself, works. . . .   Last November in his acceptance speech for his Oscar, an Honorary Award at the 2016 Governors Award ceremony, Wiseman spoke of his method this way:
Making a movie is always an adventure.  I usually know nothing about the subject before I start, and I know there are those who feel I know nothing about it when it’s finished.  I never start with a point of view about the subject or a thesis that I want to prove.  I also don’t do any research in advance of the shooting.  I usually don’t know, in advance, what’s going to be shot, or what I am going to stumble across in any day, or any moment of any day.
(The night he got his Oscar Wiseman was the subject of kind and laudatory words from Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, and Rory Kennedy.)

Not having “a thesis” when he works is not a casual, recent thing for Wiseman: If you go back to 1998, you can find Wiseman telling a journalist writing for Current this:
I'm pleased that people refer to the literary quality of the films. I think it's because I reject the idea of simple, didactic, thesis-oriented films. I'm interested in complexity and ambiguity, not in simplifying the subject in the service of any particular ideology.  I hope that when someone sees my movies he knows what my views are. But if I could summarize my views in 25 words or less, I shouldn't have made the movie, I should have written the 25 words.
This Wiseman tic may have been one of the reasons Wiseman chose to include in his film a sequence where, in October of 2015, Elvis Costello was being interviewed by Paul Holdengräber about his memoir “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.”  Discussing Costello’s political opinions and activism, Holdengräber asks Costello about a characterization of him by professor Greil Marcus concerning the vehemence of his feelings and predilection to sing “songs of revenge and guilt.”  Not eager to be pigeonholed himself, Costello responds somewhat dismissively about Marcus writing “long and intricate books” saying:

    Professor Marcus's-you know, it's his job to create a thesis like that. That's what he does.

Certainly, narrow pigeonholing should be dismissed as all too facile and not conducive to thought.  Nevertheless, Wiseman’s suggestion that the reason Sherman painted such a different picture when he wrote about an area substantially overlapping with the subject of Wiseman’s own film implies derogatorily, that Sherman proceeded with a lack of investigative curiosity and open-mindedness while it exalts Wiseman’s own approach as a superior, more neutral, patient and inquisitive search for the truth.

But is that the case?  Scott Sherman wrote his first article for The Nation about how the NYPL was pursuing scarily expensive off-course plans eliminating books and straying from its traditional and core mission as a library in November of 2011.  If you follow the course of his subsequent articles for The Nation culminating in the writing of his 2015 book, you can see Sherman’s thinking evolve as researching, he delves further into the subject, among other things, obtaining and reading minutes of NYPL trustees meetings.  It’s that exploratory evolution that leads Sherman to zero in on how real estate interests factored into what he first observed about the undermining of the NYPL mission.  And, in the end, it is clear how Sherman is driven to find out more about his subjects, as he evaluates in his progress of exploration what he is discovering to be important.

By contrast, Wiseman’s films, at least this latest one, may be deceptively less inquisitive, and less neutral.  The effect may be insidious.  The notion that what you are seeing in a Wiseman film is captured randomly is an illusion that unites with other aspects of Wiseman’s adopted style, the absence of any narration and the absence of any commentary or interjection of identifying labels: It gives the viewer the feeling that Wiseman isn’t exercising control or influencing the viewer’s conclusions.

But Wiseman likes control.  He is meticulous in his editing.  He takes maybe eight months to a year to cut down the footage ultimately using perhaps only 1/25th of what he shoots, compressing an hour of real-time film into five minutes “to make the sequence appear that it took place in the way it's being shown.”  He says, he approaches his editing “just like someone writing a novel: the events are not staged, of course, but the way I condense and rearrange them is not the same as in real life. I call my work reality fiction.”  He also edits so that the way that individual sequences relate to each other provide a structure for the film.  His television contracts dictate that there is to be no reediting of his work.-   “It's the only area of my life I'm meticulous about,” he says, but that is unlikely the case.  He also exercises control by serving as his own producer, director, editor, and sound technician on location and then distributing his work.

There is also the sort of editing that occurs, on the scene, before anything is filmed as Wiseman chooses what to shoot and which way to point the camera.  During his discussion with Errol Morris he explained about how with the opening of his film“Welfare” he was “playing against cliche,”the cliche that welfare recipients were black (which he said wasn’t his experience when there), and how, for one scene he used very near the beginning of the film he had “deliberately picked” and “decided to follow” a Caucasian couple to film their hardship interview because his “impression was that the majority of people at the center were all white” and he “liked the way they looked, or the way they looked amused me.

In other words, hardly random, Wiseman’s films are heavily freighted with the influence of his choices.  Paradoxically, that influence is probably strengthened by the way that Wiseman pulls back. hiding himself, leaving the viewer to conclude they, themselves, are finding their way to their own interpretations while, with no open announcement about his intentions, Wiseman escapes accountability to debate or defend them.  Subtlety such as this likely flies below the radar screen of media literacy most people have usually acquired.

Accordingly, Wiseman’s responsibility for what he shoots and how he comes to shoot it is an issue.
Wiseman, cheek sunk into his palm, is introduced as guest of honor at NYPL trustees meeting the day “Ex Libris” opened.  NYPL president Marx is on far left. This is not the trustees' usual tapestry-festooned meeting room.
Credits for “Ex Libris” give extensive thanks to the management of the NYPL naming a list of those running the show at this powerful organization.  September 13th, the day that “Ex Libris” opened was, perhaps by coincidence, the day of the NYPL’s board of trustees meetings.  Mr. Wiseman was introduced there as an honored guest.  The trustees were told his “must see movie” is “an absolute love letter to the libraries” and Mr. Wiseman, (“Fred” to them) was described as a “renowned film-maker” who “became part of the NYPL family in 2015.”  The trustees viewed and applauded the trailer for the film as part of their official meeting.

Mr. Wiseman then thanked the trustees, advising them:
It was a great privilege for me to get permission to make the film and I was pleased that when I approached Tony [Marx, NYPL president], he said OK, although I guess with some trepidation. . . I want to thank Tony and Carrie [Welch, the NYPL’s head of External Relations] was particularly helpful as my consigliere giving me good advice all the way through the filming.  I want to thank the board for also giving me permission and hope you all get a chance to see it.
Did the NYPL regard consigliere Carrie Welch as “Fred’s” handler when he was there? Ms. Welch oversees the NYPL’s “Development and Communications & Marketing groups.

Wiseman’s Academy Award acceptance boast that he doesn’t “do any research in advance of the shooting” or more importantly his assertion that “The shooting of the film is the research” along with his preference to know very little about what he is shooting before he shoots it makes the question of access and how it steers him, highly disconcerting, especially when he tells you that during the shooting the NYPL’s top officer overseeing its public relations was giving him “good advice all the way through the filming.”- It undermines Wiseman’s Academy Award acceptance claim that what he shoots is just what he is “going to stumble across in any day, or any moment of any day.”

Whatever serendipity does still infuse “Ex Libris,” it must be asked with respect to each and every scene: Was this scene filmed for reasons entirely random, or because the NYPL’s publicity department thought it would be good for “Fred” to film?  The same must be asked about the scenes that don’t appear.
From the trailer for the film, NYPL hired architect Francine Houben: “For me libraries are not about books.  As a lot of people think they are a storage space for books: No, libraries are about people.”
For instance, in one segment Francine Houben, an architect the NYPL hired from the firm of Mecanoo of the Netherlands, presents plans for the consolidating shrinkage of the Mid-Manhattan Library at what was public auditorium space in Mid-Manhattan (gone now with its closure).  That renovation will involve a huge elimination of books.  The scene is key because it contains Houben’s (I said this before) probably focus-session-tested pronouncement, which is also strategically placed in the trailer, that `libraries are not about books, or their storage, but about people.’

The Macanoo firm is promotingEx Libris,” and particularly this scene and this statement by Houben on its website.  Houben and the Macanoo architects have several times since been careful to emphasis to the NYPL trustees that the plans for the Mid-Manhattan renovation address the future with the intentionally flexibility that many more books can be removed from the library in years hence than might be removed initially.
By contrast, what doesn’t appear in the film is another contemporaneous evening during the period Wiseman was filming, December 10, 2015, in the exact same Mid-Manhattan space when Houben again presented these plans, but this time with the public present.  There was a Q&A following during which a cadre of dedicated library defenders from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (I am also a member of that group) with other members of the public joining raised alarm and complained about the disappearance of books in the libraries.  Library Defenders from Citizens Defending Libraries were absent because they were responding to the fact that, at the same time, the City Council was pushing forward with votes to sell the second biggest library in Brooklyn, the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library in Downtown Brooklyn.

In her introduction of the presentation that evening of December 10th, the NYPL Chief Operating Officer (who we will name and talk about in a minute), referred to the planned redesign of the Mid-Manhattan Library as "the library of the future," with apparently no self awareness of the irony that previously SIBL, the Science, Industry and Business Library, the central destination library completed at a cost of $100 million in 1996 that is being done away with as part of the MML renovation, had also been referred to as "the library of the future."  In the sequence in the Wiseman film where the NYPL Chief Operating Officer introduces Francine Houben, the COO speaks to Wiseman’s camera’s about the 'transparency' of the design process.  At the parallel presentation on that December 10th evening the Chief Operating Officer tactfully adapted her remarks to avoid such a brag: If on that open-to-the-public evening she’d attempted such a claim and Wiseman had been filming his sound track would undoubtedly have picked up guffaws from the audience.

Whatever it results from, the absence of context debilitates Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” severely.  That is unless you bring along your own insider knowledge. . .

 . .   A central figure in the film is the NYPL’s Chief Operating Officer. She is one of the many people in power thanked by Wiseman in the credits at the end of the film.  If you are astute and knowledgeable you might pick up in those credit thanking her at the end of the film that her name is Iris Weinshall.  Knowing this might then lead you to know that she is the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the U.S. senate.  You’ll note in the film that 42nd Street Central reference Library is now named the "Stephen A. Schwarzman Building" after a billionaire of rather nefarious reputation, but you won’t note that Stephen Schwarzman and his Blackstone Group make major contributions to Senator Schumer (making Schumer in 2014 the #1 Blackstone-supported politician in New York State and the #4 Blackstone supported politician nationwide).

. .  At the time of the filming Ms. Weinshall was newly in her job having stepped in to replace David Offensend, who came to the library from Evercore, a Blackstone spin-off, and stepped down from his library position after his unpopular association with the sale of the Donnell Library and the real estate sales of the discredited Central Library Plan.  Weinshall would push forward with implementation of the Offensend-initiated SIBL sale and work with the city to start the sale of the Inwood Library for redevelopment.  (Neither the extraordinary central destination SIBL, nor the Inwood Library is in the film.)  Before arriving at the NYPL Weinshall was engaged in similar work with respect to real estate assets of CUNY.  Because Wiseman doesn’t use any title cards or provide any labeling information, none of this is known to the average viewer.

When you know who Ms. Weinshall is you may hear her words in the film differently when, in a senior staff meeting, they are discussing circulation and she is urging more focus on (more expensive for the library) digital books.  An interesting side-light on this (I will emulate Wiseman style here, opting for inclusion what might deceptively seem not very relevant).  At the last NYPL trustees, the one where Wiseman was lauded, NYPL president Tony Marx told the trustees this about his start as NYPL president:
When I walked in the door I asked people: So what is the metric of success? And the answer was “circulation,” that I got from scholars.  And I thought to myself, well that’s interesting, if that were true, then we could close every branch, we could close every building, and spend every dollar we have on the latest bestseller and lend them for free.  And they would fly out of the building and our metrics would soar.  You see I was a college president: I understand the whole metrics thing and how metrics can be played.*  That’s crazy.

(* Read chapter 3, “Arms Race- Going To College,” in Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction.”)
Another example of significant information lurking in the film that is discernible only to the cognoscenti, is a staff meeting exchange where it is suggested that “CUF” could be “commissioned” to do some work to help support and get the NYPL’s desired message out on a certain subject to deal with politicians and the public.  It will be a very rare film viewer who knows what “CUF” is, but, for those who know, the off-handedness with which it is suggested that CUF will do the NYPL’s bidding and carry its water is startling.

CUF” is the “Center for an Urban Future,” an organization that has been heavily involved in helping push forward sale of New York City libraries, including writing and placing a number of Op-Ed articles arguing for the conversation of libraries into real estate transactions (for instance two similarly tracking Op-ed’s by David Giles and Jonathan Bowles).  The latest of these Op-eds, by Cuff’s current policy director, Matt Chaban, appeared in the New York Times the Monday following the opening of “Ex Libris: Libraries Can Be More Than Just Books, September 18, 2017.  That article incredulously claimed that the replacement for the once-famed Donnell Library, “opened beneath a luxury hotel to largely positive reviews.”

The NYPL has a weird flip-floppy approach in terms of acknowledging the awfulness of what it did in terms of its shrink-and-sink sale disposal of the beloved Donnell.  There have been times when it has necessarily acknowledged its Donnell deal was a debacle, something never to be repeated.  Other times, the NYPL has reversed itself and, as if hoping that people are ready to forget history, tries to burnish the deal that created a luxury tower as a success.  Reversals that involve forgetting actual fact and history this way are more easily done if an organization like CUF, an apparently independent third-party, lays the groundwork.

Another test for the exceptionally knowledgeable attending the film is the briefest glimpse of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sitting alone towards the end of an NYPL gala for the wealthy; the brief flash on the screen seemingly intended to convey some fish-out-of-water incongruity.  There is, in fact, incongruity beyond the visual: Brewer who rose as a politician and protector of the public interest on Manhattan’s the West Side has become a supporter of library sales, supporting, in her borough, the sale of SIBL, Inwood and having her representative on the City Planning Commission, Anna Hayes Levin, vote for the shrink-and-sink sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library being replaced by a luxury tower.

An axiom often applied to elected and public officials is “watch what they do, not what they say.”  With organizations like CUF operative, maybe its not just a question of what the NYPL says, but also what CUF says while floating NYPL's arguments into the public discourse.

Wiseman’s films involve an almost obsessive documentation of what people say.   Wiseman may or may not be a skeptical listener when it comes to what people say in this film.  I can’t judge the earlier Wiseman films I haven’t seen, but one discussion from 1989, respecting a book about the Wiseman films then extant, generated this assessment from a reviewer:
Whatever setting he visits . . . he carries the same basic interests : a concern for power, authority, and control and the way institutions shape both the people they serve and those who administer them. Though he finds occasional moments of competence and courage, mostly he records frustration, callousness, suffering and indifference. For all the thousands of feet of film he shoots, he repeatedly shows us the same kind of behavior: bureaucratic doubletalk, the debasement of language, hypocrisy, the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy and what he calls the "surrealism of the normal."
As a co-founder and leader of Citizens Defending Libraries I have spent a lot of time striving, in defense of libraries, to communicate what is great and superlative about libraries, the value inherent in them that is critical to preserved.  But that by itself cannot be the sole reason for Citizens Defending Libraries to exist or its primary goal.  I suspect that if we could perfect exactly what we had to say about what is special and essential concerning the libraries, that no matter how we honed our eloquence there would never be anything to prevent our message from being adopted and restated, polished with even more glittering rhetorical flourish by the NYPL's high-paid PR professionals. .

 . . For instance, at the last NYPL trustees meeting President Tony Marx said this (after Wiseman departed), and I could not help feeling as if he was quoting ideas of my own about how libraries so are valuably bottom-up, not top-down in what they provide.  Marx seemed to be taking words virtually out of my mouth, while perhaps expressing them better- Marx was riffing to explain speak about the NYPL’s new motto “More People Reading More”:
This institution is the holder of the history, culture of humanity and we need to share that corpus with more of our fellow citizens.  We need to inform them with quality information.  We are also unique in another way, because we will meet anyone wherever they start and take them further; so whether you walk in illiterate, or walk in as a Nobel Prize winner we’ll take you and get you what you need so you can go further.  We have no requirements.  We have no certification.  We have no curriculum.  We have no `expectations,’ except that you will come, read, learn, and contribute.  We have an undying commitment to serve everyone, to meet them where they are, and to move them forward.  And it is that commitment, your commitment, this institution’s commitment that led us to the notion of “More People Reading More.”
One might wonder whether this paragraph of very fitting words was first generated with a thought that they might be used in conjunction communicating about the release of Wiseman’s film.  At the Trustees meeting Marx actually stirred them in to a smorgasbord of concepts that other trustees might better respond to including metrics.

Bottom line the message that libraries of New York are extraordinary institutions serving democracy from top to bottom in every aspect is of extraordinary importance.  That's whether expressed by NYPL management as in the above paragraph, by Wiseman in his film, or by me and Citizens Defending Libraries.  We are all on the same page when we express it.   It’s also a very attractive message to adopt.  When Wiseman spoke with Morris he spoke of his current appreciation for positive messages:
I think it is just as important for documentary film makers to make films that show people being kind and decent and generous as it is to show absurdity. . . I really think that documentary film makers who only make exposé movies are missing out on lots of great subjects. . . .You have to acknowledge that goodness does exit from time to time.
Where we differ and what I find far more urgent to communicate about is how selling libraries for a pittance while eliminating books and librarians is at odds with these ideals.  And, turned around, isn't really Wiseman, placidly shunning an exposé, who is missing out on a great subject?

While one may agree with the NYPL that Wiseman’s new film is, in fact, a “love letter to the libraries,” that does not necessarily mean Wiseman is, per se, 100% in the business of selling conclusions in “Ex Libris.” 

Wiseman has a reputation for ambiguity.  It’s been asserted that an “element of ambiguity” is in all of his films.  As quoted in the beginning of this piece Wiseman says he is “interested in complexity and ambiguity, not in simplifying the subject in the service of any particular ideology.”

He has propounded his “horror of didacticism, I don't like to be told what to think. Many of the events in these films are complicated and ambiguous, and I like the idea of films being complicated and ambiguous.

Embrace of ambiguity may help account for the different reactions it has been noted that Wiseman’s films elicit.  Mary Hawthorne interviewing Wiseman for the New Yorker in 2011 suggested he presents something of “a Rorschach test” because everybody has “something different” to say about his films:
David Denby describes you as "an ardent crusader for reform," Catherine Samie as "a predator of humanity," both "virginal and diabolical," and Errol Morris as "the undisputed king of misanthropic cinema."
Within that scope of reactions, Wiseman has been described, at least with respect to his early films, as a “muckraker”(“in the business of handing out `searing indictments’”), so much so that Wiseman took time to refute the description as a “misconception” when being interviewed about “National Gallery” in 2015, saying that he didn’t think he was.

Ambiguity, and Wiseman’s almost mischievous diffidence in indicating where he might be coming from are likely ingredients in Wiseman’s formula for obtaining access to get the footage he wants.  The film that put Wiseman on the map was his first, “Titicut Follies” a film about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  By all accounts “Follies” it is a pretty good candidate for anyone’s muckraking exposé list.  It shows guards herding and taunting naked patients through a desolate setting.  Amazingly, according to Wiseman the “super-intendent of Bridgewater . . . loved the film when he saw it, and he thought it fulfilled all his hopes in helping me get permission. But when his job was in jeopardy because of how the film was received, he turned against it.

Wiseman, however, equivocates now about the film’s negativity: “I think the guards, in their own rough-and-ready way, were more tuned into the needs of the patients than the so-called helping middle-class professionals, the psychiatrists and the social workers. I have always been as interested in showing people doing decent and kind things as horrible things.”

As a continually prolific autuer Wiseman must inevitably be preoccupied with the questions of access and where his next footage will come from.  That’s especially certain since, even as “Titicut Follies” was the film that established his reputation, it was tied up for decades in litigation restricting and limiting its viewability.  The litigation, brought by the state of Massachusetts, was based on the lack of permitted access.  What’s more, Wiseman is a lawyer equipped to mull on these intricacies.

For Wiseman the sweet spot must be the point at which he can get his footage and yet his scenes will still yield meaningful insight consistent with what people expect from him.  If he is lucky, his subjects may self-satirize themselves with a seeming unwitting lack of self awareness.

There is, for instance, one scene in “Ex Libris” that I do believe was included for comic relief and to emphasize that the intellectual exercises that occur at the library are not guaranteed to be always on target.  It occurs in the same now closed Mid-Manhattan Library auditorium room where the scene with NYPL's architect occurred.  In it, there is a slide show presentation by someone who is apparently the author of a book who, with great passion, propounds how the history of the Jewish delicatessen is imbued with essential-to-recognize sexual symbolism.  Pans by the camera directed out to show the audience, suggest that those listening are not buying such mishegoss no matter the gusto with which the excited author is selling it.  The device of providing commentary by showing the reactions of others is one Wiseman seems to use frequently.

An early scene in “Ex Libris” shows NYPL president Tony Marx addressing NYPL staff exuberantly giving a spiel that he hearkens back to several times elsewhere in the film about the glories of public private partnerships and their key to future success of the libraries.  The camera pans over the glum nonreactive faces of the librarians in the audience.  If you are picking up on the relationship you may realize that because of a disequilibrium of power with their employment hanging in the balance the audience is not at liberty to respond with more overt displays of disapproval.

The scene is subtle.  Perhaps a decade hence, after our nerves have rubbed raw watching long fights play out about privatizing all the public property in post-Maria Puerto Rico (another example of a disaster capitalism scenario) we will be more starkly, acutely aware of the need to be wary of the glorification of "PPPs' (Wall Street lingo for "Public-Private Partnerships"), the `partnering' with private wealth.  Today, however, I believe that this concern is apt to sail over the heads of those who traipse in to see a film about how great libraries are.

The New York Times review that will send a lot of people to see the film observed that the film doesn’t “overtly” address the NYPL’s “scuttled” Central Library Plan (overtly”?), but notes that “Big money is a thread running through the movie, including in meetings with Anthony W. Marx, the president of the library, and other senior staff members.”  The Times review also goes outside the four corners of the film to comment for the record on the incongruous oddity of the NYPL selling to Mr. Schwarzman, a “private equity executive,” the right to have his name on that library “alongside quotations from immortals like Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Jefferson” for a transfer of $100 million.

The Times review is also the one that calls the library “the democratic ideal incarnate,” a phrase Tony Marx quickly seized upon to introduce the film to the NYPL trustees and then again to attendees of the Wiseman Morris discussion.  The Times assertion, however, that Wiseman in his film “lays bare” the NYPL organism is highly questionable.
November 16, 2015 NYPL trustees meeting not, as usual, in the ornate tapestry-festooned trustees room, but in another room of the library with empty book shelves two-flights high.
How does “Ex Libris” take up the theme of “big money”?   There is a lot in the film that juxtaposes differences in class, as well as issues concerning race in the library.  There is one scene that covers a November 16, 2015 NYPL trustees meeting, and its aftermath, the annual photographing of the NYPL trustees as a group for the NYPL annual report.
Annual photographing of the NYPL trustees: Wiseman's camera man and probably Wiseman in foreground filming
I know the exact date of the trustees meeting because I was there.  I can be seen right after flattering closeup of another library defender in the public audience, Christabel Gough: Although she is unidentified and the film makes no mention of it, Ms. Gough, a critic of the NYP, was absolutely key in multiple ways to launching the lawsuits that helped scuttle the Central Library Plan.
November 16, 2015: Another room, empty of books, the NYPL trustees passed by to have their picture taken

Wiseman camera filming trustees
Interestingly, the trustees did not hold this meeting in their usual grand space a room with huge antique tapestries on the walls.  Only if you truly pay attention will you realize that the room where they met instead was once completely line with books that, now gone, has left an expanse of empty shelves.

The trustees meeting does not show the trustees at work.  Instead it shows the trustees at the end of their meeting.  Most meetings end incorporating a regular tradition of providing the trustees with some kind of intellectual candy for dessert, special access to particular treasures of the library that help them feel more erudite and connected with the library’s mission.
In a glass case, Phillis Wheatley artifacts brought from Schomberg collection the for delectation by the NYPL trustee at their meeting.
In this case the treasure, from the Schomberg collection, was a selection of works by Phillis Wheatley, “the first African American poet to be published in this country,” collected by Arthur Schomberg himself.  The articles of interest were presented and explained to the rest of the trustees by fellow trustee British-born Ghanaian-American Kwame Anthony Appiah. who, `volunteering’ for the job, told them of Ms. Wheatley’s history writing her poems as a slave before she was freed, including reactions of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington to Ms. Wheatley’s poetry.

Errol Morris asserted that all of Mr. Wiseman’s films have “cringe-worthy” scenes.  The history of slavery is problematic in this country and desperately problematic in a world where the effects of slavery persist with effects that are clearly also topics of touched on several ways in the film.  There is perhaps something “cringe-worthy” about this presentation to the wealthy trustees who include Wall Street and real estate moguls, and even a genuine princess.
A "likeness" of Phillis Wheatley
Following suit to once again emulate Mr. Wiseman’s predilection for reaching to include the seemingly extraneous and often lengthy I will tell you that as I sat in the trustees meeting listening to Mr. Appiah speak about Wheatley, I knew of my own family records concerning a branch of the family related to some ancestral Stratfords who acquired and owned Ms. Wheatley as a slave. It reads as follows:
In or about the year 1761, a slave ship arrived in Boston Harbour with a cargo of slaves; As I have before stated in these pages, slavery existed in the North (however their sense of right and justice forbade the perpetuation of it) and was present in Grandfather's family, so it was found in other branches of it.

Mother tells me of a Mr. Wheatly who married an Aunt of ours, whom I have heard her make honorable mention of. On a certain occasion, while looking over her time honored books, I found a volume of Poems ascribed to Phyllis Wheatly embellished with a likeness of a female African; I asked Mother who she was, when she gave me the following history.

Aunt Wheatly was in want of a domestic, on hearing of the arrival of a slaver, she went on board to purchase, in looking through the ships company of living freight, her attention was drawn to that of a slender frail female child crouched down upon the ships deck, which at once enlisted her sympathies; now Mrs. Wheatly was one of those women cast in a fine mould (so to speak) she was all Soul! and although she could, agreeable to the prevailing custom of the times, buy and own human beings; yet she could treat them as such, not as cattle.

Owing to the frailty of the child, she procured her for a trifle, as the Captain had fears of her dropping off his hands without emolument by death.

Mrs. Wheatly at once set herself about reinstating the child's health and constitution; first of all she must have a name.  She gave her that of Phillis, and as was the custom, they generally took that of the owner as an affix, thus she became known as Phillis Wheatly.

Well, here she was ignorant of the English language which must be learnt, and Aunt thought, that she must educate her, thus they became at once, teacher and pupil; she proved very attractive, and made great proficiency; as soon as she could read well, she began to make rhymes, that step by step, she showed a genius for composition.

Aunt being an educated lady, appreciating her talent, gave Phillis full scope for her generous; the result was that she became a favourite, not only in the family but with literary men and women of those times; Aunt clothed her in good apparel, and made her an inmate of her sitting room yet Phillis had the good sense to withdraw when company came, unless particularly desired to remain, as they often came to have and interview with her.
Her poems were published both here and in England, which country she visited in 1773 and was cordially received by persons of high distinction.

In Mother's volume there was a correct likeness of Phillis. After the decease of Mrs. Wheatly she married, which proved an unfortunate affair, for up to the time of her marriage, she had lived a life of ease, and very probably was not much accustomed to domestic duties.

N.B.    New York March 1866.  In a fruitless search to obtain a copy of her poems, I learnt that a stray copy brought $15.00 under the hammer, that of mother's cost perhaps 25C.--
Perhaps polite and politically correct in the time it was written (in the 1800s), but this certainly induces cringes when it strays so far from the politically correct we are now used to. Nevertheless, it’s history.

The NYPL trustees, a self-appointing board, are not all just the wealthy, powerful and connected: There is another bunch of trustees consisting of celebrity artists like Calvin Trillin and Ethan Hawke, that are perhaps less inclined to show up for meetings.  How would you categorize George Stephanopoulos a trustee who does show up?

Vested, sitting before empty bookshelves, trustee Kwame Anthony Appiah,at the NYPL trustee meeting where he volunteered for the presentation Wiseman caught on film of the Phillis Wheatley artifacts.
Trustee Kwame Anthony Appiah, who volunteered to present information about the Phillis Wheatley artifacts is a novelist and cultural theorist with a particular interest in the subject of morality.  New Yorkers viewing “Ex Libris” are unlikely to recognize him during the film for how they know him best, the current author of the New York Times weekly “The Ethicist” where he offers his solemn advice on what is the moral thing to do, responding to letters posing quandaries.

When Appiah launched his stint as Times Ethicist (September. 30, 2015, two months before you see him on film) he began with a column answering a question from a librarian asking whether she should act as a whistle-blower about the “serious damage” posed by a “poorly planned” radically downsizing of the library’s collection with the discard “straight to the trash-hauling bin” of a huge number of books.  The librarian thought that  “If local researchers knew the scope of devastation underway, they would have strong objections.” The librarian says that she is already “in hot water” with her administrators.  

Appiah’s response was to tell the inquiring librarian to give it a rest, to let her administrators proceed, and that it was probably “a little overblown” to call this “whistle-blowing’’ assuring the librarian (and his readers) that the decisions made:
don’t sound morally wrong. They reflect a judgment at odds with your own; they don’t reflect corruption, abuse or a total abandonment of the institution’s purposes.
At no time writing back does Appiah disclose that he is a trustee of the NYPL, a member of the decision-making board criticized for exactly the same kind “serious damage” to public assets do to book destruction and a “poorly planned” radically downsizing of the libraries.  In essence he is just providing his own self justification for some very questionable actions he himself is partaking in.  He is saying, listen to the people in power, they know best and are not improperly motivated..  Is that ethical? . . .

 . . . Well as it’s his first column Appiah poses to himself the question: “Is there anything I should let readers know?”  His answer?: That he’s fallible.  But now, because you read it here, you also know that he’s a trustee.

Ex Libris” has a fascinating scene that takes place in the Greenwich Village Jefferson Market Library where the economic and social theories of antebellum southern ideologues, particularly George Fitzhugh, justifying slavery, are juxtaposed with the those of slavery-opposing Karl Marx and his pen-pal on such subjects, President Abraham Lincoln.  Fitzhugh, we learn, thought that slave society is better than a free society because it solves conflict between capital and labor while freeing up and giving time to an aristocratic leisure class that can then do the productive and worthwhile things in the world like run the political system.  To Fitzhugh slave society is better because “the idea of free society is a failure,” and because slave owners take better care of their workers than the factory owners of the north. . . . So, let us have a world of masters who make decisions and run the world because they will know better, and let those that are slaves rest assured that these masters will take good care of them.

Another scene in the film incorporates a discussion about the bowdlerization of history books to refer to African American blacks first coming to this country "immigrating" here as "workers."

What meaning do juxtapositions create?  Can anyone really guess what Wiseman is intending by the juxtapositions his film includes?   Similarly, can anyone really guess what he intends, by what he leaves out by either design or by accident that could create even more arresting juxtapositions?  One library defender who rushed out to see the film immediately and was irritated by what it didn’t convey about the current crisis of management described the film as “lazy.”
From "Ex Libris," a digital library sequence with two contrasting scenes: On left a digitizer carefully sorting vintage photographs, and on the right the hi-speed factory sorting of books delivered to libraries from off-site
In one sequence, (which you can see as a clip Errol Morris selected for their discussion- it's at exactly the one-hour mark), one experiences the extended deep quiet and slow process of digitizing parts of the library’s collection punctuated by the occasional click of impressively expensive machines and lighting equipment.  This is immediately followed by a switch to the load clatter of the NYPL Long Island City, Queens book-sorting “BookOps” operation as books whiz by at phenomenal speed making it barely even possible to recognize what they are or that many of them are indeed books at all (some aren’t).  Again, the machinery is impressive and evidently expensive, but here the books are not so reverently handled.

As you watch books and photographs being digitized they are handled with care respectful of their delicate three-dimensional physicality reminding you how digitization must ultimately fall short of completely preserving their messy, musty essence.  In the contrasting BookOps scene, documenting a new system where books kept off-site from the libraries will be obtained by digital request, you recognize that this is not your father’s library and while you may be stunned by the gee-whiz future aspect of it, you may also yearn nostalgically of the more personally interactive relationship previously standard in delivering library books to the patrons looking to find them.

Morris’ reaction to the scene selection was to be struck by “really well-to-do college kids copying photographs” (they are well dressed) contrasted with the black workers (in T-shirts and baseball caps, some wearing earphones listening to music) mechanically sorting books.  Wiseman already cat-and-mouse about his intentions and how the scene spoke for itself said, “I don’t think that’s quite fair to the library,” and went on to make the case that to see such racial or economic overtones in the clip or how the NYPL was depicted library generally, was not a “fair analysis” because, after all, the book-sorting provided “jobs” while the digitizers were probably `trained.’  Just before playing the Clip Morris had joked with Wiseman about whether it was "risky" to criticize the library on its turf at event hosted by it.

Although it doesn’t sound from the exchange above that Wiseman, protective of the NYPL, was grappling with ambiguity or nuance, it is probably fair to say that Wiseman often presents for interpretation by his audiences what he, himself is grappling with ambivalently, that he may actually be entreating the mixed reactions of his audience as late step in formulating his own thinking. . .

. . . Christo famously considers the artworks he produces with wife Jeanne-Claude to consist not just of the physical art produced, but also of the public’s reaction including during the process of making the art and getting permissions for it.  Is it possible to think that when Wiseman refuses to give answers about what he is doing he is actually including the ranging reactions and debate of his audiences as a part of his product?  If so, then this review, with its quarrel pointing out all that the film is missing, should be considered a naturally invited extension of the film itself.

At an initial showing of the film at Film Forum the same night as the Errol Morris discussion was followed by a Q&A with Wiseman.  Library defenders who were worried about the management of the libraries and its banishment of books were there.  Unfortunately, when one library defenders asked about this during the Q&A the microphone was seized from her before she could complete her question.  Wiseman avoided an extended response and countered simply that with respect to the "some 5.2 million books" not now at the 42nd Street Library that he was being asked about, "They are stored in New Jersey" (some sixty miles away and not necessarily all of them).

On another day the Film Forum’s Q&A after the film was with Michele Mayes the NYPL’s General Counsel.

Does anyone expect that General Counsel Mayes' interactions with a Film Forum audience would be anything other than a close hewing to a set of scripted PR talking points?   The same must be asked of all the time that other NYPL executives got extended screen time in the film. . .

. . . There is a scene in Wiseman’s 1969  “Law and Order” where a police officer is choking a prostitute during an arrest. The Harvard Gazzette says thatWiseman, alert to ambiguities, refused to condemn him,” and the scene, Wiseman said, is proof a camera does not change behavior, and that “most of us think our behavior is appropriate for the situation we are in.” Introducing Wiseman before talk with Morris, NYPL President Marx says of Wiseman: “He was everywhere. and as you’ll see we forgot that he was here.

Most viewers of the “Ex Libris” are likely going to come away with the distinct impression of Marx as the consummate showman.  It is doubtful though that people who give it considered thought will conclude that Marx ever felt like he was stepping off stage or that he or the senator’s wife ever forgot that there was a camera trained on them as they spoke.

Wiseman asserting his dedicated appreciation for complexity has said, “You have to discard your simple-minded notions, otherwise you are doing propaganda.”  Was Wiseman willing to embrace complexity in this film? “Ex Libris,” certainly poses the question of whether Wiseman, shooting scenes getting “good advice all the way through the filming” from the NYPL’s top PR officer, passed his own test of avoiding doing simple-minded propaganda. . .

No doubt people will come away from this film with a renewed and deeper appreciation of the value of libraries, but the "every thing is fine here" message they are likely to take away together with Wiseman's perhaps deliberate failure to sound an alarm, means that the libraries that this film is  "an absolute love letter" to will be exposed and unprotected from the attacks that now threaten them. . .

. . Still, what can you rightfully expect from a documentary?  Or is the question, more properly, what do you expect of a promotional film?
PS: The Film Forum is not selling Scott Sherman's “Patience and Fortitude- Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library” (now in paperback) in the lobby.