It often happens in my life that when I settle down to watch a movie at home, a library or librarian gets mentioned onscreen… and then date night turns into “film analysis” night. Like I have said before, once you are aware of reel librarians, you start seeing (or hearing about them) EVERYWHERE. 🙂
The movie in question this past week was David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac, based on the true events of the Zodiac serial killer, as detailed in the 1986 non-fiction book of the same name by Robert Graysmith. The Zodiac’s killing spree was in and around the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the killer sent several letters and ciphers to the police and newspapers. The film’s star-studded cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal as newspaper cartoonist Graysmith, Robert Downey, Jr. as reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi.
Here’s a trailer for Zodiac:
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*
Although no librarian is featured in this movie, and no scenes are set in a library onscreen, this film DOES include several scenes that highlight libraries and library books. Reel librarians are often used as shortcuts for plot progression; in this case, just the library books themselves are used as plot shortcuts. Therefore, it’s a Class V film (no librarians featured), but I found it an interesting film to analyze, nonetheless.
Cracking the library code
At 52 minutes into this 157-minute film (it’s a really long, slow-paced film, y’all), Graysmith is talking with Avery in a bar about a cipher the Zodiac killer used to write a note to the police, challenging the public to crack his message. Graysmith explains the starting point to figuring out the coded message. (Underlining throughout signifies my own emphasis.)
Avery: But how do you go from “A” is one, “B” is two to figuring out this whole code?
Graysmith: Same way I did. You go to the library.
At this point, Graysmith takes out a book from his briefcase, a book entitled The Code Breakers by David Kahn.
NOTE: This is a real book, by the way, first published in 1967. I looked it up. ‘Cause librarian. 😉 And for sake of the timeline, the first official Zodiac killing occurred in 1969.
Graysmith: In this book, the author presents a very simple substitution code in the preface. Eight of the 26 symbols that he suggests are in this cipher.
He then takes out another book from his briefcase, this one entitled Codes and Ciphers by John Laffin. This book describes another Middle Ages code called the “Zodiac Alphabet.”
NOTE: Yep, another real book, this one published in 1964. Gotta hand it to the David Fincher team for its research skills. HOWEVER, that team overlooked the detail of including call numbers, because neither one of these books has a call number — and Graysmith clearly states that he got them from a library. A real library book would have a call number on the spine. Back in the 1960s, it was commonplace to strip the paper covers from hardback books, and then either paint on call numbers or otherwise affix typed call numbers onto the spine. But dully colored hardback books would not have cinematic impact, so I suspect the product team just bought first edition copies and didn’t think about call numbers. But librarians do! 😉
Any film involving reporters has to include a scene in the newspaper archives, right? This almost obligatory scene, lasting only a minute, occurs a little over an hour into the film. Avery takes Graysmith to the newspaper archives, looking for copies of the Modesto Bee. (Yep, a real newspaper, founded in 1884. Of course I had to look that up, too!) They gather clues from newspaper clippings to suggest that some killings the Zodiac killer confessed to are in doubt, because he only provides clues in letters written after articles in the newspaper came out.
I also wanted to include a couple of screenshots from this scene because of how visually they remind me of ANOTHER archives scene in a library directed by David Fincher, 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Read my analysis of that film here.)
Real library filming location:
I mentioned earlier that no scenes are set in a library onscreen. However, the production team did use a real-life library location… as a police station.
At one hour and 12 minutes into the film, several regional police officers travel to the Riverside Police Department to discuss a potential early victim of the Zodiac killer.
Here’s the narration of the victim’s last night — which also includes a library!
Cheri Jo Bates attended Riverside Community College. She studies in the library the night of Oct. 30, 1966. She leaves with an unidentified male at closing, 9 p.m. Her body’s found the next morning in a parking lot, stabbed to death.
This is based on true events; Bates’s murder has been linked to the Zodiac killings. Below is a screenshot of the note she left her father: “Dad — went to RCC Library.”
NOTE: There is technically not a current “Riverside Community College.” There is now a Riverside City College, which had been known as “Riverside Community College” during the 1960s. The college is part of the Riverside Community College District. So the film got this detail correct, as the school was known as “Riverside Community College” during this time period.
The interior and exteriors of this scene at the Riverside Police Station were filmed at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City, California. The library’s website includes a “Facility Rentals” page with “competitive film location pricing.” The photos on that page definitely correspond to the screenshots above and below.
“You went to the library”
Graysmith continues to track down clues about the Zodiac killer, even when others have given up. At 1 hour and 44 minutes into the film, Graysmith visits Avery, who has left (been fired? or otherwise forced out?) from his job as a reporter and is living in a trailer. Avery challenges why Graysmith is even continuing down the Zodiac path.
Graysmith: It was important.
Avery: Then what did you ever do about it? If it was so fucking important, then what did you ever do? You hovered over my desk, you stole from wastebaskets… you went to the library.
Graysmith: I’m sorry I bothered you. [leaves]
I just want to point out that the man who basically says that Graysmith was doing nothing — that going to the library meant doing nothing — is living amidst trash and alcohol bottles and (un)dressed in boxers and a robe. Yeahhhhhh…. it’s Graysmith who has been doing nothing with his life. 😦
Library as alibi?
In the scene immediately following his confrontation with Avery, Graysmith arrives home late. His wife asks him where he has been.
Graysmith’s response? “The library.”
He puts down books on the chair, the same code-breaking books we saw in the earlier scene with Avery. It’s not clear whether he’s using the library as an alibi, or if it’s where he really went after seeing Avery. Either explanation is plausible, although I’m erring toward the alibi angle.
Tracing library book records:
This next scene, between Graysmith and Inspector Toschi, feels like a companion piece to the first scene I mentioned between Graysmith and Avery; this scene takes place in a diner while the earlier scene occurred in a bar. Both involve library books.
This scene occurs at one hour, 47 minutes into the film, and lasts about a minute and a half.
Graysmith: I wanted to ask you about the Zodiac. [Timeline note: At this point, the Zodiac killer hadn’t written a letter in three years]
Toschi nods assent.
Graysmith: Can I show you something? [Takes out books from his briefcase — sound familiar?] I’ve been doing research on the first cipher. Everything an amateur would need to create it can be found in these books. Now, I started thinking that if you can track these books, then maybe you can track the man. So I remember that you thought the Zodiac was military, so I went to every base library and I got a list of every person who’s ever checked out these books, and that’s when I found this.
He then takes out a sheaf of papers and hands them to Toschi. (Side note: I did notice that at least one of the books below, a thinner tan-colored one, *does* have a call number label on its spine. Hurrah!)
Graysmith: It means they were stolen.
Toschi: So, almost every book on ciphers was stolen from the Presidio Library?
Graysmith: And the Oakland Army Terminal Library. Somebody didn’t want a record of ever having checked out these books.
Toschi: Who are you again?
Graysmith: I just wanna help.
I have to note that this scene reminded me very much of another David Fincher film, 1995’s Seven, in which they track down the killer through library checkouts. (Note to self: I need to rewatch and analyze Seven soon for this blog!)
I also have to interject as a librarian about how UNETHICAL this is, what Graysmith just described. Librarians giving up library checkout information and records to a civilian??! Nope. No way. Nuh-uh. That requires a court order or a search warrant. If this detail is true — and in this scene, Graysmith clearly states, “I got a list of every person who’s ever checked out these books” — then he got those lists from unethical (or clueless) librarians or library workers. It reminds me of another, similar scene of an librarian doing this SAME THING, in 1943’s The Seventh Victim, in a post I entitled, “The horror of an unethical librarian.” Reel librarians may be shortcuts in movies, but we are NOT shortcuts to proper police procedures in real life.
Okay, soap box moment over. Now onto the final scene mentioning a library, or rather…
“The fuckin’ library”
At two hours into the film, in a scene lasting fewer than 30 seconds, we see Avery drinking again, this time in a bar. (Progress?) The TV is on, and he looks up as a news reporter mentions the Zodiac killer. The reporter is interviewing Graysmith.
Reporter: In the decade since the Zodiac’s last cipher was received, every federal agency has taken a crack at decoding it. But today, where those agencies had failed, a cartoonist has succeeded.
Reporter, asking Graysmith: How did you do it?
Graysmith: Oh, uh, just a lot of books from the library.
Avery then quips, “Yeah, the fuckin’ library.”
That’s right, Avery, the fuckin’ library. 😉
And it’s amusing to me that the first scene that mentions library books happens with Avery, who was consistently condescending throughout the film about the library to Graysmith. But then Avery himself is the one who comes full circle, back to the library.
Here’s a screenshot of Avery’s facial expression from that first scene with Avery and the code-breaking library books. I feel his smug facial expression says it all.
There are 7 scenes total in this Class V film that mention libraries or library books or otherwise take place in an archives or library setting. The duration of those scenes last for a combined 12-15 minutes (only 10% out of a 157-minute running time!), but the combined scenes and library books leave a lasting impression.
Have you seen Zodiac? If so, do you remember the through-line and theme of library books and real-life research? Please leave a comment and share!
- “The Codebreakers.” Wikipedia, 19 February 2018. CC BY SA license.
- “Facility Rentals.” The Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, n.d.
- “John Laffin.” Wikipedia, 5 May 2018. CC BY SA license.
- “The Modesto Bee.” Wikipedia, 12 March 2018. CC BY SA license.
- “Murder of Cheri Jo Bates.” Wikipedia, 5 May 2018. CC BY SA license.
- “Riverside City College.” Wikipedia, 20 May 2018. CC BY SA license.
- Zodiac. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. Paramount, 2007.
- “Zodiac – Trailer,” uploaded by YouTube Movies, Standard YouTube license.