The ultimate Information Provider

The action comedy RED (2010) features one of the most textbook examples of the Information Provider reel librarian character type. It’s a cheeky, action-packed film, with funny, committed performances by all the leads, including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren. They all play RED agents, which stands for “Retired but Extremely Dangerous.” Someone has been a hit out on Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), so he teams up with his fellow retired agents to get revenge — and romance along the way with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).

About a half-hour or so into RED (2010), Frank and Sarah follow up a lead in New York from a reporter who had been killed. When they question the reporter’s mother, they come across an odd number written on back of a postcard:

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

The next scene cuts to Frank and Sarah outside frosted glass doors that read “Downtown NYC Campus Branch” library. (By the way, no such library. The film credits list the Toronto Reference Library as the location for the library scene; the director most likely was playing off the NYU name.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)
Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Sarah:  Why are we here again?

Frank:  Because those number on Stephanie Chang’s postcard are actually the call number for a book.

Sarah:  Call numbers start with letters.

Frank:  In Library of Congress, yeah. In Harvard-Yenching, it’s a classification for Asian literature.

Sarah:  How could you possibly know that?

Frank:  [Starts speaking Mandarin]

They use that call number — which points to a book in the Christianity section, by the way, because you know I looked that up! — to find a book, inside of which they find clues to a hit list. Which leads to the next plot point as well as the next RED character… libraries and reel librarians really are so useful to propel plots forward. :)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

NOTE:  By the way, the Harvard-Yenching classification system was begun in the late 1920s to catalog Chinese-language materials in the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The Library of Congress (LC) system was not capable at the time of classifying those kinds of materials, so other libraries around the world followed suit by using the Harvard-Yenching system to catalog their own Asian-language collections. Through the 1970s and 1980s, however, the LC system added extensive subject headings for Asian and other languages and literatures, and most U.S. libraries now classify Asian-language materials under the LC system. You can read more about the Harvard-Yenching classification system here and more about the Harvard-Yenching Library here.

I was impressed by Frank’s knowledge of call number systems, but the reel librarian fun doesn’t stop there!

In the next scene, which takes place at CIA Headquarters, a director gives a file number to agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) to look up info about Frank Moses. “That’s a file number. You need to visit the back room. You’re going to meet the Records Keeper.”

William Cooper’s reaction to the “back room” is an incredulous, “I didn’t even know this place existed.”

The records keeper (Ernest Borgnine), wearing a cozy grey sweater and a scowl on his face, turns and replies, “It doesn’t.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

The back room of records is a room full of metal file cabinets, although the entrance looks like a bank vault.

The records keeper pulls out a large file labeled RED, its contents heavily blacked out with marker. The Records Keeper then fulfills his Information Provider role, providing exposition about what “RED” means to both the young agent as well as to the audience.

William Cooper:  You gotta be kidding me.

Records Keeper:  Frank Moses was one of the most effective black op agents we’ve ever had. … He was truly gifted.

William Cooper:  Why was he retired?

Records Keeper:  He got old. Some thumbsucker came along and tagged him “RED”

William Cooper:  Red?

Records Keeper:  RED. R-E-D. Retired:  Extremely Dangerous.

Records Keeper:  Yeah. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Contrast the spare look and feel of the CIA archives and records room, as seen above, with the files of another RED agent Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), who is the next stop for Frank and Sarah.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Just a litttttttle bit different than the CIA files, eh? ;)

Almost halfway into the film, Frank Moses goes back to break into the CIA, with help from the Russian spies. We find out more info about the “back room” from Frank, as he reveals the records room is in the lowest basement level. He also reveals the record keeper’s name, which is Henry.

Henry’s reaction to Frank is very different from how he greeted the younger agent:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Henry:  Mr. Moses. [shakes his hand] It’s been a long time.

Frank:  I’m going to need to see that Guatemala file.

Henry:  Guatemala? Uh huh. I think I can help you.

Henry:  You know, it’s been a whole new world around here since you left. Guatemala.

Frank:  You know you’re gonna catch hell for this.

Henry:  After what I’ve seen? [They both laugh.]

Henry then proceeds to warn Frank about the young CIA agent out looking for him. A true Information Provider to the end, and Frank thanks him warmly.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Although Henry makes no more appearances in the film, and does not get mentioned by name again, there is one final mention of the “back room” in the film.

Toward the end, agent William Cooper captures and interrogates Sarah, and he throws down the Guatemala file down on the desk. We get a closeup of its stamp, which reads “Archives copy.”

William:  Frank left this for me. Where did he get it from?

Sarah:  The secure records depository of the CIA.

William seems surprised at this, but Sarah has a total poker face as she reveals the truth. Perhaps Henry will “catch hell for this,” but along with Frank, we wish this Class III reel librarian the best.

RIP, Ernest Borgnine, rest in peace.

An FBI librarian

I had watched The House on Carroll Street (1988) many years ago, and I recently had the opportunity to rewatch it in order to revisit my notes about its minor reel librarian character. Everything about the film is minor, even though it features some major stars (Jessica Tandy, Jeff Daniels, Mandy Patinkin, etc.) and tackles the heavy-hitting subject of McCarthyism. Kelly McGillis, fresh off her role in Top Gun, stars as Emily, who gets involved in an FBI investigation after refusing to give names to a 1951 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. Emily also gets intimately involved with FBI agent Cochran (Jeff Daniels).

There isn’t much to tell about the plot, except it involves a lot of running, dark alleys, red lipstick, retro waves, fedoras, and dark grey suits.

One of those dark grey suits is filled by an FBI librarian (played by William Duff-Griffin), who runs some stills and footage for FBI agent Cochran about three-quarters of the way through the film. The middle-aged, portly, white male — complete with glasses and receding hairline — shows off his technical skills by handling the projector as well as answering the telephone. [Tongue firmly in cheek.]

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

He also shows himself to be a man of few words as he answers the telephone: “Library. Wentworth speaking.”

He then turns to Cochran to tell him that the boss wants to speak to him, which leads to the next plot plot; we learn that Cochran has meddled too much and has been taken off the case.

The FBI librarian is only onscreen for a few seconds and therefore ends up in the Class IV category of reel librarians. He serves as a typical Information Provider.

The film also includes a earlier scene set in a bookstore. Emily suggests the bookstore as a place to meet up with a suspected spy, thinking that it would be a safe place that no one else would think of. Wrong! They get caught immediately, and a chase scene ensues in the bookstore, complete with toppling bookcases and turned-over book carts.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

And what is the main clue for how to distinguish between a bookstore and a library onscreen, as mentioned in last week’s post? That’s right, there are no call numbers on the books in the bookstore! :)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

So long, dear readers, and I’ll see y’all next week!

How to spot the difference between a bookstore and a library onscreen

For some reason, I had never gotten around to watching the 2006 family film hit Night at the Museum, starring Ben Stiller as a night guard at a museum where history comes alive at night… literally. But it has been on my Master List of films to watch, so I finally got around to watching it recently through my cable’s On Demand program.

Night at the Museum (2006) isn’t that great a film — there are some serious pacing issues, and too many random characters and meandering subplots — and there wasn’t a library or librarian in the film, after all. Wah wahhhhhhh. [Enter sad trombone sound.] Therefore, it ends up a Class V film, with no reel librarians.

But not all is lost. Ben Stiller, as Larry Daley, does do some research to figure out how to cope with all the exhibits and historical figures coming to life at night. About a third of the way through the film, he starts his research quest by first asking museum worker and historical researcher Rebecca (Carla Gugino) about Attila the Hun. The director then cuts to Larry sitting cross-legged, surrounded by books, and his own nose buried in a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Attila the Hun.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Night at the Museum' (2006)

Larry then switches from old-school investigations to searching online, and we are treated to websites about the Easter Island statues, stagecoaches, monkeys, and Roman war strategies. And all of this research DOES pay off in the end, as he saves the day as the main culprit is getting away. How did he know what to do?

“I read up on my history. Thanks for the tip.”

Of course, methinks he would have had an easier time researching if he had asked a librarian for help! ;)

And how do I know that he is reading that book in a bookstore and not in a library? I can see where there might be some confusion, as the camera pans at the end of this brief scene to reveal some kids in the corner and the back of a person who looks to be shelving books, as seen below.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Night at the Museum' (2006)

There is one major clue in how to distinguish between a bookstore and a library onscreen.

Hint:  Look at the spines of the books on the shelves.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Night at the Museum' (2006)

That’s right, there are no call numbers on those books! A real library will ALWAYS have call numbers and/ or other kinds of labels on whatever materials stock their shelves. It’s how we organize collections, and how users locate the materials. Trust me. I’m a librarian. ;)

Of course, it doesn’t help when propmasters mix up this simple rule of library books needing call numbers and stock non-library books to fill out a library set, like in the movie Urban Legend. [Insert eye roll here.]

Also, the book that Larry is reading, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Attila the Hun? It’s not a real book, either. I suspected as much when I saw that whoever designed that fake book cover capitalized the word “the” between “Attila” and “Hun” in the title — which you can spot, just barely, in the screenshot above. You’re not supposed to capitalize filler words like “the” unless it’s at the beginning of a title, subtitle, or sentence, so it immediately looked strange to me. But I looked it up just to make sure. (FYI, I checked WorldCat, Amazon.com, as well as the Idiot’s Guides site.)

Y’all knew I would look that up, right?

And one last thing… yes, I did watch the 2009 sequel, Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian, just in case. No library or librarian in that film, either.

Y’all knew I would be thorough, right? ;)

What not to do in a library

Although the focus of this website and blog is all about librarians in movies, I wanted to highlight a TV episode this week. Last year was the final season of “What Not to Wear” (2003-2013), a long-running American spin-off of the original British reality makeover series. I was a general fan of the show, as their best episodes touched on deeper, complex issues such as self-esteem, postpartum depression, transgender body issues, and negative body issues that can haunt victims of sexual abuse. How you project an image through clothing/style/hair/etc. so often has psychological and sociological roots, as I’ve explored often on this site.

During recent “What Not to Wear” reruns on TLC, I came across the 2013 episode for “Courtney D.,” season 10, episode 15, about “a tomboy who wears camouflage is advised to accept a style that’s more appropriate for her age and body type.” This is NOT one of their best episodes; in fact, it’s downright uncomfortable to watch, as Courtney is painfully shy but also quite vocal about her (very understandable) privacy concerns. At the beginning of each episode, the hosts Stacy and Clinton surprise the unsuspecting person who has been nominated for the makeover, and they set up a scenario to fit the interests or lifestyle of that particular person.

For this episode, the producers set up a fake prize of a New York city guided tour, which included a stop at a library. “Little does she know that when we get to her library tour, the hit will be on.” :(

Here’s a shot outside the library building that was the first stop on a “tour of historic New York architecture.” (FYI, I haven’t been able to find a credit for the building they did use, and if indeed it was a library in real life or not.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

The producers explained the opening scenario to Stacy and Clinton:

Then the librarian is gonna tell her to look for something in the card catalog. She [Courtney] is gonna pull a book off the shelf, and then you guy are going to pop your faces in behind.

We get a special behind-the-scenes look at the set up of the library scene. At one point, a producer yells out, “So where’s the librarian?” and we are treated to a close-up of Jillian, the librarian, or rather the “librarian” as written on the screen.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

I assume the grey-haired lady is an actress. However, she missed her cue (!) as they started the scene (er, tour). She put on her glasses and then sputtered, “Okay. Hold on. I didn’t know we were about to go.” The co-hosts and producers behind the scenes started cracking up, whispering, “She’s rogue! She’s rogue!”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

The rest of the scenario went off as planned. Stacey and Clinton then reveal themselves through the gap in the bookshelf, and they proceed to explain the whole “What Not to Wear” scenario in quiet whispers. Whenever anyone cheers, there are cuts to the librarian saying, “Shhhhh!” The co-hosts even shush THEMSELVES twice!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

Predictably, the “librarian” in this opening scene falls into the stereotypical image of a Spinster Librarian:  an older lady who wears conservative clothing and glasses, and of course, shushes anyone who talks above a whisper.

Sigh.

What not to wear? The librarian is wearing a scrunchie in her hair, for goodness sake! Maybe they should have started with the reel librarian instead! ;)

‘Meet cute’ marathon

I feel like quite a few of my posts begin by accident rather than design. I will happen to be watching a film when BAM! out of nowhere pops a library and/or librarian. Sometimes, I am elated. Sometimes, I am cranky because I wanted to watch the film instead of immediately taking notes and pics, if possible. Such is life for the Reel Librarian. ;)

While rewatching the 1976 thriller Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, I was at first surprised when there was a scene at a college library. I did not remember that scene the first time I watched the film, although to be fair, that was several years ago. One cannot help but admire the library interior, which is, of course, the focus — but you can juuuuuust spy the reel librarian checking out books in the lefthand corner, as seen in the screenshot below.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Marathon Man'

I was even more surprised when I realized that the library interior — while supposed to be the Columbia University Library in New York — was actually filmed in Los Angeles! More specifically, it was filmed at Doheny Library on the USC campus, which has been the library setting for many films, including City Slickers II (click here for that film analysis post). It was ALSO the library setting for Dustin Hoffman’s 1967 classic film, The Graduate. It’s a small world, after all, for reel libraries. ;)

A little more than a half-hour into Marathon Man (1976), Dustin Hoffman has a “meet cute” moment with a French-speaking lady sitting at his table. They both have a stack of books beside them.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Marathon Man'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Marathon Man'

Dustin Hoffman, as graduate history student Babe, then hides one of her books — it happens to have her contact info printed inside on the front page — and then uses it as an excuse to meet up with her later. A little creepy, no? Here is their revealing conversation as he makes a play for her:

Elsa:  Why do you pursue people who sit at your library table?

Babe:  You’re pretty.

Elsa:  [Laughs, then starts to walk away]

Babe:  I can’t talk about how smart you are. I don’t even know you. … You won’t meet another thief like me in the library.

Charming.

You see the reel librarian in this film for a few seconds only, and it comes as no surprise that the character is left out of the film’s credits. Therefore, this anonymous reel librarian gets to “meet cute” with the other Class IV reel librarians.

If you’re interested in more Marathon Man filming locations, check out this interesting post, complete with screenshots. The film holds up well, and the director, John Schlesinger, ratchets up the tension quite effectively. It’s also a film notable for turning its MacGuffin into a catchphrase (“Is it safe?”).

So is it safe to watch this film? Yes. But it’s not so safe to have your contact info pencilled in your books and then leave those books unattended in the library. Now you know. You’re welcome. ;)

The Lindgren trilogy

I recently was able to watch the original Swedish film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), thus completing the cycle; I have also read the books — translated into English, of course — and watched the 2011 American film version of the first book in the trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I also blogged about the reel librarian character, Lindgren, who shows up in the book, in this post, and in the American film version, here in this post. And now, with this post, I complete the Lindgren trilogy.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo collage

click collage for original image sources

However, Lindgren was nowhere to be found in the Swedish film adaptation, making it a Class V film. No “if looks could kill” librarian glare. No battle of wills between the reel librarian and the researcher/hacker Lisbeth. NO LINDGREN. Imagine my disappointment! :(

(By the way, I am totally going to put her name in all caps from now on. Just because.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (2009)

Toward the end of the film, we do get the cinematic trick of cutting back and forth between Mikael and Lisbeth as they zero in on the killer’s identity, albeit from two different locations and pathways. Lisbeth figures it out by looking up archives at the Vanger Industry headquarters. This scene is briefly detailed in the book — again, click here for my post where I highlighted the specific book passages — and the scene, as well as Lindgren’s role, is actually expanded in the David Fincher’s American film version. In the Swedish version, however, this scene feels abbreviated, or at least simplified. There is no tension of Lisbeth racing against time and battling Lindgren for access to the locked archive files; instead, Frode provides archives access to Lisbeth up front. The tension is focused solely on Lisbeth tracking down clues from the archive files and receipts and running down the bookcase aisles with loads of books and file boxes in her arms.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (2009)

It is nice to know, however, that Lisbeth is as equally dismissive of Frode in the Swedish version as she was of LINDGREN in the American version. ;)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (2009)

Funnily enough, there is an additional library scene in the Swedish version, when Lisbeth and Mikael research newspaper reports of earlier murders; the scene occurs a little more than halfway through the 2 1/2 hour running time. The library in that scene is obviously a public library, but alas, no librarian appears — not even in the background. It’s interesting to note that in the American version, the research of earlier murders is handled remotely, as Lisbeth gets to show off her research skills — and mastery of Boolean logic! — to track down online police and newspaper accounts of earlier murders.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (2009)

Although I bemoan the lost opportunity of another LINDGREN glare, I can understand why the character was dropped. The plot doesn’t lose anything major by axing the reel librarian character, although it was useful to know in the book (and American film version) that Martin Vangar was using LINDGREN as a way to keep tabs on Lisbeth’s whereabouts; this added another layer of awareness as the net tightened. However, the shorter and simpler archives scene in the Swedish version helps to amp up the pace toward the final third of the film. (By contrast, David Fincher spun out the archives scene in his version to add tension, which also worked.)

American version (2011) The Book (2005) Swedish Version (2009)
Librarian character name: Lindgren Bodil Lindgren — we get her first name! N/A
Archives access: Lindgren tries to lock up. When Lisbeth resists and requires access to locked records, she tells Lindgren to “call Frode.” Lindgren is unhappy about giving Lisbeth access, “but Herr Frode had given her instructions that could not be misinterpreted. This slip of a girl was to be free to look at anything she pleased.” Frode, Henrik Vangar’s lawyer, personally introduces Lisbeth to the archives.
Martin Vangar reference: “archives manager” “archives manager” N/A

I quite enjoyed the 2009 Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, especially the fearless performance of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. I found it interesting to mentally compare the Swedish and American versions — even beyond their choice to include LINDGREN or not! — and I honestly cannot choose a favorite. They are both done so well, and the lead actresses both so well cast, that the two films are equally good in my mind. One can enjoy both and appreciate them for the distinct expressions of artistic creativity they are.

The Swedish version gains points by being Swedish, of course, but the American version gains that ground back by including LINDGREN and that classic librarian glare.

If looks could kill

If looks could kill

And we end with that chill-worthy parting shot of LINDGREN from the 2011 American film version. You’re welcome. ;)

LINDGREN.

In Dewey’s country

I was able to catch the 2007 TV movie, In God’s Country, recently on my cable subscription. It’s a film I saw ages ago, so I already had notes — but I hadn’t taken screenshots at the time. It’s interesting to go over notes I wrote years ago, to see what I focused on then and if the notes differ to how I view the film now.

Reel Librarians  |  Notes from 'In God's Country' (2007)

Initial notes for ‘In God’s Country’ (2007)

This Lifetime TV movie — which has been renamed The Ultimate Sin — is an earnest but ultimately mediocre effort taking aim at a big issue, the issue of young women who feel trapped in polygamous religious communities. Kelly Rowan stars as Judith Leavitt — her last name foreshadows the plot! — who “leaves it,” leaving her community, her house, and her life as she has known it. She takes her five children with her and tries to start fresh. Of course, they struggle to adjust living “on the outside.”

The children particularly struggle at public school (Judith reveals that she wasn’t allowed to go to school past grade 7). In one short scene a little over an hour into the TV movie, Judith’s 12-year-old daughter, Alice, visits the school library. Alice wants a book on astronomy in order to teach the names of the stars to her mom. She goes up to the library counter, where the librarian (Agi Gallus) is checking out books to another student.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'In God's Country' (TV, 2007)

Librarian:  Can I help you?

Alice:  I’m looking for a book on astronomy.

Librarian:  Astronomy is in the 520’s.

Alice:  [shakes her head, clueless]

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'In God's Country' (TV, 2007)

Librarian:  520’s. Dewey Decimal system.

Librarian: [Hands stack of books to the other girl.] Millie, can you show her for me?

Millie: All the books are numbered. You just have to look at the spines. I know where the astronomy ones are because I like astronomy, too. Actually, I have a telescope.

Alice:  You have a telescope at home?

Millie:  You should come and see it.

The librarian here is friendly — and it’s nice to see a reel librarian in a bright color! — but as clueless about service as much as Alice is clueless about the Dewey Decimal system. She essentially passes off her reference duties to a young student, who has to explain the classification system to Alice. Peer learning can be great, but there was no good reason that the librarian couldn’t step out from behind her desk and do her job. Of course, the plot required that Alice make a friend, so I understand in terms of plot why the reference duty got passed on to Millie. But in terms of real life, this is NOT a great example of a reference interview!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'In God's Country' (TV, 2007)

Ultimately, this reel librarian ends up in the Class IV category, in which librarians appear only briefly with little or no dialogue. The librarian in this film is onscreen less than a minute, and fulfills the basic Information Provider role. She doesn’t provide that much useful information to Alice, of course, but the librarian also provides information to the audience. She is yet another example of how the “real world” doesn’t really understand what goes on in these kinds of communities and the impact of different social and educational structures.

At least the script writers got the Dewey Decimal system right, as this system of classification is the most common for school and public libraries. They also got the 520’s section right, as this is the general call number area for astronomy.

There is also a scene involving the 520’s — one with a decidedly less favorable ending — in UHF (1989) and starring Conan the Librarian. Read all about that scene here in this post. When I relayed this tidbit to my husband, he laughed, and said that I might be the only person to have made a connection between this TV movie and Conan the Librarian.

In Dewey we trust, right? ;)