This movie as at TIFF in 2018 and while it did make my long list, it ultimately got cut in favour of god knows what else. And then what happened is that I never heard another single thing about it, and it might have literally fallen right out of my little ole brain until this weekend, when I was in a hotel room in Toronto and saw it on the pay per view. I did not at that time pay to view it. Sean has this weird hotel kink where he always watches HGTV when in them – these shows about “hunting” for houses that are necessarily imperfect so that they may then renovate them to within an inch of their foundations, with a lot of bullshit drama along the way. If we watch more than one episode in a row, Sean will invariably be convinced that they are the same episode, and I’ll say something like “No, last time it was lesbians with 2 dogs and this time it’s lesbians with 2 dogs EACH” but still that won’t convince them because they truly are interchangeable. Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t watch The Public in a hotel room where it would have cost $18 to rent when I have just rented it in the comfort of my own home for $6. What a savings!
But anyway: libraries. Public libraries. I love em. I am in a codependent relationship with them. I’m an insomniac who sometimes reads as much as a book a day, on average, so yeah, I check out a lot of books and I read each and every one of them because I’m not yet strong enough to walk away from a book I don’t enjoy. I’ve always loved libraries, even my school library which was too broke to stock books; in library period (because we still had one), we learned typing, and chess, and read (free) newspapers. I played library as a kid; stamping books was the most satisfying joy I knew. It is my dream to own one of those card catalogue cabinets with the dozens of tiny drawers. I’m pretty sure that’s all that’s standing between me and eternal happiness (which must mean that my life is pretty great). That said, libraries feel essential to me because my life without books would be nothing. But some people don’t use libraries for borrowing books. For them, libraries may be essential in different ways: a place to warm up, or to cool down, a place to congregate, a place to use the washroom, to wash up, to greet and be greeted.
The Public is about Cincinnati’s public library, and a lawsuit against it alleging discrimination when a homeless man is asked to leave because of his body odour. This highlights a struggle that librarians face every day that you may never have thought about: the balance between the rights and needs of one person versus the comfort of the patrons in general. There aren’t too many places where a mentally ill, unwashed man with nowhere else to go might rub shoulders with a kid researching a class project on geodes. But both have an equal right to be there. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m assuming they don’t really cover this stuff when you’re majoring in library sciences. It’s actually amazing how the most important and vital parts of your job you won’t even heard mentioned in school.
Meanwhile, a couple of the Cincinnati library’s employees, Stuart (Emilio Estevez) and Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) have been named personally in the lawsuit. But they’re still going to work, still breaking up fights in the men’s room, still erasing hate crime graffiti in precious books, still navigating people’s crushing loneliness, still stepping over dead bodies, people frozen to death in the night waiting for library to open its warm doors in the morning. In the face of which, one particular homeless man, a war vet named Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) means to ‘occupy’ the library, turn it into an emergency overflow homeless shelter since there aren’t nearly enough spaces and the city is suffering through a terrible cold snap.
Estevez wrote and directed a compelling, human story. Librarians become teachers, social workers, front line workers. Their job is not just caring for books, but for the patrons. I think sometimes the film gets a little bogged down by Big Thoughts but personally I wasn’t bothered in the least. If it wasn’t perfectly executed, at least he took a stab at saying something Important. I tend to feel very forgiving toward movies that Think and Challenge and Try. In all honesty, had I paid $18 to rent The Public, I wouldn’t have been mad about it.