The World's Only Ex Libris Blu-ray Review!

So nobody else on the internet reviews Zipporah releases but me, huh?  I keep looking, but every year I seem to be alone in this.  Hey, I'm a big Frederick Wiseman fan, so I'm happy to cover his films (and yes, one of these days, I'm going to start delving through his extensive back catalog), but I'm starting to feel like I've adopted a social responsibility here.  Hey, folks!  We've got one of the greatest American documentary filmmakers for over 40 years.  He just won a lifetime Academy Award last year, and his latest film just came out on DVD and blu-ray.  Does anybody else care?  No, just me?  Well, alrighty, then.  Enjoy your sole review of Zipporah Films' official blu-ray release of Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Internet.  I even got my hands on a DVD copy, for the world's only direct comparison.

Update 7/12/18: I've added the DVD edition for comparison.
Admittedly, it's not hard to see why the millennial generation hasn't exactly latched onto Wiseman's work.  Ex Libris is, like the last couple decades worth of Wiseman's output has been... pretty dry.  Things weren't always this way.  In many circles, 1967's Titicut Follies is considered an infamous shockumentary, and films like Primate, Meat and Near Death are certainly not for delicate viewers.  And I think I'm actually glad that we're past that.  It was always a little uncomfortable to have ask a video store clerk to unlock the X-rated mondo trash cabinet while you try to explain that, no, this guy's actually a highly respectable documentarian who just gets mixed in with this stuff sometimes.  But even despite Crazy Horse's recently racy subject matter, those edgy days are long gone.
And that's fine.  What we all really watched Wiseman's work for is still here.  In fact, if anything, Ex Libris feels more like the latest chapter in his epic, million-hour documentary he's assembling that will eventually define the entirety of the human condition.  If you've been following his work, you absolutely know what to expect, another detailed, silent observation of another system mankind has created to enrich our lives: in this case, The New York Public Library.  More behind-the-scenes boardroom meetings, more public interactions, more cutting to exterior shots every twenty or so minutes, and every so often watching day turn to night.  No narration, no score, no narrative throughput, no overt emotional manipulation, no message, no human focal point.  Just a calm, three and a half hour crafted observation.  Now, that might sound ideal, or that might make you want to slit your wrists, but that's our Wiseman.
By no message, I mean we're not being sold a particular agenda (at least not overtly).  This is no cheap "we must save the dolphins!" flick.  But there's certainly heaps to take away from this film.  For those who don't know, The NYPL isn't just one big marble building sitting somewhere around the center of NYC.  It's the sum total of 92 branches across Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island.  It's a massive resource, pulling equally from federal and private funding.  From tiny little inner city outposts packed with children's books and best sellers to packed concert halls.  And we every aspect of how they serve the community, from blind children being taught braille to museum-style art displays, replete with gala dinner.  We see the board members debate their policies, fund raisers, the massive sorting system for returns across the state, the high-tech archival work, even the celebrity speakers who gave a talk or performance during the time the film was shot.  And some of the things I had no idea they were doing... Did you know that the NYPL, in the name of eliminating the digital divide in NY, loans out internet hot spots for years at a time to impoverished residents so they can have free internet access in their homes?  Wow.
Oh, but of course, there's the other big reason most review sites aren't covering this film: it's $50 for an MOD BD-R, which is only available from Zipporah's website.  That's boxed set prices, it's not even a pressed disc, and they even kinda stick ya shipping.  And yes, it's a single disc, all 205 minutes.  Plus, the fact that they stick them in the same DVD-standard cases they use for their DVR editions just feels cheaper.  I understand Wiseman can't exactly adopt a mass market business plan for this type of material, but buying one of these will be a very bitter pill for most even the most ardent collectors to swallow.  And unfortunately, the time seems to be past where we could count on foreign markets to release more reasonably priced, professional quality discs like we saw with National Gallery.  Blaq Out has seen fit to make Ex Libris a DVD-only title in France, so if you want this film on blu, this is unfortunately your only option.
2018 US Zipporah Films DVD top; 2018 US Zipporah Films BD-R bottom.
So I can't help but feel compression and clarity would be stronger if they didn't try to jam so much onto a single (thankfully dual-layered) BD-R.  Still, of course, it looks better than the DVD.  Not that there's a super wide gulf, but you do see the extra sharpness when you pick out the fine details.  Older Zipporah titles used to at least spread themselves out across multiple discs, but fans might've been more bothered by having to swap discs (a throwback to the laserdisc days) mid-film than the slight dip in PQ.  And I suppose they free up a lot of that space by including absolutely no special features... yay?  The film is slightly matted to 1.85:1, and for all my BD-R grumblings, it is still an attractive, genuinely high def image.  We're given a choice between two very clean audio options: Dolby Digital 5.1 (in DTS-HD on the blu) and Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (in PCM on the blu).  That's it for frills, no trailer or nothin'.  But at the end of the day, it's not a bad HD presentation of the film, and that's still the critical thing.
So do I recommend this release?  Ha ha - Obviously not for everybody!  It's definitely a film serious documentary lovers will appreciate, but not the sort of thing I'd go around telling the uninitiated to seek out.  Even if they're ready to start watching four-hour vérité documentaries, I'd suggest starting with High School or Domestic Violence before wading into anything from the last couple decades.  But if you're one of us, or just a profoundly dedicated aficionado of the NYPL... I still wish I could point out a more affordable alternative.  If you're rich and happy to know 75% of the purchase price is really just a donation to the Wiseman cause, then perfect.  Otherwise, you might want to consider importing the Blaq Out DVD?  I know, I know, buying SD in 2018; but it's between that, a $50 BD-R or the option most people will unfortunately wind up selecting: just passing on this and Wiseman's body of work entirely.

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