Librarians make their mark in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (1987)

“I can’t see how we’re ever going to make our mark… defacing library books.”

During the month of June, LGBTQ+ Pride Month celebrations take place in the United States and worldwide, commemorating the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York, a turning point in gay rights and liberation movements. As the U.S. Proclamation on LGBTQ+ Pride Month 2021 states:

Pride is a time to recall the trials the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) community has endured and to rejoice in the triumphs of trailblazing individuals who have bravely fought — and continue to fight — for full equality.  Pride is both a jubilant communal celebration of visibility and a personal celebration of self-worth and dignity.

A Proclamation on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, 2021,” The White House, 1 June 2021

It can be a tricky thing to recognize the dangerous and often-deadly discrimination that the LGBTQ+ community has endured — and continue to endure — at the same time that you are celebrating the wide-ranging contributions and impact of the LGBTQ+ community. This means holding space for two extremes together at the same time, and hopefully, this is a time of deep reflection and grace for us all, including allies. I feel that the movie Prick Up Your Ears (1987), which is based on the real-life events of British playwright Joe Orton (born John Orton, 1933-1967), exemplifies this dynamic quite well.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) Trailer | Stephen Frears” video uploaded by Ryan Saunders, Standard YouTube License

Directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen), Prick Up Your Ears stars Gary Oldman as Orton; Alfred Molina as Orton’s mentor, collaborator, and lover Kenneth Halliwell; and Vanessa Redgrave as Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsay. The movie, written by Alan Bennett, was adapted from the 1978 biography of the same title by John Lahr, and Wallace Shawn plays Lahr in this film adaptation.

Joe Orton’s plays (most notably, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot) and writing style continue to be highly influential (e.g. the term “Ortonesque” is used to describe the witty and dark comedic style he specialized in), even though his public career lasted only a few short years, from 1964 to 1967. Orton’s and Halliwell’s 15-year relationship came to a violent end in August 1967, when Halliwell murdered Orton and then killed himself. It could be easy to dismiss the film as focusing too much on the sensational aspects of this true tale. The film trailer, embedded above, focuses primarily on the murder/suicide, and the film itself begins with Halliwell covered in blood after murdering Orton and ends with Orton’s funeral. But in-between, we follow along with the flashbacks and flash-forwards as Lahr researches Orton and reads his diaries and pieces together Orton’s and Halliwell’s life together. (You really cannot separate the two men, in life or in death.) We viewers identify with Lahr in his research quest, as we want to know more about Orton’s art and about Halliwell’s motivations, and how and why their relationship and collaborations soured and turned deadly. It’s not a straightforward film, but Frears does an excellent job of highlighting recurring themes and lines that call back to earlier scenes or other characters.

A few years ago, The Guardian highlighted Lahr’s biography of Orton as a “book to give you hope.”

“John Lahr’s 1978 biography of the playwright Joe Orton may seem an unlikely choice for a book to give you hope. After all, Orton’s success was not only a long time coming (a decade of abject failure was crowned by a six-month spell in prison for defacing library books), but when it did finally arrive in 1964 (with the West End production of Entertaining Mr Sloane) it lasted only until 9 August 1967. It was brought to a bloody and premature end by his long-term lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer before taking his own life. Orton was only 34 years old. Yet, it is these early years of struggle and anonymity that make Orton’s life story such a fascinating and, yes, inspirational read.

… [T]he ending is desperately sad. But what remains is the work. And ultimately, Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of Orton’s work and a brilliantly illuminating account of the writing life. And even when that life is cut horribly short, it still remains a testament to the enduring power of hope, and of triumph over adversity.”

W.B. Gooderham, “Books to Give You Hope: Prick Up Your Ears by John Lahr,” The Guardian, 22 Aug. 2016

For me, this review captures the juxtaposition of recognizing the sadness of Orton’s shortened life as well as celebrating the hope and creativity of his artistry. And this dichotomy is reflected in Frears’s cinematic adaptation.

The library scenes and why they matter

So where does the library come into it? Although the main library scene and scenes with the librarians last less than 5 minutes total, this scene in the movie — and in real life — changed the course of Orton’s and Halliwell’s lives. It seems appropriate then that the library scenes occurs almost exactly halfway through the movie.

Here’s the general background: Around 1959, while collaborating on novels and getting rejected from publishers, Orton and Halliwell started defacing covers of library books and typing naughty passages into them. In the movie, two librarians at the Islington public library finally set a trap for them and turned them into the police. In 1962, the two men were sentenced to 6 months in prison and were sent to different facilities. While in prison, Orton started writing his own work and flourished, while Halliwell became depressed and attempted suicide.

The library book scenes are foreshadowed a bit earlier in the film, when at 44 minutes, Halliwell and Orton are collaborating on a book. While Kenneth types on the typewriter, Joe is cutting up a library book.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Kenneth: That’s a library book. You should respect books.

Joe: I respect them more than you. You just take them for granted.

This short scene accomplishes a lot with a little. They are supposedly collaborating, but Joe seems a bit bored and stifled with his side of the collaboration. This foreshadows his breaking free and writing his own works later. Their dialog also reinforces their class differences, with working-class Joe calling out Kenneth and his upper-class upbringing and privilege. It also, as my writer husband pointed out, places the act of defacing the library books in the context of writing and as a creative act and form of expression. They are writing and creating in different ways in this scene, and again, it foreshadows how they will collaborate on the library books.

Next, at 45 1/2 minutes into the film, Halliwell and Orton are talking about that collaborative novel, titled Boy Hairdresser, to a publisher. When it’s clear that the publisher has no intention of publishing their work, Orton roams around the office and steals a book from the publisher’s shelves, The Art of Culture. Although it isn’t explicitly shown in the movie, Orton revealed in later interviews that he used to steal library books in order to deface them and then smuggle them back into the library to shock patrons who came across the altered works.

So all these short, seemingly throwaway scenes do provide clues; nothing is wasted in this movie.

At almost 53 minutes into the film, Kenneth is working on the collage on the walls, while Joe is reading on the bed. Then, as Kenneth prepares lunch, Joe roams around their bedroom and places library books along the back of their desk.

Joe: I can’t see how we’re ever going to make our mark… defacing library books. 

Making his mark in defacing library books

Next stop? The public library!

The two men check out books at the front library counter, and a woman librarian in grey suit stamps their books. We can also spy a younger White woman walk past behind the desk, and she appears to be filing cards. In the background, we can see a “Fiction” label along the back bookshelves, and the library seems filled with patrons. Halliwell and Orton leave the library, and the words on the exit door — “Way Out” in big letters printed on both sides of the glass door — feature prominently in this scene. That doesn’t feel like an accident. (In fact, the phrase “coming out” was in use during the mid-20th century to describe gay identity and sense of community, but the phrase was undergoing a change in usage during this time period, explained here.)

Two librarians — the middle-aged White woman who stamped their books, Miss Battersby (Selina Cadell), and a White middle-aged man, Mr. Cunliffe (Charles McKeown) — follow them out and watch them leave.

Their brief conversation reveals their discrimination and homophobia toward the pair and the gay community at large, and Mr. Cunliffe rattles off several homophobic slurs without batting an eye.

Mr. Cunliffe: You didn’t tell me one of them was a nancy.

Miss Battersby: I’m sorry, Mr. Cunliffe?

Mr. Cunliffe: The bald one, Miss Battersby. A homosexual. A shirt lifter.

Miss Battersby: In Islington?

Mr. Cunliffe: Haven’t you noticed? Large areas of the borough are being restored and painted Thames green. [He grabs their library card from Miss Battersby] Noel Road. This calls for a little detective work, Miss Battersby.

And their detective work involves props! Miss Battersby smokes a cigarette, and Mr. Cunliffe brandishes a magnifying glass.

The librarians then set up a trap for Halliwell and Orton. Mr. Cunliffe finds an abandoned car on the road, writes down the license plate, and then dictates a letter to Miss Battersby. They appear to be in a back office in the library, as the walls are lined with bookshelves and filled with books and magazines, and the desk includes a pile of library stamps, and a rolling cart is visible beside the desk.

Librarians type up a letter

Mr. Cunliffe: Registration: K-Y-R-4-5-0. The above-mentioned vehicle appears to be derelict and abandoned in Noel Road, and I have been given to understand you are the owner thereof. 

We then see Kenneth reading aloud the rest of the letter, and he then dictates a response to Joe, although their letter is a more collaborative process than the librarians’ letter.

Kenneth: “But before enforcing remedies, I give you the opportunity to remove the vehicle from the highway.” The little prick. [pauses] Unzip our trusty Remington, John. We will piss on this person from a great height. “Dear sir, thank you for your dreary little letter.

Joe: ‘Dismal’ is better.

Kenneth: Dismal, then. I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information. 

Joe: ‘Furnished’ is better than ‘provided.’ It’s more municipal in tone. 

Cue more librarian detective work!

Mr. Cunliffe: You will note the typing, Miss Battersby, is the same. Our book jacket… their letter. Got you, my beauties.

We then cut to the courtroom, where we see a magistrate being handed a mystery novel, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers. We see a stack of books on the table, which are recognizable as some of the ones we saw earlier on Joe’s desk. This scene is devastatingly efficient, as the camera pans over the courtroom, where we spy the librarians, who have come to see the results of their detective work!

Magistrate: This is the novel Clouds of Witness by the noted authoress Dorothy L. Sayers. Could you read what the accused have written on the flap of the jacket?

Policeman: “… This is one of the most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers. Read it behind closed doors and have a good shit while you’re reading it.”

Magistrate: The probation officer has suggested that you are both frustrated authors. Well, if you’re so clever at making fun of what more talented people have written, you should have a shot at writing books yourselves. You won’t find that such a pushover. Sheer malice and destruction, the pair of you. I sentence you both to six months. 

Joe [to Kenneth]: Fucking A. 

Kenneth [to Joe]: It was your idea. 

The librarians vs. the lovers

As I mentioned before, this entire scene in the library and with the librarians lasts less than 5 minutes, but it is crucial to the rest of the narrative. I also found it interesting to note how many times the director chose to mirror the pair of librarians with the pair of lovers, Orton and Halliwell.

Here is a compare-and-contrast of how Orton and Halliwell exit the library and the librarians re-enter the library. The librarians serve as gatekeepers — literally as well as visually — in this scene.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

Here we can compare-and-contrast the profiles of the librarians as they watch in judgment as Orton and Halliwell leave the library, and the profiles of Joe and Kenneth as they receive the magistrate’s prison judgment.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

The librarians sit in court in front of a policeman, while Orton and Halliwell sit in court in front of a member of the public. Again, no detail is wasted in this film. The librarians side with order (more visual gatekeeping), while the creative lovers side with the public.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

And below we can compare the mirroring of dictating the library letter and its response. Both of the sets are filled with books, but one is a public library while the other is a private library. Also, notice how the librarians are always dressed in the same clothing, the same buttoned-up grey suits? Kenneth and Joe are also dressed in neutrals, grey and tan, but are dressed much more casually and less buttoned-down.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

The library scene ends at 58 minutes into the film, and we hear Vanessa Redgrave’s voiceover as she efficiently sums up the effect of their prison sentence: “Prison worked wonders for Joe.”

Librarian roles

As I’ve mentioned, the two main librarians we see — Mr. Cunliffe and Miss Battersby — are visually seen as gatekeepers throughout their scenes. Their grey suits come off as much of a uniform as the uniforms that the police officers wear. The librarians even attend court to witness the prison sentencing! Above and beyond their librarian duties, surely. 😦 Needless to say, these reel librarians are NOT role models; rather, they demonstrate the destructive effects of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ actions.

In that way, Miss Battersby serves the role of an Information Provider, as she is providing information to the audience and reflecting society’s limited views and judgment of the LGBTQ+ community. (See also my post about the law librarian failure in Philadelphia). The third librarian, the younger White woman, also serves as an Information Provider, but only in the sense of establishing the library setting.

I have categorized the role of Mr. Cunliffe, who appears to be the senior librarian in their scenes, as an Anti-Social Librarian. He wears conservative clothing, hoards knowledge, dislikes the public (particularly the LGBTQ+ members of the public), and exhibits elitism in his view of the library and society in general. He goes beyond his librarian duties and engages in detective work — outside the library and off hours, I’m sure — in order to personally trap library patrons. He also relishes in his handiwork (“Got you, my beauties!“). Honestly, it comes off as the librarian’s personal vendetta.

And these two reel librarians made my Hall of Shame list! On that page, I wrote that:

This Class III film made me sit up and yell at the screen! It includes the completely unethical behavior of two librarians, who set a trap — using information from circulation records, no less! — to turn two frustrated writers into the police. Yes, the writers had typed obscene passages onto book covers, but that does not justify a mean-spirited librarian’s actions.

Reel life vs. real life

As I mentioned above, the film shows the librarians — and particularly Mr. Cunliffe — as the ones who personally trap Orton and Halliwell. I’m sure the screenwriter did this to condense characters and tell the story more efficiently — and of course, isn’t it shocking what an overzealous librarian would do?! Most unexpected. And it is unexpected, because the real-life librarians did not actually go as far as their onscreen counterparts did. But not for lack of trying!

The Joe Orton Online site states that Orton and Halliwell “had been suspected for some time and extra [library] staff had been drafted to catch the culprits, but with no success. They were eventually caught by the careful detective work of Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council. A letter was sent to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. Their typed reply matched typeface irregularities in the defaced books and the men were caught.” And an article in The Guardian reveals more details, that “When the library authorities cottoned on to what was happening, they brought in undercover staff from other libraries to try to catch whomever was doing it, and when that failed, Porrett had the idea of writing to his number one suspects, Halliwell and Orton.”

The Movie Locations site reveals that the library scenes were not filmed in the Islington public library. Instead, the library scenes were filmed at Chelsea Library in Chelsea Old Town Hall, located about 6 miles southwest of Islington Central Library.

It does appear the the library books highlighted in the film were among the ones that Orton and Halliwell defaced in real life. The British Library site even highlights “The Joe Orton Collection” of book covers on their site, stating that, “Since 2003, the book covers have been preserved by the Islington Local History Centre where they form the Joe Orton Collection. After the trial, the surviving covers were kept within Islington Public Library Service by the special collections librarian. Today, this totals 41 examples. An additional 31 doctored books are believed to be lost, stolen or destroyed.

You can also view a more extensive gallery of the book covers on the Joe Orton Online site. And in 2011, the Islington Local History Centre displayed their collection of book covers because of “international interest” and that the book covers “shined a light on two fascinating lives and characters” (Brown).

Why library books?

The movie doesn’t really delve deep into the reasons Orton and Halliwell defaced the library books — beyond the line that Joe says about “mak[ing] our mark” — but Orton did address this in an April 1967 television interview with Eamon Andrews:

“Joe Orton Television Interview 1967” video, uploaded by THEORTONCOLLECTIVE, Standard YouTube License

Orton does not mention Halliwell at all during this interview and states that his motive was “just a joke.” But then he reveals a little more about his personal feelings about the library and its collections:

Orton: Also, I didn’t like libraries anyway. I mean, I thought they spent far too much public money on rubbish. I mean, I didn’t like the books. I don’t think people need books on etiquette anyway.

Andrews: So this was a kind of protest of the kinds of books in the library?

Orton: Oh, yes, it really was.

Andrews: Do you have any regrets now for having done this?

Orton: No regrets at all. No, I had a marvelous time in prison. It just meant that instead of annoying a few old ladies, you see, that opened the book, I now annoy hundreds of old ladies by writing plays.

The Joe Orton Online site muses that “these acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.”

In a 30th anniversary retrospective interview about the film, Alfred Molina (who portrayed Halliwell) reflected that, “Living in that small room, living in a sense completely isolated from the world, writing and defacing those books, and decorating their home, it was probably like a little cocoon where they felt safe. With Joe’s success, the world broke into that room and that shattered everything.”

I also appreciated blogger and historian John Levin’s thoughts about how these book covers should be viewed today:

“It is worth considering these works without hindsight and in their own moment. Had Orton not been successful, what would have been made of these works? Would they have been less interesting, less intelligent, the work of a vandal rather than a critic?

I think not. Even if Orton hadn’t been successful – and such a way of framing it underplays the equal contribution of the unrecognized Halliwell – these collages would still embody a contempt for boredom, a queer ‘in your face’ aesthetic, and a provocation outside the art gallery, executed with quite some skill. And as at the time, they were a couple of unknown, pre-1967 gays, constrained by and pushing against the mores and the policing of the time, it is in that light they should be appreciated.”

John Levin, “Gorilla in the Roses: The Collages of Halliwell and Orton,” Anterotesis, 21 Feb. 2012

And on a final note, Orton also included cheeky references to libraries and librarians in his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which I highlighted in my analysis of the 1970 film adaptation of his play.

What are your thoughts on Prick Up Your Ears? Have you seen the 1987 movie, or read Lahr’s biography? Have you read any of Orton’s plays? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

A closer look at the library scene in ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Dorothy Vaughan doesn’t let an obstructionist librarian get in the way of her future.

Four years ago (!), I wrote about my first impressions of the library scene in Hidden Figures, which I watched in theaters. (That feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it, actually going to movie theaters? #PandemicLife). That post has remained one of the most popular posts on this Reel Librarians blog, so it felt time to revisit the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures film and take a closer look at its library scene. March is also Women’s History Month, and it feels fitting to focus on a movie that champions Black American women in STEM, including:

  • Katherine G. Johnson, mathematician and one of the first Black women scientists at NASA (played by Taraji P. Henson)
  • Dorothy Vaughan, mathematician and computer programmer and first Black female supervisor at NASA’s West Area Computers division (played by Octavia Spencer, in an Oscar-nominated performance)
  • Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer (played by Janelle Monáe)

As I said in my 2017 post:

These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.

A closer look at the public library scene

In that original first impressions post, I recalled the library scene clocking in about 2/3 of the way through the film. I can now say that my memory was totally off-base! The library scene begins at 49 1/2 minutes through this 126-minute film, which means this scene happens a little over 1/3 of the way through.

“Library Scene-Dorothy Vaughn Hidden Figures” video uploaded by Natalie Pedrianes, Standard YouTube License

But first, some context before we visit the library: Dorothy Vaughan has learned that NASA has installed an IBM electronic computer, and she realizes that this machine threatens to replace “human computers,” particularly the West Area Computer division of Black women computers she supervises. She realizes she needs to learn the language of this electronic computer. And where do you go for information? The public library, of course!

On their way to the library, Vaughan and her sons, Kenneth (Alkoya Brunson) and Leonard (Ashton Tyler), pass by an anti-segregation demonstration. We can hear calls for “Segregation must go,” and we see signs that read “Segregation hurts us all” and “The presence of segregation is the absence of democracy!” We also witness, along with the Vaughans, a couple of White policemen running to the scene of the protest. Vaughan says to her boys, “Don’t pay attention to all that. We’re not part of that trouble.

Protest scene in Hidden Figures (2016)

We then see the Vaughans walking up the side entrance to the public library, which I have to assume was the “Colored” entrance at that time. In the next frame, Vaughan is browsing through bookshelves as the two boys read to each other on the floor. (Props to the propmaster — I appreciated all the call number stickers on the books!)

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

We then spy a reel librarian — a middle-aged White woman with shoulder-length, reddish hair, no glasses — peeking through the bookshelves. Her character is listed in the credits as White Librarian, played by Rhoda Griffis. What follows is a brief but devastating exchange (and one of the worst reference interviews I’ve ever seen onscreen).

White Librarian: We don’t want any trouble in here.

Dorothy Vaughan: I’m not here for any trouble, ma’am.

White Librarian: What are you here for?

Dorothy Vaughan: A book.

White Librarian: You have books in the colored section.

Dorothy Vaughan: It doesn’t have what I’m looking for.

White Librarian [shrugging]: That’s just the way it is.

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

Side note: I noticed in the cast list on IMDb.com an uncredited stunt double for the White Librarian (Ruth Dalton). Why would this reel librarian character need a stunt double? Was this library scene originally going to be a bigger scene? Also, does anyone else notice the blurry figure in the background behind the White Librarian in the screenshot in the gallery above? Is that blurry figure in the background an uncredited library user in the “Colored” section of the library? Or a Black librarian? Was there originally going to be a “Black Librarian” character to contrast with the “White Librarian” character? It’s a detail in the background I had never noticed before. Am I overthinking it? What are your thoughts?

In the very next clip in this library scene, a White security guard (listed in the credits as “Library Security Guard,” played by Howie Johnson) escorts Dorothy Vaughan and her sons out of the front door of the library. We see a prominent sign on the front pillar that reads Hampton Public Library.

Library Security Guard [shoving the boys through the doors]: Go on now. You know better than this.

Vaughan: Get your hands off my boys! Don’t touch them. [Straightens up and adjusts her coat] You have a blessed day.

Dorothy Vaughan then walks past a White woman and her two boys. The two women exchange looks. Both have much in common in that moment — taking their two sons to the public library — and yet are worlds apart. There is so much said in that wordless glance between the two women.

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

The scene in the library itself lasts 30 seconds. But then we get to see the effects of that library scene, as Dorothy Vaughan and her boys ride the bus home, seated in the back.

Dorothy Vaughan: Separate and equal are two different things. Just ‘cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right. Understand? […] You act right, you are right. That’s for certain. Understand?

She then takes a library book out of her handbag. We get a closeup of the cover, the word “Fortran” visible in large letters, and a smaller line of indistinguishable text above.

Kenneth Vaughan [in a shocked tone]: You took that book, Mama?

Dorothy Vaughan: Son, I pay taxes. And taxes pay for everything in that library. You can’t take something you already paid for.

She then starts reading the book, “Fortran is a new and exciting language used by programmers to communicate with computers. It is exciting, as it is the wave of the future.” (Also, did y’all know that the word “Fortran” is derived from the phrase “Formula Translation”?! #WordNerd)

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

This scene on the bus lasts about a minute long.

Although Dorothy Vaughan was not interested in exposing her boys to “that trouble” at the rally, she does demonstrate to them the value of “good trouble” (RIP, John Lewis). And what are the effects of Dorothy Vaughan’s good trouble act of taking that Fortran book from the “Whites” section of the public library? She teaches herself the Fortran language, and she pays that knowledge forward when she teaches her staff. She not only saves her job; she also saves the jobs of many other Black women mathematicians and computer scientists at NASA.

A closer look at the library book

Closeup of the Fortran book in Hidden Figures (2016)
Closeup of the Fortran book in Hidden Figures (2016)

Here is the best close-up I could get of the book Dorothy Vaughan takes from the public library, a relatively slim volume with a cover of multi-colored stripes. Although the word “FORTRAN” is visible on the cover, there seems to be a blurrier line of text right above. Dorothy’s hand is obscuring most of the author’s name at the bottom of the book, but it looks like a shorter surname. Was this book a real book — or at least based on a real book? Y’all know I looked that up, right?! OF COURSE I DID. 😉 So here was my process:

  • The film is set in 1961. First, I needed to see if there were any books published about Fortran in 1961 (or a year or two earlier).
  • Next stop: WorldCat, a world catalog of library holdings. I did an Advanced Search, typing in the keyword “Fortran” in the Title field and limiting my results to books published from 1960 to 1961. Here’s a link to those initial search results.
  • The first result was a Fortran manual published by IBM in 1961. Useful info, but I doubted that any public library would be snapping up brand-new technical computer manuals. In fact, of the 9 libraries that still have a copy of this title (!), almost all are college or university libraries.
  • I scanned down the results, looking for anything that had a title that looked similar to the one on the book prop. Bingo! Result #7 was a book entitled Introduction to Fortran, by S. C. Plumb, first published in 1961. And it is STILL available in over 200 libraries! Looking back at the blurry title and the shorter-looking surname in that book closeup, I am absolutely convinced that this book prop is based on — or is a really good original copy of? — Plumb’s book. (I was mistaken — see the update below for details!)

What do y’all think? Do you think it’s the same book? Do y’all enjoy reading about the details of my WorldCat sleuthing? I’m a college librarian, so I feel compelled to make my research process transparent. 😉

UPDATE 7/2021:

Eagle-eyed reader R.D. Sylva spotted a later scene that showed the title of the book more clearly and left a comment letting me know that the title is actually Understanding Fortran. Thank you, R.D.!!!

I went back to review the film, and yes indeed, this scene comes at 58 minutes into the film. Dorothy Vaughan goes to the IBM room and sets down her Fortran book on the table beside the IBM Manual:

A closer look at the Fortran book cover, which reveals the title of it is Understanding Fortran
A closer look at the Fortran book cover, which reveals the title of it is Understanding Fortran

Going back to Worldcat, here is a link to the results that have the Understanding Fortran book title. The earliest edition seems to have been published in 1968, by Mary McCammon. The publication timing of that book still doesn’t quite fit in with the timeline for this film (it’s possible that there was an earlier edition published?, or perhaps the propmasters simply wanted a Fortran book written by a woman for this woman-centered film?). But I did find out that Mary McCammon’s book was highlighted as “among the most comprehensive” in this 1973 article about “Introductory FORTRAN Textbooks” in the Computers and the Humanities journal. Neat! The more you learn… 😉 thanks again for the comment and update, R.D. Sylva!

A closer look at the library’s filming location

I also wondered where this library scene was filmed. The “Hampton Public Library” sign was so prominent in the scene — was this a real library? Although the film is set in Virginia, I knew it was filmed mostly in Georgia. The IMDb.com’s Filming & Production page for this film states that the library scene (or at least, the exterior of the library) was filmed in Canton, Georgia.

I started by looking at public libraries or branches in Canton, to determine if any were named Hampton. No dice. Then I looked up the public libraries near where the NASA Langley Research Center is located, and bingo! Hampton, Virginia, is where that Center is located, and there is a Hampton Public Library, which began as the first free county library in Virginia in 1926, according to their library website. I also learned that Valerie Gardner, who is a Black woman, is the current library director of the Hampton Public Library! Although they did not film in Hampton, Virginia, I was so pleased that this film got that detail right, the name of the local public library.

So where did they film the exterior for the library scene? That’s when I searched online for filming locations for Hidden Figures, and the Movie Maps site provided details, that the library exterior was the Cherokee County Board of Education building, specifically the old Canton Grammar School, which you can see below in this historical image from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. As you can tell by the white pillars in front and the side entrances, that’s definitely the location!

Also, when I searched for info about the old Canton Grammar School, which was built in 1914, I learned that the Cherokee County School Board postponed demolition of the old Canton Grammar School historic building in 2015. That was a good decision, because they filmed there for this movie the very next year! This building is also included on the Cherokee County Historical Society’s “Historic Sites Worth Saving” site.

A closer look at what this scene represents

I love the tangents that research takes me on this site, but I want to revisit what this scene and reel librarian character represent. The reel librarian is only onscreen for a few seconds, so she lands in the Class IV category, but the impact of what she says and does (getting the Vaughan family kicked out for being in the “Whites” section of the library) is far-reaching. I think it’s clear that the reel librarian character — with the not-subtle moniker of “White Librarian” — is named to indicate her role in perpetuating White supremacy. It’s not subtle, and it shouldn’t be. This librarian is a gatekeeper personified, literally keeping Black and Brown library users from knowledge and resources available to White members of the public. Why? Because “That’s just the way it is.” But Dorothy Vaughan doesn’t accept that circular logic or the librarian’s resigned shrug. She doesn’t let an obstructionist librarian get in the way of her future.

I wrote in my first impressions post of Hidden Figures that the “White Librarian” character serves the role of Information Provider. However, she is there not to provide information to any characters, but rather to inform the audience about and to reflect the societal rules that librarians were also participating in a system to unjustly segregate citizens.

After rewatching this film, my husband asked me about what I thought, from my perspective as a librarian, about Dorothy Vaughan taking that library book. Did I feel conflict within myself, being both a librarian and a White woman trying to better understand my White privilege and work for social justice. My answer was immediate: I support Dorothy Vaughan in this scene. In general, sure, I do not advocate taking library books out on the sly — and certainly not because of the “I pay taxes” excuse — because I believe resources in a public library are for the community. But as this movie demonstrates, those books were not there at this time for the community’s inclusive use at large; they were there for exclusive communities. Dorothy is breaking rules that were perpetuating White supremacy and restricting access and resources to people of color in their community. The rules were unjust; Dorothy’s personal act of civil disobedience was, therefore, just. That’s what matters in this scene, and in my opinion, that’s the bigger lesson that this scene represents.

A closer look at film reviews and analyses

I also sought out additional perspectives and commentary about this library scene in Hidden Figures and what it represents, then and now.

Leesa Renee Hall, a Black writer and anti-bias facilitator, called out the importance of this scene and how it is key to showcasing Dorothy Vaughan’s forward-thinking flexibility and professional resiliency:

“Dorothy Vaughan taught herself FORTRAN back in the 1960s to stay relevant. […] Spotting trends and adapting to them is the key to survivability in today’s job market.”

Leesa Renée Hall, What a Scene From #HiddenFigures Can Teach Us About #Automation #Disruption and Staying #Employable, 2 March 2017

Janell Hobson focused on Black women’s hidden labor in a review of the film and spotlighted the library scene:

With keen insight as one of the human “computers” at NASA, she understands how quickly her role—and that of her team of black women computers—will be replaced by this daunting object. Having already suffered the humiliation of being ejected from the “white” section of her local library in Virginia—and displaying eloquent rage when she warns the police officer throwing her out to not touch her sons while catching herself suddenly as she code-switches to polite dialogue lest she be manhandled and arrested—Dorothy puts to the test her newfound knowledge of Fortran, the early computer-programming language she must master and which she learned from the book she smuggled out of the library.

Janell Hobson, “Honoring the Legacy of Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures and Black Women’s Historic Hidden Labor,” Ms., 17 Jan. 2017

In a 2019 undergraduate thesis for Sanata Dharma University in Indonesia, Bertha Uli Fransiska Pasaribu argues that this library scene demonstrates Dorothy Vaughan’s persistence:

The persistence of Dorothy also can be seen as Dorothy and her children go to the public library. […] Dorothy is a persistent person since she does not like to accept something unfair or unequal right away even though it is acceptable in that era.

Bertha Uli Fransiska Pasaribu, “The Struggles Against Multiple Discrimination in Hidden Figures” undergraduate thesis, 2019

Christina Vasilevski, a Toronto-based writer, delves into how the film illustrates different ways that White characters in the film participate in systemic racism:

The movie illustrates how systemic these barriers are by showing that nearly every white person in the film is complicit in their maintenance. A white librarian tries to shoo Dorothy away from the math and computer books in the library because those are in the “whites only” section. […] One of the movie’s chief virtues is that it doesn’t hide that truth. Everyone takes part in racism, even if no one explicitly uses the N-word.

Christina Vasilevski, “Hidden Figures, Not-So-Hidden Meaning,” 5 Jan. 2017

In a commentary piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Maya Payne Smart wrote about how this scene illustrates barriers — barriers that continue today:

“As a book lover and community advocate for literacy and libraries, this scene got me thinking about today’s hidden figures. It distills so many dimensions of the enduring obstacles to equality in America, from restricted access to career-propelling information to the threat of rebuke for daring to challenge the social order. And to think that Dorothy was one of the lucky ones — a college-educated NASA employee.

Today, incredible barriers to adult education and career advancement continue to persist. And there’s not necessarily a villainous gatekeeper standing between workers and the information they need. Complex systems of discrimination and segregation conspire to limit opportunity for many.”

Maya Payne Smart, “Commentary: ‘Hidden Figures’ illustrates barriers to advancement,” Austin American-Statesman, 25 Jan. 2017

A closer look at library segregation in the South

We already learned last month from Dr. Aisha Johnson and her lecture on the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program that some rural counties in the South started desegregating in the 1930s in order to secure library funding. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — three years after this film is set — that discrimination in public spaces like public libraries was officially outlawed.

I also learned about how in 1939, five Black teenagers protested at the all-White Alexandria Public Library in Virginia, two months after the American Library Association (ALA) first adopted the “Library Bill of Rights” which included a statement that “Library meeting rooms should be available on equal terms to all groups in the community” (Weigand). On the Digital Public Library of America’s online exhibit about the desegregation of public libraries, I also watched a 1962 news clip of Black students demonstrating civil disobedience at the public library in Albany, Georgia. From this article on the Granville County Library System site, I read about the Greenville Eight, the Tougaloo Nine, and the St. Helen Four, and the impacts of their actions to desegregate public libraries.

And this article from the American Libraries magazine highlights additional untold stories of heroes who participated in sit-ins and protests at public libraries during the Civil Rights era, including Teri Moncure Mojganiwho participated in a public library protest in 1964 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and became a librarian herself, at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Here are some additional resources that explore segregation, past and present, in our public libraries:

It feels natural that in taking a closer look at this library scene in Hidden Figures, we end up taking a closer look in general at public library segregation in the U.S. It was devastating, but necessary, to read about the harmful effects of actions and non-actions of librarians and library organizations during this painful — and painfully enduring — time period. As I wrote earlier, “These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.” We must not forget, and films like Hidden Figures are one vital way to help us remember.

Sources used

‘Scent of a’ student library worker

A rare example of a reel librarian character in a Thanksgiving-themed movie. Hoo-ah!

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! Although there are many horror films featuring reel librarians to help celebrate the Halloween holiday — as well as many holiday-themed films featuring reel librarians for the Christmas holiday season — there remains a scarcity of Thanksgiving-themed films featuring reel librarians. In fact, I have come across only ONE example in my 20+ years of researching librarians in film. That film is 1992’s Oscar-winning film Scent of a Woman, starring Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade and Chris O’Donnell as Charlie Simms.

Scent of a plot

Has it been awhile since you’ve seen Scent of a Woman? Catch up by watching the trailer:

“Scent of a Woman Official Trailer #1 – Al Pacino Movie (1992) Movie HD” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License

This coming-of-age story focuses on a young, clean-cut prep school boy, Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), who attends a New England private school on a merit scholarship and works as a student worker at the school library. To pay for a flight home to Oregon for Christmas, he agrees to be temporary caretaker for an alcoholic blind man, Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who takes Charlie on an adventure-filled Thanksgiving weekend in New York City.

Charlie Simms looks at the school's job board for Thanksgiving weekend jobs
Looking at the school’s job board

Scent of a school library scene

A little over 17 minutes into this 156-minute-long (!) film, we see Charlie working as a student assistant in the school library. While standing behind a high desk, he’s stamping and checking out a book to another student. The library is in the classic style, with lots of wood tones and tall bookcases, befitting a private prep school.

A classmate, George Willis, Jr. (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) then rushes up to the library desk with an armful of books. George has already been introduced in earlier scenes, as one of a group of rich, elite boys, so we know that he likes to mess around and make fun of those who are not elites like himself.

George:  Chas, Chas, hold up. [Puts books on counter] How ya doing’?

Charlie: I’m good.

George: That’s great.

Charlie: [looks at one of the books] This can’t go out. This is on reserve.

Charlie notices one of the library books is on reserve
Charlie notices one of the library books is on reserve

Their conversation continues:

George: Here’s the thing. I need the book tonight for a Thanksgiving quiz with big-shit Preston in the morning.

Charlie: Yeah I know. That’s why he put it on reserve. This is our only copy.

George: Chas, I’m pulling an all-nighter. Without that book I’m dead, okay?

Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early breakout role in Scent of a Woman
Philip Seymour Hoffman said this role changed everything for his career. RIP, PSH.

Charlie, as the one working behind the elevated library desk, is standing above George, ostensibly the one in the power position, at least visually. He also has the power of rules supporting him, the rules that the school instructor set for the book on reserve. The camera mimics the angle of Charlie’s perspective, as he’s looking down at George, who is pleading with him to bend the rules. However, we also know that Charlie is the “poor” kid, the one on merit scholarship, and George is the “rich” kid. Therefore, George is the one who really holds the power in this situation.

It’s no wonder that Charlie is the one who relents. You can see it on his face, as evident in the screenshot below. He knows the score.

Charlie: If it’s not back by 7:30, it’s gonna be my ass.

George: Oh, I promise. I promise.

They then leave the library together. Charlie tells George to wait because he’s “gotta lock up.”


Side note: As a self-respecting, professional librarian, I gotta interject and say, this is NOT realistic. I do not believe for one second that any library would allow a student worker to be solely in charge of the library — especially a library at a private school that surely has lots of expensive materials and collections — and be allowed to lock up the library by themselves. Nope. Not happening. Librarians usually take turns working a night shift during the week, or there are specific librarian positions designated for evening services. In my personal experience, student workers usually help with closing up the library — tasks like announcing when the library is about to close, checking group study rooms, etc. — but the professional staff is ALWAYS ultimately responsible for locking up.

Student library worker Charlie locks up the school library
Leaving a student library worker to lock up the library?! I don’t think so.

SIGH. Okay, soap box moment over. Please continue. 😉


The library scene lasts about 40 seconds in total. As they walk away from the library, Charlie and George see George’s friends setting up some kind of prank. This will prove pivotal to the rest of the film plot, as this prank later humiliates the head master, Mr. Trask (James Rebhorn). Trask then tries to get the two boys to reveal who pulled the prank, but neither Charlie nor George cooperate. Trask then puts the screws on Charlie — the vulnerable one on merit scholarship, natch — and gives him the Thanksgiving weekend to think about cooperating; otherwise, Trask will hold a discipline hearing in front of the whole school right after the Thanksgiving holiday.

After the holiday weekend with Lt. Col Slade and lots of “white male bonding” adventures — eating fancy dinners! dancing the tango with a beautiful woman! endangering the lives of others by encouraging a blind man to drive a sports car! — Charlie faces judgment at that discipline hearing. Lt. Col. Slade joins Charlie at the hearing and defends the young man.

Scent of a Liberated Librarian

So what role does Charlie fulfill? I believe he fulfills the role of a Liberated Librarian, a character who “discovers” himself — and what he’s capable of — during an adventure or crisis. These characters are usually younger (check!), become more “masculine” or “assertive” after the liberation (check!), and usually need an external force to aid or instigate the “liberation” (check!).

It’s important to note that in the case of this Liberated Librarian character, Charlie is not liberated from being a librarian or working in a library like some others (e.g. Joe Versus the Volcano). Rather, he is liberated from his own fear and self-doubt.

I place this role and this film into the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.

Charlie is a not an actual librarian, of course, since he is a student worker in the school library, but he is considered a “reel librarian” for the purposes of this research and blog post. He is the only one we see in any kind of authoritative role in a library, using that authority to break the rules about reserve books as well as lock up the library. However, the fact that he works in the library does not directly affect the plot. He could have worked elsewhere on the campus; his job as a student library worker is used primarily to demonstrate that he needs a job. (Clearly, the salary for a student library job is not enough to pay for a plane ticket to Oregon.) And the library setting itself is not essential because it’s a library and serving as a center of knowledge or access to information; instead, it’s used as a convenient locale and reason for the boys to be out late at night on campus. But there could have been other locales chosen on campus, like a tutoring center or student center or even a dormitory, which would have worked just as well for reasons of plot.

Charlie is one of the two leads, but he’s not really the main character. After all, Al Pacino is the one who chews up the scenery throughout the film and won an Oscar for Best Actor for yelling out “Hoo-ah!” a lot. We learn a lot more about Pacino’s character, Lt. Col. Slade, than we do about Charlie.

So how is Charlie described in the film, and what do we learn about him?

Here’s how he describes himself:

I’m not a squealer.

Here’s how Lt. Col. Slade first describes Charlie, at the beginning of the film:

You little snail darter from the Pacific Northwest.

And then toward the end of the film, he recognizes Charlie’s worth:

You got integrity, Charlie.

When the shit hits the fan, some guys run and some guys stay. Here’s Charlie facing the fire.

Scent of an award

As I mentioned, Al Pacino won an Oscar for Best Actor for this role (he had previously been nominated 6 times, and was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for Glengarry Glen Ross the year he won for this film). Scent of a Woman was also nominated in the Best Writing, Best Picture, and Best Director Oscar categories but didn’t win.

The film also won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and Pacino won the Golden Globe for Best Actor.

And in a rare example of a reel librarian character resulting in major acting awards: Chris O’Donnell was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for the Golden Globes and won the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Actor that year. Hoo-ah!

Scent of a comment

Have you seen Scent of a Woman lately? Did you remember that it’s a Thanksgiving movie?! Like me, are you left wondering if George ever returned that reserves book?

Please leave a comment and share… and then get back to your turkey and pumpkin pie! 😉 Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources used

Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Librarians should get hazard pay for the very real dangers that come with the job.

The sure-to-be-a-smash-hit 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.

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

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?

*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.

The librarian is surrounded
The librarian is surrounded
Librarian torture
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?!”

The book of spells falls into the villain's hands
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

Wong the librarian and Doctor Strange "meet cute"
Wong the librarian and Doctor Strange “meet cute”
Wong's librarian glare
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.

Wong the librarian provides backstory and context for Doctor Strange
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!

Wong the librarian chooses books for Doctor Strange
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]

Wong lays down the (library) law for Doctor Strange
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.

Wong secures one of the book in the library's forbidden section
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.

Facial expression showdown!
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.

Library theft!
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.

Doctor Strange resurrects the missing pages from the book of spells
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 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.”

History lesson from the reel librarian
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.

Wong the warrior librarian
Wong the warrior librarian

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

Wong the warrior librarian
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 librarian death
Reel librarian death
Reel librarian resurrection
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!

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile
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)
Going once…
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
Going twice…
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
No third chances…
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
We’re done.

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.)

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile
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.

Cameo of Stan Lee
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:


Shushing Meryl Streep in ‘Ironweed’

How awesome would it be to be able to say, “I got to shush Meryl Streep in a movie!” Ah, the benefits of portraying a reel librarian.

As I mentioned last week, the Paramount Vault YouTube channel features select full-length films, including Ironweed (1987), which includes a short library scene. I immediately set to watching Ironweed and taking more notes for this analysis post.

Movie poster for Ironweed
Movie poster for Ironweed in The Paramount Vault

Set in 1938, the film is based on the novel by William Kennedy (who also wrote the screenplay) and features Jack Nicholson, a homeless drifter, who returns to his home town and meets up with an ex-radio singer, played by Meryl Streep, who is ill and homeless. Both Nicholson and Streep were Oscar-nominated for their lead roles in this film. It is also interested to note that Nicholson currently holds the record for most Oscar nominations for an actor, while Streep currently holds the record for most Oscar nominations for an actress, as well as the most Oscar nominations for any actor or actress, period.

The library scene occurs almost exactly halfway through the 2-hour-and-23-minute running time of the film. The interior of the library scene, according to the IMDb.com filming locations trivia, was filmed on the second floor of the Troy Public Library in Troy, New York. (See more pics and read more about the library here in this ‘All Over Albany’ post, which also links the library setting to the Ironweed film.)

Here is the info about the librarian and library scene from reel librarian researcher Martin Raish’s site Librarians in the Movie: An Annotated Filmography. Raish characterizes the librarian’s behavior in Ironweed as welcoming and nice, as evidenced in the sentence, “A librarian… very nicely, tells her she is welcome to use the library.”

Ironweed info from Martin Raish website
Ironweed info from Martin Raish website

This makes it seem as if the librarian, played by Bethel Leslie, is quite friendly, but a little more is revealed as you watch the remainder of the two-minute library scene.

Opening shot of the library scene in Ironweed (1987)
Opening shot of the library scene in Ironweed (1987)

Meryl Streep, as Helen Archer, is sleeping in the library beside the fireplace. The librarian comes over and hands her a Life magazine. She tells her, “My dear. You may stay as long as you read. I don’t allow sleeping.

Screenshot from Ironweed (1987)
The librarian wakes up Helen and hands her a magazine to read.

The librarian is middle-aged-to-older (her lack of makeup and dowdy clues make her seem older), with greying, marcelled hair pulled back at the nape. She is dressed in earth tones and very conservatively, in a long cardigan sweater and long tweed skirt. What appears to be a watch charm or pendant hangs on a long chain from her neck.

As Helen tries to save face by saying, “I wasn’t sleeping. I was waiting for the fire, to die there,” the librarian smiles and pats her on the shoulder. One could see that as a friendly gesture, but it could also be viewed as condescending, as well. Perhaps it is both friendly and condescending? Or perhaps just pitying?

The librarian walks away in Ironweed (1987)
The librarian walks away in Ironweed (1987)

As the librarian walks away, stepping quietly in her sensible brown heels, a smartly dressed woman looks over. She recognizes Helen and comes over, introducing herself as Nora Lawlor. The woman says she hasn’t seen Helen in twenty years and that she used to hear her on the radio but lost track. Helen says she toured abroad for several years, and Nora responds by saying how much she envies her.

Nora Lawlor in Ironweed (1987)
Nora Lawlor in Ironweed (1987)

As Helen gets up to leave, Nora states she has seen Helen’s brother in church last week. This is a trigger point, as this information immediately riles up Helen, who declares her brother a hypocrite. She then begins shouting that he and her mother cheated her out her inheritance. Not five seconds go by before the librarian is back and shushing Helen.

[Side note:  How awesome would it be to be able to say, “I got to shush Meryl Streep in a movie!” Ah, the benefits of portraying a reel librarian. 😉 ]

The librarian again puts her hand on Helen’s arm — the same hand that patted Helen’s arm and shoulder not one minute beforehand — and this time, the gesture is not so kindly. She states firmly, “I’m sorry, but you have to leave. You’re making MUCH too much noise,” as she propels Helen toward the door.

The librarian ejects Helen from the library for making too much noise, in Ironweed (1987)
The librarian ejects Helen from the library for making too much noise, in Ironweed (1987)
Helen leaves the library in Ironweed (1987)
Helen leaves the library in Ironweed (1987)

Although a very short scene, I have classified the library scene in Ironweed in the Class III category. In my opinion, the reel librarian serves as both a Spinster Librarian and as Information Provider. It is significant that in the first part of the library scene, she states, “I don’t allow sleeping.” I, not we. She personally embodies the rules of the library, and by extension, the rules of society. And in the latter part of the library scene, the arm that gently awakened Helen out of her slumbers is the same arm that forcibly ejects her out of the library one minute later. The librarian will brook no behavior that falls outside the narrow confines of her safe and secure walls. She exhibits the uptight nature and rule-mongering of the Spinster Librarian character type, along with the conservative clothing and hairstyle. The reel librarian in Ironweed also provides information about the library to both Helen and the audience.

In the next scene, Helen is drowning her sorrows in a glass of wine, still shouting, “Thieves!” at random intervals. The immediate cut from the dark-paneled walls of a library to the dark-paneled walls of a bar is a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure; both locales serve as places of safety and security, in their own, different ways.

And no one at the bar tells Helen to leave or to be quiet.


Sources used:


  • Ironweed. Dir. Hector Bobenco. Perf. Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker, Fred Gwynne, Tom Waits. TriStar, 1987.
  • Raish, Martin. “The A Group.” Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography, 5 Aug. 2011.
  • Troy’s Main Library: An Inspiration.” All Over Albany, 27 April 2011.