Reader poll write-up, spring 2018: Ask the Dust

As per the winning entry in the most recent reader poll, this week I am analyzing the 2006 film Ask the Dust this week. I had never seen the film before.

Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License

What’s it all about?

The 2006 film stars Salma Hayek, who plays Mexican immigrant Camilla, and Colin Farrell, who plays Arturo Bandini, the son of two Italian immigrants. Here’s the film description from Amazon Prime:

“Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), a young would-be writer who comes to Depression-era Los Angeles to make a name for himself. While there, he meets beautiful barmaid Camilla (Salma Hayek), a Mexican immigrant who hopes for a better life by marrying a wealthy American. Both are trying to escape the stigma of their ethnicity in blue-blood California. The passion that arises between them is palpable.”

Bandini Quartet cover

“John Fante, Ask the dust” by giuliaduepuntozero is licensed under CC BY ND 2.0

The film is based on the book by Italian-American author John Fante and was first published in 1939 — but the book, and its author, fell into obscurity in subsequent decades. However, Robert Towne rediscovered and used the book as inspiration for the Depression-era (and Oscar-winning) dialogue he wrote for the 1974 classic Chinatown, and writer Charles Bukowski helped the book get republished and wrote a foreword for the 1980 reprint edition by Black Sparrow Press. The book is part of the “Bandini Quartet,” four novels about central character Arturo Bandini.

I had admittedly never heard of the book or the author before, but by all accounts, it’s an underrated gem of a novel — and both its style and subject matter have been extremely influential in the last few decades. For that reason alone, I’m glad I watched this film!

On paper, the film has a lot going for it:  it’s based on a groundbreaking novel; stars two talented and award-winning actors; was written and directed by Robert Towne (the same one who rediscovered Fante’s work in the 1970s!); and was produced by Tom Cruise.

The final result, however, is frustratingly disappointing, all the more so considering the talent involved. Hayek and Farrell display very little chemistry onscreen — or rather, Hayek has sexual chemistry for days (and is the bright spot in this film), but Farrell cannot seem to, uh, rise to the occasion. Farrell has a natural Irish brogue, and acting with an American accent seems to have dampened his naturally charismatic personality. (Yes, an Irishman is playing an Italian-American immigrant.) There is also waaaaaaaay too much voice-over narration, an expository trick that falls as flat as Farrell’s American accent.

Reel librarian fake-out

Within the first few seconds of the title cards, Eileen Atkins’s name came on screen against a backdrop of an open book, a fountain pen, and glasses on a chain. I immediately perked up at these often librarian-adjacent props and thought, “Oh! Perhaps Eileen Atkins is also playing a librarian!”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Credit card for Eileen Atkins in ‘Ask the Dust’ (2006)

Alas, no. Fake-out! The first few minutes of the film reveal that Eileen Atkins plays Arturo’s no-nonsense landlady, not a librarian. She does wear glasses on a chain, but the open book in the credits turns out to be the guest registration book.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Eileen Atkins as the landlady, not the librarian

The real reel librarian

Nine minutes into the scene, Arturo recalls a memory from when he lived in Colorado. (I didn’t get at first that this was a flashback scene, but then I recalled the librarian role was listed in the credits as “Denver librarian.”) He is in a public library, and he sets down a book on the front counter to check it out.

The librarian at the counter, played by Natasha Staples, is young, blonde, and attractive. She is also fashionably dressed in modern, stylish clothes (for the 1930s time period), and it’s obvious that she has made a considerable effort with her makeup and curled hairdo. She and her red lipstick definitely stand out amidst all the hazy earth tones of the rest of the library setting.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Public library scene and background

Here’s how their “meet cute” moment plays out, as Arturo sets down the book on the counter:

LibrarianYou have nice hands.

ArturoI do?

LibrarianVery.

There is definite flirty eye contact happening between the two.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Arturo and the librarian “meet cute”

Then the librarian looks down as she stamps his card, her eyes registering his name. She looks up at Arturo.

LibrarianBandini? You’re Italian. 

Her face subtly hardens, and her voice flattens out.

LibrarianThat’ll be two cents every day it’s overdue.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Reel librarian discrimination and dismissal

This is the librarian’s last line, and it is a clear dismissal. Arturo’s face falls as he realizes that the librarian is no longer interested in him, due to his name and Italian roots.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from library scene in 'Ask the Dust' (2006)

Meet disappointment

This library scene lasts only 30 seconds and includes the bare minimum of sets and props, including stacks of books and a stamper.

The reel librarian’s role

What is the reel librarian’s role in this short scene? Although the reel librarian is onscreen for only a few seconds, she stands out enough to merit a Class III category, in which librarian(s) plays a secondary role, ranging from a supporting character to a minor character with perhaps only a few lines in one memorable or significant scene.

Primarily, this reel librarian serves as an Information Provider character type. In addition to helping set the library scene, her role reflects the discrimination toward Italian immigrants at that time. This scene provides necessary backstory for Arturo’s personal frustration and experiences suffering unfair treatment and discriminatory behavior due to his name, ethnicity, and background. The plot is then set for Arturo to meet Camilla, a Mexican immigrant who has also suffered discrimination to her name, ethnicity, and background.

It’s also interesting to note that this reel librarian partially fulfills the Naughty Librarian character type. It’s clear that she’s willing to be naughty… if the man has the right name, of course.

Sources used

Ask the Dust. Dir. Robert Towne. Perf. Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Idina Menzel, Eileen Atkins. Paramount, 2006.

Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License.

Woodard, Rob. “How Ask the Dust nearly missed greatness.The Guardian, 14 Jan. 2009.

Past reader poll winners

Interested in past reader poll analyses? Check out them out below:

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Reader poll winner, spring 2018

The votes for the most recent reader poll are in… and the surprise winner is Ask the Dust! The 2006 film starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell had a come-from-behind victory today, during the last day that the poll was open, and the other two films, Autumn in New York and A Bird of the Air were tied only yesterday. Very dramatic finish!

Screenshot of reader poll spring 2018

Ask the Dust? Ask me next week!

So I will be watching and analyzing Ask the Dust this week via our Amazon Prime subscription, and next week I will be back with a film analysis post — stay tuned!

Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License

Past reader poll winners

In the meantime, if you’d like to peruse previous reader poll winners, check out them out below:

Reader poll, spring 2018: Choose your next reel librarian (romantic) adventure

I have opened up a reader poll at least twice a year since Spring 2014, when I ask readers to vote for the next film for me to analyze. You can see past reader polls here.

I usually pull together five film titles, but this time, I am only doing three titles, all available streaming from Amazon Prime. (Can you tell I am making the most of our membership?! This post is not sponsored, I promise. 😉 ) And all three titles are romances.

Therefore, now is the time to choose your next reel librarian romantic adventure! The reader poll will stay open through next Tuesday, May 15th, by 10 p.m. PST.


Ask the Dust (2006)


Ask The Dust – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube License

Starring:

Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland

Film description on Amazon Prime:

“Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell), a young would-be writer who comes to Depression-era Los Angeles to make a name for himself. While there, he meets beautiful barmaid Camilla (Salma Hayek), a Mexican immigrant who hopes for a better life by marrying a wealthy American. Both are trying to escape the stigma of their ethnicity in blue-blood California. The passion that arises between them is palpable.”

Where a librarian fits in:

I have never seen this film, but the credits list the role of a “Denver librarian” played by Natasha Staples. I have to assume it is a minor role in this historical romance. But Colin Farrell is playing a writer, so perhaps there’s a research angle involved in helping him write a book?


Autumn in New York (2000)


Autumn In New York Trailer.mov,” uploaded by SarahG, Standard YouTube License

Starring:

Richard Gere, Winona Ryder

Film description on Amazon Prime:

“Autumn in New York follows the sexual exploits of Will Keane (Richard Gere) – New York restaurateur, infamous verging-on-50 playboy, master of the no-commitment seduction – until he runs into an unexpected dead end when he meets Charlotte Fielding (Winona Ryder). Charlotte is half Will’s age and twice his match, a 21 year-old free spirit yearning to get out and taste the excitement of adult life.”

Where a librarian fits in:

I saw this film years ago, but I honestly don’t remember much of it except that it was very dramatic and an over-the-top, tearjerker romantic. I do remember a librarian who works at a museum, and Delores Mitchell is listed in the credits as playing the role of “Librarian.” I also have in my film notes that Lisa Tyler (played by Vera Farmiga) is a researcher.


A Bird of the Air (2011)


A Bird of the Air – Movie Trailer (2011) HD,” uploaded by Movieclips Trailers, Standard YouTube License

Starring:

Rachel Nichols, Jackson Hurst, Linda Emond

Film description on Amazon Prime:

“Rachel Nichols and Jackson Hurst star in an adaptation of the romantic novel The Loop. When a talking bird bursts into his Lyman’s life, Fiona helps unravel the past and opens up his heart.”

Where a librarian fits in:

The main character Fiona is a librarian! The film’s plot summary in IMDb.com states “A sassy parrot and a free-spirited librarian upend the well-ordered life of a solitary man.” There is another librarian character listed in the credits, with Carrie Fleming playing a “Reference Librarian.” This sounds like a quirky romance with a starring role for a reel librarian.


Again, the reader poll will stay open through next Tuesday, May 15th, by 10 p.m. PST. Thanks in advance for helping choose which film I should analyze next!

I’ll be back next week on Wednesday, May 16th, with the winning film. And then I will publish my analysis post the following week, on May 23rd.

First impressions: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Last week, I did a deep dive into analyzing Wong’s reel librarian role in 2016’s Doctor Strange, in the lead-up to this past weekend’s (record-crashing) premiere of Avengers: Infinity War.

Below is Benedict Wong’s charming interview — and his Manchester accent! — on the premiere’s red carpet event.

First impressions overall

First, my impressions about Avengers: Infinity War in general. Note about spoilers:  I will try hard not to spoil the big reveals or the ending, but be forewarned that I might (indirectly) allude to outcomes or clues.

Overall, I really enjoyed the movie. The action and pacing kept the story going, and it was truly impressive how the directors, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, wove in character arcs throughout the multiple locales and action sequences. As one Vox reviewer highlighted, this movie mirrored onscreen how superhero comics do big crossover series in print. That the Marvel Universe managed to pull together all the myriad characters and story threads together — and did it well — is a Herculean feat, in and of itself.

I was also impressed with how expressive the CGI was for Thanos. I knew the Purple One was CGI, and yet I could not help but be moved by the genuine emotion captured in Thanos’s face — or rather, how they managed to capture actor Josh Brolin’s acting and emoting underneath all the CGI.

The ending… I will not spoil it, but I was impressed by how the ending raised the stakes. It connected back to the original comics series while also standing on its own. I also have to admit that one of my first thoughts after the movie ended was, “Now how are they going to get out of this one??!

First impressions of Wong’s character in this movie

I mentioned last week that the director of Doctor Strange had hinted that Wong had an important role in Avengers: Infinity War. And Wong had scored his own character poster, which featured him conjuring magical shields with his hands.

Wong plays a part in one of the major battle scenes near the beginning of the movie. Thanos has dispatched his Black Watch baddies, using a “divide and conquer” strategy, with Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian heading toward New York to retrieve the Time Stone from Doctor Strange (the stone is in the Eye of Agomotto).

Bruce Banner also comes hurtling through time and space and (literally) crashes into the New York sanctum. He then warns them of Thanos.

Wong remains Strange's "right-hand man"

Wong remains Strange’s “right-hand man”

Tony Stark — who was conveniently in Central Park with Pepper — quickly joins Banner, Strange, and Wong. Wong then goes into teacher/librarian mode and explains the stakes to Stark and Banner, through an illusion casting of the Infinity Stones. Wong is efficient and straightforward in this exposition, identifying and naming each Infinity Stone. This scene essentially functions as an abbreviated form of Wong’s Infinity Stone lesson to Strange in Doctor Strange; in that film, Wong did the illusion casting in the Kamar-Taj monastery, home to the monastery library. But in this film, it makes sense that Wong conjures the Infinity Stones in the entrance of the New York sanctum. We never get to see Wong the sorcerer librarian in his monastery library, but it is nice to see him using his librarian skills to help set up the stakes — and the plot of the entire movie — to members of the Avengers, as well as to the audience.

Side note:  There is an Avengers: Infinity War prelude comic that reveals that Wong knows a LOT about the Infinity Stones, more than anyone else does. This suggests he has done some serious research in tracking down the history and provenance of each Infinity Stone, befitting his role as the Kamar-Taj Librarian. Henceforth, Wong will be known as the Supreme Researcher.

Back to the action… once again, Wong is just in time with his lesson, because the foursome then immediately square off against Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian. Banner has trouble turning into the Hulk — there’s a funny bit when Tony Stark says something like, “You’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards!” — so Wong takes up the charge of protecting Banner.

Stlll from 'Avengers: Infinity War' trailer

The Avengers face off the Black Watch in New York

Wong then ultimately defeats Cull Obsidian by transporting him to a snowy region/planet and then severs off the villain’s arm when closing the portal. It’s nice to see Wong victorious in battle in this movie, especially considering his previous battle at the end of Doctor Strange, which I went into detail in last week’s post. Stark is so impressed with Wong’s quick thinking and magical skillz that he shouts, “Wong, you’re invited to the wedding!” (We had learned earlier that Tony and Pepper are recently engaged.)

A quick note that amidst all the action, Wong does land a few jokes, including one about a favorite flavor of ice cream, delivered in his usual deadpan style.

Ebony Maw ultimately captures Strange, and Stark and Spider-Man — who has since joined the crew — pursue Maw’s ship. This leaves Bruce Banner to contact Captain America and Wong to defend the sanctum.

Ultimately, Wong serves the same role and fulfills the same character types as he did in Doctor Strange; he serves as both an Information Provider and Comic Relief.

Will we get to see Wong again?

Again, I will not (directly) spoil the end of the movie, but be warned that I may (indirectly and vaguely) allude to outcomes or clues.

If Wong returns in the second movie, then he might be key to restoring the world order. After all, he may turn out to be one of the only (if not the only?) Masters of the Mystic Arts left. However, Benedict Wong is not (currently) listed on the cast list for the Infinity War sequel, scheduled to be released next year. But that cast list is very short — only about three dozen names are listed as yet — so I will be on the lookout for any more news or clues of Wong.

Last but not least, I need to address the most important cliffhanger of the filmwill Wong get to attend Tony Stark’s wedding??? We shall see… 😉


Have you seen Avengers: Infinity War yet? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts — but no direct spoilers, please!

And if you want more backstory on Wong and his character in the Marvel movies, check out Wong’s character page on the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki site.


Sources used:

Adams, Tim. “Infinity War Prelude Comic Shows Wong Is More Important Than We Knew.” CBR.com, 28 Feb. 2018.

Avengers: Infinity War. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2018.

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers” uploaded by Movieclips Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Benedict Wong on ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Premiere Red Carpet | THR” by The Hollywood Reporter is licensed under a Standard YouTube license.

Untitled Avengers Movie (2019): Full Cast & Crew.” IMDb.com, 2018.

VanDerWerff, Todd. “Avengers: Infinity War is like a really short season of a TV show.” Vox, 1 May 2018.

Wong.” Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, 2018.

Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Avengers: Infinity War opens this weekend, and if you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe series of films, then you’ll know that one of the (many, many) characters and heroes of the Marvel Universe is sorcerer librarian Wong, who was first introduced onscreen in 2016’s Doctor Strange.

Wong made the Avengers: Infinity War‘s promotional poster, in the upper right corner, and he scored his own character poster, as well. And there are a few glimpses of Wong in the first trailer (at 10 seconds, 46 seconds, and 1:02 minutes) that was released back in November 2017.

Before we rush to see the new film in the Marvel saga, let’s get to know the sorcerer librarians from Doctor Strange a bit better, yes?
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

Library scene #1

The first library scene in Doctor Strange is also the first scene of the film, period. The librarian is shelving books in the Kamar-Taj monastery library. The villains, headed by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), break into the library and string up the librarian.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

The librarian is surrounded

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Librarian torture

They kill the librarian in order to gain access to the chained-up books in the restricted section, and Kaecilius then rips out a secret spell from one of the books, which we later learn is the Book of Cagliostro. Such is the power of knowledge, eh? Librarians, who in this context are literally the gatekeepers to forbidden knowledge, should get hazard pay for the very real dangers that come with the job.

When I first watched this film in theaters, I literally thought, “Wow. Is this the first time onscreen that a reel librarian’s murder has begun a film?!”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

The book of spells falls into the villain’s hands

This reel librarian, listed in the credits as the “Kamar-Taj Librarian,” is played by Ezra Khan, and he does get more backstory in one of the digital comics, Doctor Strange Prelude – The Zealot. This comic helped fill in some of the plot points and motivations for characters in the film, including prior interactions between the Kamar-Taj Librarian and Kaecilius.

Library scene #2

Our next library scene introduces us to the new monastery librarian, Wong (played by Benedict Wong, who also gets 4th billing in the credits list, and is credited above the title). Thirty-five minutes into the film, Strange begins his studies in earnest and brings a stack of books back to the library. Wong has a deadpan, inscrutable face — he takes the “librarian glare” to another dimension! — and he has no patience for Strange. #TeamWong

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian and Doctor Strange “meet cute”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong’s librarian glare

The library entrance is dark and full of shadows, with dim lighting — like the inner sanctum of the library itself — and this is where the librarian’s desk is, a wide and solid wood desk stacked with papers and books. The walls are lined with overstuffed bookcases. Wong wears burgundy robes, fitting his station as a Master of the Mystic Arts. His head is shaved, and he does not wear glasses.

Wong introduces himself with one word, his name. Doctor Strange tries to make a joke out of his one name (“Just Wong? Like Adele? Aristotle? Drake? Bono? Eminem?“), which becomes a running joke throughout the film.

Wong ignores him and reads the titles of the books Strange has brought back (Book of the Invisible Sun, Astronomia Nova, Codex Imperium, and Key of Solomon), and then invites Strange on a tour of the library.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian provides backstory and context for Doctor Strange

We get to see much more of the library — dimly lit with lamps, of course — which has rows of bookcases that slide in and out, full of books individually chained up. A very interesting shelving system!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian chooses books for Doctor Strange

We also get lots of exposition as Wong looks for and selects books for Wong to read next. This is one of the main roles that Wong fulfills, that of an Information Provider. And we get a LOT of information in the exchange below:

Wong: This section is for masters only but at my discretion, others may use it. You should start with Maxim’s primer. [He unchains a book.] How’s your Sanskrit?

Strange: I’m fluent in Google Translate.

Wong: Vedic, classical Sanskrit.

Strange: What are those? [points to the chained-up books]

Wong: The Ancient One’s private collection.

Strange: So they’re forbidden?

Wong: No knowledge in Kamar-Taj is forbidden. Only certain practices. Those books are far too advanced for anyone other than the Sorceror Supreme.

Strange: [unhooks a book] This one’s got pages missing. [This is the same book featured in the movie’s first scene, the book that Kaecilius ripped pages out of]

Wong: That’s the Book of Cagliostro. A study of time. One of the rituals was stolen by a former master. The zealot, Kaecilius. Just after he strung up the former librarian and relieved him of his head. I am now the guardian of these books. So if a volume from this collection should be stolen again I’d know it, and you’d be dead before you ever left the compound.

Wong then slams shut the book for emphasis. [This is a totally bad-ass move — and speech. I love how Wong makes it very clear that he cares deeply about his duty as the monastery librarian. Again, #TeamWong]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong lays down the (library) law for Doctor Strange

Strange: What if it’s just overdue? Any late fees I should know about? Maiming perhaps?

Wong responds in silence and hands him a stack of books.

Strange: People used to think that I was funny.

Wong: Did that work for you?

Strange: All right. Well it’s been lovely talking to you. Thank you for the books… and for the horrifying story… and for the threat upon my life.

Wong nods, turns, and chains up the book again.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong secures one of the book in the library’s forbidden section

This scene lasts only three minutes, but wow, does it pack a punch! And Wong establishes his sorcerer and warrior bonafides with the bare minimum of dialogue and facial expressions. In his first scene, Wong has already established himself as one of the most interesting and dynamic reel librarian characters EVER.

Library scene #3

A few minutes later, at 43 minutes into the film, Strange returns to the library. Wong is sitting in his chair by the front table. He gets straight to the point.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Facial expression showdown!

Wong: What do you want, Strange?

Strange: Books on astral projection.

Wong: You’re not ready for that.

Strange: Try me Beyonce. Oh come on, you have heard of her right? She’s a huge star. Do you ever laugh? Oh come on just give me the book.

Wong: No.

Strange is not one to take “no” for an answer, so the next scene demonstrates how Strange bends the rules to get what he wants. It’s a seconds-long scene played for comedic effect. The central joke is that Wong, sitting at his desk while Strange steals books literally behind his back, is listening to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” song, which can be heard through his headphones. Of course he knows about Beyonce! This scene also hints at Wong’s (hidden) sense of humor. The joke is ultimately on Strange, as it’s clear that Wong misled him about his knowledge of Beyonce, in order to put a check on Strange’s big ego.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Library theft!

But Wong is also not one to take this deception lightly. In the next scene, the Ancient One scolds Strange for not following “the rules.”

Ancient One: Like the rule against conjuring a gateway in the library?

Strange: Wong told on me?

Ancient One: Trust your teacher, and don’t lose your way.

I like that last line, because it clearly designates the reel librarian as a teacher in his own right and someone to be respected. After all, he is a Master of the Mystic Arts, like the librarian before him. Yep, librarians are educators, too.

Library scene #4

Almost 50 minutes into the film, Strange heads back to the library, which now appears empty. Strange calls out to Wong; hearing no answer, he then heads straight to the restricted. Because OF COURSE. Strange grabs the Eye of Agomotto — which is itself an Infinity Stone and therefore very powerful — and figures out how to turn back time. He then uses the spell to resurrect the torn-out pages in the Book of Cagliostro. While I appreciate that he repaired the book — Strange could have a second career repairing books in libraries across the globe! — this was very reckless behavior.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Doctor Strange resurrects the missing pages from the book of spells

Wong and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) then burst in. Time to teach Strange a lesson.

Strange: I was just doing what was in the book.

Wong: What did the book say about the dangers of performing that ritual?

Strange: I don’t know. I hadn’t gotten to that part yet.

Mordo: Temporal manipulations can create branches in time. Unsuitable dimensional openings. Spatial paradoxes. Time loops! You wanna get stuck reliving the same moment over and over forever or never having existed at all?

Strange: Really should put the warnings before the spell.

It was at this moment that my husband, Sam, yelled aloud at the screen: “You did get the warning before, you just didn’t listen. It was the librarian!” Damn straight. ♥

Wong: Your curiosity could have gotten you killed. You weren’t manipulating the space time continuum, you were breaking it. We do not tamper with natural law. We defend it.

Again, Wong steps up and exposes the consequences of Strange’s rash actions. At the same time, he highlights how the Kamar-Taj librarians are not just defenders of the books in the library, they are also defenders of natural law.

Librarian as teacher

More exposition time! This scene continues with Wong leading a lesson about the scope of what the Masters defend and explains the roles of the Ancient One and the three sanctums of power, Hong Kong, New York, and London. Wong also explains about Dormammu, the evil force that Kaecilius has sold his soul to.

Wong is also the one who links Doctor Strange to the world of the Avengers, in one of the film’s most important lines:

“While heroes like the Avengers protect the world from physical dangers, we sorcerers safeguard it against more mystical threats.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

History lesson from the reel librarian

Wong’s lesson is not a minute too soon, because right after he finishes, they learn that the London sanctum has fallen, and that the New York sanctum is under attack. Strange gets sucked into that dimension and fights Kaecilius for the first time to defend the New York sanctum.

Librarian as warrior

At 1 hour, 26 minutes into the film, the final big action sequence takes place in Hong Kong, where the third and final sanctum is. Wong has traveled to Hong Kong, and we see him leading a group of warriors. He directs the warriors to “choose your weapon wisely.”

Wong then picks up his own weapon, which looks like some kind of club relic.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the warrior librarian

Wong then declares, “No one sets foot in this sanctum. No one.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the warrior librarian

And he stays true to his word, going outside to head Kaecilius off before he can enter the Hong Kong sanctum. The two square off, and Wong readies for a fight. Unfortunately, we don’t actually get to see Wong fight. By the time Strange arrives on the scene, the Hong Kong sanctum has fallen, and Wong has been defeated, dead in the rubble.

But luckily, Strange knows how to turn back time, so he manages to resurrect Wong, whose chest had been punctured by a rebar.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel librarian death

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel librarian resurrection

Librarian as comic relief

In the midst of all the action and drama, Wong then provides two unexpected doses of comic relief. First is Wong’s stunned reaction after Strange resurrects him. Strange expects a lecture from the librarian.

Strange: Breaking the laws of nature, I know.

Wong: Well, don’t stop now.

Strange then figures out a way to beat Dormammu and get rid of the zealots, who get sucked up into Dormammu’s dimension. Strange makes a quip that echoes his earlier schooling from Wong and Mordo.

Strange: You should have stolen the whole book, because the warnings come after the spells.

[Pause]

Wong [laughs]: Oh, that’s funny.

Both Strange and Mordo stop and stare at Wong, who is cracking up and shaking with laughter. This is the first time Wong has smiled, let alone laughed!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile

Final library scene

The films ends in the library, the same location where it began. As Strange puts back the Eye of Agamotto, Wong then sets up the upcoming Infinity Wars showdown.

Wong: Wise choice. You’ll wear the Eye of Agamotto once you’ve mastered its powers. Until then best not to walk the streets wearing an Infinity Stone.

Strange: A what?

Wong: You might have a gift for the mystic arts, but you still have much to learn. Word of the Ancient One’s death will spread through the multiverse. Earth has no Sorceror Supreme to defend it. We must be ready.

Strange: We’ll be ready.

Role of the reel librarians

The two Kamar-Taj librarians we meet, one who begins the film and Wong who ends the film, primarily serve as Information Providers. We see the first librarian onscreen for perhaps a total of 30 seconds, while Wong has a much bigger supporting role, with scenes throughout the film.

Wong never really changes; he is steady and steadfast. He is who he is, a Master of the Mystic Arts and guardian of the library and natural law. And even though his laughter at the end of the film is surprising, we already got hints earlier in the film that he had a (hidden) sense of humor. I would argue that Wong, along with nurse Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is one of the only characters in the film who remains completely trustworthy. He never loses faith in his mission, and the audience never loses faith in Wong. I would also argue that that trust also stems from the fact that he’s a reel librarian, as librarians are often used in cinema as shortcuts to establish trust.

Reel librarian roles are also frequently used to provide exposition and lead to clues that propel the plot forward. In each scene, Wong does both. Benedict Wong is also a first-class actor whose facial expressions and voice lend instant authority and credibility to the role. And thanks to his voice acting and verbal expression, his expository speeches never fall flat.

Wong also serves as Comic Relief throughout the film. His deadpan facial expressions and non-reactions to Strange’s jokes at the beginning of the film help lighten the mood, and the audience joins Strange in amazement when Wong cracks up at one of Strange’s jokes at the end of the film.

Librarian as right-hand man

When I was preparing screenshots I took while watching my DVD copy of the film, I noticed that when Wong is shown with another character (usually Strange) and in a stationary position (i.e. not walking across the screen), he is shown almost always on the right side of the screen.

He’s also often seen on the right side of the screen in extreme closeup, as evidenced below:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Why is this?

I would argue that Wong — ever loyal, ever steadfast — is (almost) always on the right side of the screen because he is always right, period. He’s intelligent, he’s dedicated, he’s ready to defend what he believes is right. It’s visual affirmation that what Wong believes is right IS right.

Kaecilius tries to goad Wong before the Hong Kong fight, taunting Wong that he will “be on the wrong side of history.” But we know better. Wong will remain on the right side of history.

I think it’s also a visual pun that plays off the idea that Wong is the right-hand man of Doctor Strange. He may be a right-hand man, but he is not a sidekick; Wong supports Strange, yes, but he is not subservient to Strange in the film. (Unlike the comics, in which he is Strange’s servant.) The reel librarian is the master who teaches Strange lessons, again and again, but he also owes his life to Strange. In the end, they will face the future together, side by side. “We’ll be ready.

There is one major exception to Wong being on the right side of the screen. When he laughs aloud at Strange’s joke, he is shown on the left side of the screen. The three major warriors are all in a row, with Strange at the center, Mordo on the right, and Wong on the left. (I repeated this screenshot below, so you don’t have to scroll up to doublecheck.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile

I think Wong is shown on the left side of the screen in this scene to underscore the strangeness of this moment. The director breaks his visual shortcut for Wong’s character just as Wong breaks character by laughing aloud. It’s a subtle, but very clever, touch.

Changes from comics to cinema

In the comics, Wong is depicted as Strange’s “tea-making manservant.” The director, Scott Derrickson, also co-wrote the script, and he changed Wong’s character from an Asian stereotype to a more active role. I applaud this change, because Wong ends up a very interesting character and an inspirational reel librarian. I also have to admit that it was very nice to see not one, but TWO, reel librarians of color featured in this film (even though one literally ends up, err, on the chopping block).

I do, however, feel obligated to point out the controversy created by the film’s script and casting, particularly the casting of Tilda Swinton, a non-Asian actress, who was cast as the Ancient One, a significant Asian character in the comics. The character gets reframed as a Celt in the film, and Swinton does a great job, as always, bringing gravitas and laser-focus to her role. She is totally believable as an ancient, mystical, wise being. But I have to admit discomfort in knowing that a major Asian role was recast with a white woman, and that Wong’s character was written, at least in part, after-the-fact in order to offset that controversial casting; Derrickson felt obligated to include Wong’s character in the film after rewriting the character of the Ancient One. (But you don’t have to have just one Asian role! If you wanted to put a more feminine, or androgynous, spin on the Ancient One, why not cast an Asian actress?!) You can read more about this passive-aggressive type of racism, called “Orientalism,” here in this very interesting essay, “Orientalism Is Alive And Well In American Cinema.”

Benedict Wong himself was pleased with the changes to his character, stating in an interview:

“I’m certainly not going to be the tea-making manservant. We’re heading in a different direction. He’s more of a drill sergeant. There isn’t any martial arts for Wong in Doctor Strange actually, he’s more of a drill sergeant to Kamar-Taj. He’s one of the masters of sorcery.”

Although it’s clear that he did fight with Kaecilius in the Hong Kong showdown, we do not actually see Wong perform martial arts in the film, thereby avoiding another Asian cinematic stereotype.

Book cameo

I wanted to give a shout-out to Stan Lee’s cameo in Doctor Strange, which clocks in at 1 hour and 18 minutes into the film, during the chase and fight scene between the zealots and Strange and Mordo. Stan Lee is seen on a bus, reading a book and laughing, oblivious to Strange and Mordo slamming into the side of the bus.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Cameo of Stan Lee

The book Stan Lee is reading is Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a book of Huxley’s experience taking psychedelic drugs and how that influenced this art. This cameo most likely plays off the long-held association between psychedelic drugs and the kaleidoscope imagery of the Doctor Strange comics (something Marvel disputes). Stan Lee laughs uproariously at the book he’s reading in this cameo, so perhaps he is dismissing this decades-long notion?

Last but not least…

Director Derrickon has also hinted that Wong has a significant role to play in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film. We shall see! I plan on watching it this opening weekend and reporting back next week with a “First Impressions” type of post.

Are you looking forward to the Avengers: Infinity War film? Have you seen Doctor Strange? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers” uploaded by Movieclips Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Doctor Strange. Dir. Scott Derrickson. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2016.

Mellor, Louisa. “Exclusive: Benedict Wong on new direction of his Doctor Strange role.” Den of Geek, 27 June 2016.