Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest30 Dispatch #2 – “Ex Libris,” Dallas Cowboys and Whale Hunting

The centerpiece film of the festival so far, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: New York Public Library, had been mentioned all week with hushed incantations of “beware, its fantastic but it’s three hours long.” Anyone familiar with Wiseman’s sprawling body of work would expect no less.

And it delivers magnificently. A typically thorough and humanistic survey of an institution and all its vital tangents, Wiseman is a master of peeling away the layers through seemingly random events in front of the camera to reveal a larger portrait of people. Board meetings, guest speakers, the teaching of children, benefit dinners, people going about their research in the library … all of these ordinary conversations and events are given holistic observation. They don’t judge. They don’t discriminate. All types, races, genders and creed are shown to be part of one living, breathing organism known as the New York Public Library system, in which education and the best practices for running such a large organization are examined.

Within his now customary style of exterior establishing shots, traversing all around the city’s numerous branches, Wiseman builds a narrative of employees, customers and community leaders in various modes of conversation, including interludes for a moving slam poetry presentation, Elvis Costello, and Patti Smith waxing poetic about the reality of truth.

Outside of these recognizable personas, we’re hardly ever given names of anyone (besides hearing it in conversation), but Wiseman has an elliptical method of revisiting certain people, as if he’s supplying them a narrative arch. Others are glimpsed momentarily as reaction shots to the people talking before them and the range of emotion, understanding and latitude on their faces becomes an overwhelming secondary character. These wide eyes (or half-asleep older men) become just as interesting as the person speaking.

Having seen 35 of Wiseman’s 45 films — I will find you, Aspen (1991) or Central Park (1990 — Ex Libris- New York Public Library ranks very close to the top as yet another monumental achievement in this filmmaker’s soulful exploration of, not only an institution, but the beating hearts and minds within it. And as Dallas Morning News editor Michael Merschel said at the beginning of the film, people who show up at 11:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning for a three-hour film about books and the library … we’re his kind of people.

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Proponents of The Cove (2009) probably won’t enjoy Mike Day’s The Islands and the Whales. Towards the beginning of the film, there’s a massive slaughter of whales along the shore. The sea-faring mammals are chased into and trapped along the island bays by fishing boats, wherein the entire village wades in and quickly kills them, turning the water a kool-aid red.

Luckily, before this shocking event occurs, The Islands and the Whales succinctly expresses the established tradition and necessity of such a massacre. Living off the meat sustains the Faroe Island population for months. Located between Iceland and Norway, these people have lived this way for hundreds of years.

Shattering this accepted, antique way of life is Dr. Pai, the local health manager, who has been monitoring mercury levels in the island’s inhabitants for years. Seemingly, global pollution is infecting even this far northern coastline, contaminating the whales and creating possible health hazards for the people eating their meat.

Encompassing some awesome cinematography and giving equal time to both the sky-is-falling doctor and the people who see no other way in shifting a centuries-old custom, Day has created an involving documentary that will fit nicely into eco-thriller slots at many film festivals around the world.

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Not being a Dallas Cowboys fan, I still have to admit extreme anticipation for screenwriter-director Mike Meredith’s (hopefully) forthcoming documentary about the now legendary Cowboys-Packers “Ice Bowl” game of 1967.

As someone with tangible connections to the event, Mike is the son of Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, who played in the game and is hallowed around these parts. Gathering extensive interviews from many of the still living players, Meredith wasn’t allowed to show the mostly assembled film due to NFL copyright restrictions, but his hour-long talk and robust, intriguing Q&A session only hints at the possible greatness buried within the innocuous events of a football game.

How this ‘game’ ultimately tied into the recuperation of Dallas as a city after the JFK assassination plus the unexpected longueurs of such inventions as the frozen margarita, the ATM machine and how a halftime anthem gave birth to the Cowboys franchise emerge as juicy tidbits of a story whose mythology and hidden facts have to be seen to be believed.

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