The mask of organization

In the film noir-style drama, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), a mystery writer becomes obsessed with Dimitrios, a master criminal. In the opening scene, Dimitrios appears to have washed up dead on a beach. Is he dead? Has he faked his death? Just how dangerous is Dimitrios?

Peter Lorre stars as Leyden, the mystery writer — he gets to play a good guy for once! Sydney Greenstreet plays a smuggler with his own agenda, and Zachary Scott plays the shadowy Dimitrios. The story structure consists of a series of flashbacks, in which we witness the ruthlessness and cunning of the mysterious Dimitrios.

In one early scene almost 20 minutes in, Leyden travels to the Bureau of Records in Athens to research Dimitrios’s past and seeks help from an archives clerk. The scene is short, only 2 minutes long, landing the film in the Class III category. However, the archives clerk makes a distinct impression as an Anti-Social Librarian.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Mask of Dimitrios' (1944)

A white male archives clerk (30s?, extremely thin, dark suit and tie, thick glasses, dark hair, starting to go bald) looks up records in this uncredited role. The clerk seems very anal-retentive, and spouts off phrases like, “Organization is the secret of modern statecraft, but patience is necessary” and “This is organization.”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Mask of Dimitrios' (1944)

 

At first, he does not find the file and gives up easily, until Leyden asks him to look under another name (Talat, an alias used by Dimitrios). Ironic, then, that the clerk had emphasized patience! But obviously, that patience is one-sided in his mind.

The clerk becomes agitated when another man (Greenstreet, seen in the screenshot below) enters the office and then leaves. He sputters, “I have no assistance in my work of organization here. The whole burden falls on my shoulders. People have no patience. If I am engaged for a moment, they cannot wait. A man can do his duty, no more, no less.”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Mask of Dimitrios' (1944)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Mask of Dimitrios' (1944)

The clerk appears frustrated by people and their requests  — answering inquiries seems to be more about showing off his organizational skills than anything else — and he becomes extremely agitated when his methods are not successful or are called into question. This display of poor social skills, elitist attitude about rules and organization, and general dislike of the public, are all hallmarks of the Anti-Social Male Librarian character type. The archives clerk also plays a secondary role as Information Provider, as he is helpful in the end in confirming Dimitrios’s identity and alias.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The Mask of Dimitrios' (1944)

The set for the Bureau of Records is very spare, with its glass block window, stark walls, file cabinets, and desk. Its only extravagance is having TWO library ladders! The archives room is obviously a set — and to paraphrase the clerk — does its duty, no more, no less. ;)

It is also interesting to note that the archives clerk has devised his own system of organization that he keeps touting. He first looks in drawer #13 because “M” for “Makropoulous” is the 13th letter of the alphabet. When looking up the alias, Talat, he then seeks out… you guessed it, drawer #20, as “T” is the 20th letter of the alphabet. (Odd that he has to cross the room and climb up a different library ladder to get to a drawer only 7 spaces away. Organization ≠ efficiency.)

Leyden’s reaction to the clerk’s system of organization? “Very clever.” So clever that Leyden takes the opportunity to leave as the archives clerk turns away to boast, yet again, “You see? That is organization!”

Twisted librarian love

Continuing in our series of scary movies featuring librarians, this week’s feature is Twisted Nerve (1968). SPOILERS AHEAD.

Whistling past horror — although there are some close-ups of bloodied bodies and hatchets along the way — this decidedly odd film tries to sell itself as a psychological drama, with a main argument that homicidal/psychopathic tendencies are passed genetically. It also attempts to relate this issue of “twisted nerves” to Down’s Syndrome — referred to as “Mongolism” in this ’60s film — as the main star/villain of the film, Martin (played by Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, who looks like Zac Efron in a bad wig) has a brother with Down’s Syndrome living in a mental institution. Martin himself reverts to a mentally  handicapped personality, “Georgie,” throughout the film.

This (controversial and offensive) link to Down’s Syndrom is so badly pieced together that the filmmakers were forced to add a prologue during post-production, stating “that there is no established, scientific connection between Mongolism and psychotic, or criminal, behavior.”

You’re probably wondering… what in the world is a librarian doing in this film? Enter Hayley Mills as Susan Harper, a lovely young librarian who, in the space of an ill-timed smile, becomes the obsessive target of Martin, who assumes the persona of “Georgie” around Susan in order to gain her trust. Which isn’t very hard to do, because again and again, Susan is shown to be incredibly gullible, naive, and easily manipulated (even blaming herself in one scene for Georgie’s behavior!). It’s a credit to Hayley Mills’ acting skills that she comes across as warm-hearted and intelligent as she does; otherwise, you would just want to scream at the screen constantly about how dumb her actions are. Which, now that I think about it, totally fits the tradition for those watching horror movies, to scream at the young girl who walks into a dark house without telling anyone where she is.

A little over ten minutes into this Class II film, Martin/Georgie embarks upon his obsession by following Susan one morning to the public library, whilst whistling a creepy tune:

Don’t look behind you!

Susan is a classic Spirited Young Girl character type:  a young, physically attractive, intelligent, and modern girl who is working temporarily at the library. She’s quite open about working for a teaching degree, and she has a conversation later with her mom about school lasting “only one more year.” And along with Ali McGraw in Love Story (1970), she’s one of the best-dressed reel librarians ever! Behold the blonde-haired cuteness:

Our first introduction to Susan in a library setting is a classic one; while looking for a book atop a library ladder, two young lads enjoy the view up her (short) skirt.

It’s interesting to compare how the behavior of these two boys comes off as cheeky, while Martin’s behavior as alter ego Georgie — a young boy’s personality stunted in a man’s body — comes off as creepy. In small moments like this, this movie can be quite clever and intriguing.

Susan enjoys a nice moment of readers’ advisory with the boys:

Susan:  Here we are. How about this? [hand them book ]

Boy #1: The Tower of London? Get off. That’s history, isn’t it?

Susan:  That’s bloodthirsty enough, even for you, Johnny.

Boy #2:  Any girls in it?

Susan:  Well, there’s Lady Jane Grey. She gets the chopper.

Boy #2:  I’d rather have Lady Chatterley.

Susan:  I bet you would. But you take this. You’ll like it. I promise you.

Also during the few library scenes throughout the film, we are introduced to the head librarian, Mr. Groom, who is portrayed as a textbook example of the Anti-Social Male Librarian. Again, so clever to juxtapose this decidedly neurotic reel librarian with the name of “Mr. Groom.” Or maybe they’re hinting he’s horsey? ;)

In this first library scene, Martin/Georgie gets upset at Susan refusing to go to the cinema with him and starts unbuttoning his shirt in distress. While trying to help him button his shirt back up, Susan manages to then upset Mr. Groom, who rushes over with a stack of books, hissing in a loud stage whisper:

Look, I don’t know whether you are dressing or undressing your friend, but I do wish you wouldn’t do it in the public library.

In a later library scene, Martin/Georgie is waiting in the library for Susan after hours. Of course, this rattles Mr. Groom’s cage, who quickly scuttles over to him to point out the library’s been closed for the last 10 minutes. Martin doesn’t waste any Georgie mannerisms on Mr. Groom; rather, he calls him “Ratface” and later yells at the hapless reel librarian to “Get stuffed!”

Poor Mr. Groom, he has no idea what he’s in for

After Martin/Georgie has killed a few people, the drama increases as Susan finally starts putting all the pieces together. But even after figuring everything out and returning to an empty house all by herself (insert shouting at the screen!), she gets trapped in the attic in an effectively tense climax scene. The film ends on a plaintive note, as Martin/Georgie continues to call out for, “Susan, Susan.”

A memorable reel librarian in an otherwise troubled film.

Here’s a clip of the whistling scene (later echoed in Kill Bill: Vol. I), and our first glimpse of the public library:

Necronomicon: Dead on arrival

Continuing in our series this month of scary movies featuring librarians, next up is 1993’s Necronomicon:  Book of the Dead (aka Necronomicon, aka H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, Book of the Dead). The film is comprised of three segments, (Part 1, The Drowned, based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Rats in the Walls”; Part 2:  The Cold, based on the story “Cool Air”; Part 3: Whispers, based on the story “The Whisperer in Darkness”) plus a “wraparound” entitled The Library, which serves as a framing device for the other stories.

One of the directors, Shûsuke Kaneko, didn’t speak English during the time he was filming his segment, Part 2, although the entire cast is American. I’m not sure what the other directors’ excuses are. ;)

*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

The Library wraparound story i set in 1932 and stars Jeffrey Combs as the author H. P. Lovecraft, who pulls up in a taxi in front of an imposing building that houses a monastery library (see below).

The small bronze sign above the doorbell reads, “By appointment only.” Not sure if Lovecraft has an appointment, but he is apparently well-known by the librarian monks (played by Tony Azito as the Librarian, and Juan Fernandez as the attendant monk and library assistant).

Librarian:  Mr. Lovecraft, always a treat. And how can we indulge you this time?

Lovecraft:  Actually, I’m here because a new story of mine demands a bit of fact-checking.

Librarian:  Fact-checking? We were under the impression you dealt in fiction.

Lovecraft:  My work is wrongly construed as fiction by the lesser minded. In fact, I take great pride in presenting fictional possibilities. It is my duty, after all, as a human being to enlighten the darkest depths of experience, to expose certain secrets unjustly hoarded by others.

Librarian:  We shall see.

There is NOTHING subtle in this movie — from the makeup to the costumes to the “acting” to the “writing” (quotations marks intended) — so why would the librarian character be any different? Check out these facial expressions from the librarian monk:

After signing in, we next spy the librarian on a library ladder. Obviously up to something, Lovecraft nervously directs the librarian to the alchemical encyclopedia on the top shelf (of course). While the librarian is busy reaching for the volume, Lovecraft manages to unhook the librarian’s keys from his waist sash without him noticing the sound of jangling keys or the sudden missing weight. Yeah. Right.


When you get massive eye-rolling from not only a main character (ahem, librarian monk) AND the audience within the first five minutes, you know it’s going to be a bad time. And the librarian monk tries to give Lovecraft a bad time with his next comment.

Please try to remember that if you leave this area unattended for any reason whatsoever, we shall be forced to revoke your privileges.

Does this stern warning work? Yeah. Right.

The very next shot shows him scurrying downstairs — although his furtive act is actually seen by the librarian assistant monk. Lovecraft approaches a secret archives room with a safe along the back wall, which DA-DA-DUMMMM, reveals the Necronomicon, the book of the dead. Cracking it open, Lovecraft disturbs some kind of force, causing the two librarian monks to look up (see below). Knowing what he’s up to, do the two librarian monks actually follow through on their threat to “revoke his privileges”? Of course not! There wouldn’t be a plot (such as it is).

I won’t go into the plots of the three story segments, but I will reveal that they’re all (sort of) set in the future. Or possibly alternate futures. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Inbetween the stories, we are treated to an ever-increasing sense of unease through the library wraparound scenes, as the wall safe opens up more portal doors as more pages are turned. The librarians’ actions also (finally) escalate:

  • After the first story segment, the two librarian monks pick up Lovecraft’s hat in the main hall and casually ask, “Will he truly be brainless enough to try?” Response:  “Of course. He’s human.”
  • After the second segment, the librarian monk then tries to open up the door leading to the archives room, but finds the handle locked.
  • And finally, after the third story, the librarian monk shouts to Lovecraft through the iron bars. After Lovecraft reveals that he dropped the keys, the librarian begins to reveal his true self: “You impetuous little fool! Do you know what you’ve done?! Put it back. Put the book back!”

Too late! As the safe opens and an alien creature comes hurtling down the portal, the librarian monk squeezes through the bars and grabs Lovecraft. More threats and cheesy lines:

The secrets of the Necrominocon do not come cheap. This is going to cost you your life! Consider your privileges revoked, Mr. Lovecraft!

Perhaps balking at this ultra-cheesy line, Lovecraft unhinges the librarian’s jaws and pulls off his face, revealing the librarian as an alien! LIBRARIAN MONK ALIEN … LIBRARIAN MONK ALIEN … that phrase just kept spooling through my head … in all caps … LIBRARIAN MONK ALIEN.

Does Lovecraft get away? Of course! The alien creature grabs the LIBRARIAN MONK ALIEN instead and heads back down the wormhole portal, leaving this mess behind:

The Necromonicon closes, and Lovecraft runs away as the librarian monk assistant shouts, “You don’t know what you’ve done! You’ll pay!” The movie ends on a closeup of the Necronomicon that he stole from the library.

Afterwards, my husband’s summation? “We’ve definitely seen worse.” As I pointed out, that’s not really a compliment. ;)

And in a film that supposedly celebrates Lovecraft’s craft, the character himself comes off rather poorly. We learn that (a) he’s a thief; (b) he’s smug about said thievery and escape; (c) he’s a plagiarist, as he was just copying the stories from the Necronomicon; and (d) he doesn’t care about the damage he caused — and presumably will continue causing — by opening up this book of the dead. The LIBRARIAN MONK ALIENS don’t come off well in this film, but Lovecraft comes off worse. It’s never a good time when you can’t root for a single character!

Sam is so well-versed in my reel librarian research that we also enjoyed a lively discussion of what character types the LIBRARIAN MONK ALIENS fulfilled:

  • Comic Relief? It’s sad when the bad acting and writing in a would-be horror film could count as comic relief, but that wasn’t the intention, I’m sure.
  • Liberated Librarian? No way.
  • Male Librarian as a Failure? One could argue this considering the failure of the librarians to protect the book they were supposed to protect. Ultimately, however, one should assume these monks chose to live their lives in the library and wanted to protect the book of the dead, even though they were horribly inept at doing so.
  • Information Provider? I say yes, as the main librarian’s actions in the beginning of the film (signing in a library patron, climbing the library ladder, helping Lovecraft find a specific book) are used to establish the setting as a library, and his own role recognizable as a librarian, even while dressed in monk robes.
  • Anti-Social Librarian? Bingo! Hoarding knowledge; never seen outside the library; poor social skills; seems to dislike people; dressed conservatively; and elitist? Checkmark on all accounts.

So there you have it. Two anti-social and information-providing librarians in this Class III film. And one more time…

LIBRARIAN MONK ALIEN.

That is all.

Between perfect order and perfect chaos

Merriam Webster’s definition of “anal-retentive”

Does “anal-retentive” have a hyphen?

(Yes, usually, but it depends — probably on whether you’re British or American, as the Oxford English Dictionary does not include a hyphen, whilst Merriam Webster does, see right). But that’s not the point… or is it? ;)

Having watched this week the most recent David Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method (2011) — all about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Sabina Spielrein, and the early years of establishing psychology as a science — it felt like a good time to explore more into why reel librarians are so often portrayed with anal-retentive qualities.

I’ve touched on this subject before, including this post about Myers-Briggs types of real librarians, the librarian as nightmare image, as well as in my explorations of the Spinster Librarian and Anti-Social Librarian character types. And please note that I’m talking here about broader archetypes and stereotypical characteristics; I’m not making a critical judgment on the profession in general or commenting on any specific person.

There are many kinds of onscreen tension lurking behind the cinematic portrayals of librarians (power struggles, battle for knowledge vs. battle between the sexes, etc.). One such tension is anal-retentiveness, a trait that shows up quite often in film portrayals of librarians, usually in smaller roles. Examples of anal-retentive behavior include loudly shushing any noisemakers in a library (City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, 1994, see below); expressing anxiety when a book is late or damaged (as parodied in UHF, 1989); and showing reluctance to check any books out, thereby hoarding knowledge (for a most extreme example, see The Name of the Rose, 1986).

Shushing Lady in ‘City Slickers II’

Poor social skills also show up in conjunction with these characteristics, which seem to be rooted in the conflict or tension between order and chaos. In their 1997 article “Power, Knowledge, and Fear:  Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” the Radfords have noted that libraries, and thus librarians, are “structured by the values of order, control, and suppression” (255). Studying cataloging and organizational systems is standard practice for librarians, and shelving, carding, and stamping materials become essential in any well-organized library (see my post on library qualifications and job duties). It is this want — this need — of an organized system of resources that makes it easy, or at least manageable, for any user to find a resource he/she wants in a library’s system.

Mary (Parker Posey) in Party Girl (1995) throws a funny light on the serious business of shelving when she yells at a patron for randomly shelving a book (see below).  “Let’s put the book any damn place we want!”

The librarian is also charged with compiling the most complete collection he/she possibly can — whether that means digital or print resources — that reflects the community that library serves. But that collection can NEVER be complete, because users continuously check out those materials — thereby “disrupting” that so-called perfect harmony of the complete and ordered collection. Thus, cinematically, the librarian often displays characteristics of an uptight, sheltered, and, at times, almost manic personality in order to eliminate, sometimes at all costs, the potential disruption of stability. In The Name of the Rose (1986), abbey librarian Malachia strives to hoard the books in the abbey’s library. However, “it is this knowledge, rather than the texts themselves, that is so fanatically protected by the monks” (Radford, 257), leading to murder, arson, and chaos — or freedom, depending on whether you root for Malachia or not.

This tension between order and chaos felt by librarians (who want to protect the materials and their organizational order) and the users (who strive for knowledge by borrowing or accessing those materials) finds itself depicted in many screen portrayals of librarians. This tension is not gender-driven, however; both male and female librarians are depicted onscreen as people who are “obsessed with the order that rationality demands of them” (Radford, 261). Among others, Miss Anderson in Citizen Kane (1941), the librarian played by John Rothman in Sophie’s Choice (1982), and Elvia Allman in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) all exhibit the hypertension caused (or created?) by the inherent conflict between perfect order and perfect chaos.

What do you think? If you’re a fellow librarian, have you been able to find a personal balance between order and chaos? Or, like the question about the hypen in “anal-rententive” that started us off, does it even matter in the end? (Hee hee.) ;)

And now for something not-so-completely-different… the patented shushing super power from the librarian action figure.

The Anti-Social Librarian

Continuing our series of reel librarian character types (click here, here, here, here, and here), this week we’re shining the spotlight on the Anti-Social Librarian, aka “The Male Librarian with No Life Outside the Library.” That was the moniker I used in my undergraduate thesis (more on that here) — and my talent for awkward titles is well-documented. While the previous name was an apt description, I decided to simplify it.

This character type may seem more like a variation on the Male Librarian as a Failure type. Both are awkward in social situations, and minor roles usually used to contrast with other reel librarians or major characters in the film (see Off Beat, 1986; Goodbye, Columbus, 1969; Prick Up Your Ears, 1987; and Fast and Loose, 1939) . However, I set the Anti-Social Librarian apart because there are a few characteristics that apply to this type of male librarian and not necessarily to the male librarians who fit the “loser” mold.

Exhibit A: The Anti-Social Librarian

Exhibit B: The Spinster Librarian

Essentially, this is the male equivalent of the Spinster Librarian:  conservative library workers who hoard knowledge and focus on rules. There are also physical similarities between the two (see above). They do NOT like people and display extremely elitist attitudes, resulting in those strict rules. In this category, the reel librarians are almost never seen outside the library — or at least, never in any sense of home or social setting — because they are seen as literal extensions, or representations, of the library. It comes as no surprise that whenever an Anti-Social Librarian shows up in a film, an unflattering light is cast on libraries in general. Instead of places of knowledge and access to information, libraries are depicted as places blocked off with barriers and secrets.

Most Anti-Social Librarians do not have important roles in these films, which helps to cement stereotypical traits of personality (anal retentive, unfriendly) and physical appearance (conservative clothing, unattractive). These types don’t like the public, and the very idea of the public using their libraries can send them into a panic, as in Goodbye, Columbus (1969). In that film, Neil’s co-workers include  twoAnti-Social Librarians, who seek to prohibit an African-American boy from visiting the library.

John McKee (Bill Derringer):  What’d you let him in for?

Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin):  It’s a public library.

John: You know where I found him yesterday? In the stacks looking at the nudes. He was hiding there all morning. [Note: The boy is actually interested in art books]

Neil:  Did you throw him out?

John: Of course I threw him out.

John Rothman (he also stars in my “Repeat Offenders” post) has made his mark in playing this type of male librarian, appearing in two films as an Anti-Social Librarian. First, in Sophie’s Choice (1982), he has a memorable scene as the uncaring library clerk who ridicules Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep), who mistakenly asks for information on “Emil Dickens” when she means “Emily Dickinson.” He has no concept of polite behavior; he shouts, argues, ridicules, and basically causes an already emotionally and physically frail women to fall down on the floor in a faint. His oily hair, glasses, and bow tie complete his image of anal retentiveness. It is important that he remains behind his high desk; he cannot be removed from that desk, or his image as the snooty, unbending keeper of privileged knowledge would be diluted.

In a more modern perspective, Rothman played a library administrator in Ghostbusters (1984). His job — again, never seen outside library doors — centers on protecting the library’s reputation. He seems totally oblivious that a poor librarian (Alice Drummond) was scared out of her wits by a ghost. He is concerned only with how people will regard the library, and by association, himself.

Malachia, the Head Librarian, from The Name of the Rose

A film set in the fourteenth century, The Name of the Rose (1986), features one of the strangest male librarians in reel history, Malachia (played by Volker Prechtel). A monk with an enormous nose and ears and tufts of red-orange hair, he is depicted as strange and rude, with no social skills whatsoever. His name — derived from Malachi, a minor prophet from the Bible, whose name means “my messenger” — reflects his ties to the library, or at least how he perceives the purpose of his life’s vocation. Malachia works to isolate the library from any prying eyes. Only three monks in the monastery know the key to the library’s peculiar system of cataloging books, explaining how Malachia (who is referred to as the “head librarian”) helps hoards knowledge and limits physical access to any books deemed unsuitable.

Here’s what happens when William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his sidekick, Adso of Melk (Christian Slater), encounter Malachia outside the library door:

William:  I was just looking for your assistant, Brother Berengar. Is he here?

Malachia:  No.

William:  Oh. I see. Do you know where we might find him?

Malachia:  No.

William:  Is he perhaps upstairs in the library?

Malachia:  No.

William:  I am most curious to see the library for myself. May I do so?

Malachia:  NO! [moves to physically block door to library]

William:  Why not?

Malachia:  It is a strict rule of the abbot, that no one is permitted to enter the abbey library, other than myself and my assistant.

Of course, William and Adso find a way into the library later. Take a peek for yourself, in the clip below:

Next Friday, we’ll take a look at the Comic Relief librarians… so you’d better start saving up your laughs now, okay? ;)