31 thoughts and questions I had while watching ‘A Winter Romance’ (2021)

“Digging into history is what I love to do.”

I was browsing recently through the newly added movies on Amazon Prime, and a TV movie entitled A Winter Romance (2021) caught my eye because the word “librarian” was mentioned in the first line of its summary:

When librarian TAYLOR HARRIS suddenly loses her job, she moves back to her small hometown in Montana. There, she gets involved in the fight to help save her brother’s hotel from tycoon JOEL SHEENAN. But things become complicated when she ends up falling for Joel.

Jessica Lowndes, a White Canadian actress, stars as librarian Taylor, and Chad Michael Murray, a White American actor, co-stars as Joel in this GAC Family Channel TV movie — with all the hallmarks of a Hallmark or Lifetime TV movie. Since the librarian is the main character in this TV movie, it took me HOURS to watch this 85-minute movie. Since I had so many notes from all the pauses, replays, research tangents, etc., I was struggling with how to structure this post… which finally led me to the realization that I could structure it more stream-of-consciousness style, noting all my random thoughts and questions I had while watching this TV movie. I hope you enjoy this new kind of post format!

*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD* (But are there really any kind of spoilers for this kind of holiday romance?)

Here’s a preview trailer for the movie:

1. Why does this TV movie have multiple titles?

Title screen for 'A Winter Romance' (2021)
Title screen for ‘A Winter Romance’ (2021)

The opening scene clearly reveals the movie title to be A Winter Romance, as seen above. But when I tried to look up details about the movie using that title, I came up empty. Finally, looking up the director’s name, Bradley Walsh, led me to the TV movie’s original title, Colors of Love, which led me to other alternate titles, including An Autumn Romance when it was released on the GAC Family cable channel (and as seen above in the YouTube preview). And all of these titles are different from the source novel, The Tycoon’s Kiss, by Jane Porter. Why does this TV movie have 3+ titles? This does not feel like a good sign.

2. Is there a real “Seattle Reference Library”?

Seattle Reference Library exterior
Seattle Reference Library exterior

The opening title screen is of the Seattle cityscape. You can see the Seattle Space Needle in the upper right in the screenshot in #1 above, and the boomerang-shaped buildings along the bottom are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation campus. Is this movie set in Seattle? How do we get to Montana, as mentioned in the plot summary?

The next shot is the outside of a building with prominent black letters on the sign that read “Seattle Reference Library,” further emphasizing the Seattle location. Is there a real-life library called the “Seattle Reference Library”? Not that I know of, and I live in this region of the U.S. The glass architecture of this building seems to be suggesting the iconic glass building that houses the central Seattle Public Library building. If you recognize this real-life building that’s standing in for this library onscreen, please leave a comment.

3. Don’t piss off librarians by introducing a librarian character and then having that librarian immediately shush a patron onscreen.

Shushing WHILE smiling?!
Shushing WHILE smiling?!

There should be a moratorium on showing librarians shushing onscreen. It’s so stereotypical and so unnecessary, especially in a modern movie.

After Taylor helps a writer who is researching his book — the key is in primary sources, like land grants and diaries — the writer gets too excited (“I have to call my publisher!”) that Taylor shushes him, as seen above. Shushing WHILE smiling?! Insert rolling eyes emoji here: 🙄

4. Shushing aside, this librarian seems to be good at her job.

I think this line will be the set-up for the movie, as Taylor says to the patron, “I’m happy to help… Digging into history is what I love to do.” Shushing aside, Taylor seems to be good at her job, and we are clearly being encouraged to respect her skills as a librarian.

The library director, left, enjoys a (brief) happy moment with research librarian Taylor, right
The library director, left, enjoys a (brief) happy moment with research librarian Taylor, right

The library director, Linda (Jenni Burke), also happens to walk by while Taylor is wrapping up with the writer, and she compliments her work, “It’s like you have a sixth sense.” It’s SO RARE to see multiple librarians onscreen, and I appreciate that the library director is a Black woman. Linda has the power in this relationship, and Taylor, a White woman, is visibly happy to earn praise from her boss. The two librarians share a warm and professional dynamic together.

5. I am guessing that the importance of primary sources will be a theme.

In her exchange with Linda, Taylor also states, “There’s still some stuff that you can’t find on the internet.” So. True. Primary sources, y’all! I feel like this will be a theme in the rest of the movie… so let’s just put a pin in that here.

6. The lack of stable library funding is depressingly realistic.

Linda then reveals the bad news as the two walk down the stairs. The city is facing major budget cuts, and the library has used up some grant funding, which means… the research librarian position has been cut. Taylor’s out of a job, pronto. Yikes. It’s depressing, but I do appreciate the real talk about the inadequacies and instability of library funding. (This was also the crux behind The Twelve Trees of Christmas TV movie!) However, the two part on good terms (Linda: “I’m already looking for other funding. The second I can bring you back, I… We’re gonna miss you so much.”), which is kind of refreshing.

Librarian hug!
Librarian hug!

7. Being a librarian IS a dream job.

Taylor then calls her brother, who’s in Montana, and shares that “was my dream job.” I may be mistaken, but I don’t recall EVER hearing a librarian job being described onscreen as a “dream job” before. Bless. And her brother is so supportive (“You were good at it, too”).

So, 2 minutes in, and we’ve already connected the dots between Seattle and Montana. And we’ve already seen multiple librarians onscreen!

8. Books are our brand!

After her car ends up in a ditch due to icy roads, Taylor gets a ride from Joel Sheenan (their first “meet cute” moment!) to her brother’s house. We meet her brother, Craig (played by Dennis Andres), who is married to a Black woman, Christine (played by Moni Ogunsuyi), and they have a cute-as-a-button daughter, Zoe (played by Delia Lisette Chambers). And I thought it sweet that Zoe gives her a picture she drew of her aunt Taylor in a library, surrounded by books. And then Zoe picks out a book for Taylor to read to her for bedtime.

Books are indeed our brand!

I’m not mad at that association. Of course, there are many more things in a library’s collection than books, and librarians NEVER have time to “read on the job” like some people assume. It’s just… the lowest common denominator. Associating books with librarians is easy and predictable. As is this TV movie.

Her niece draws her a picture of her aunt in a library
Is that me? Of course, you’re a librarian, and you’re surrounded by books!
Reading a bedtime story to her niece Zoe
“We have some reading to do!”

9. WTF: “Maybe they’re right… Libraries are obsolete.”

At 14 1/2 minutes into this TV movie, Taylor is talking with her sister-in-law, Christine, about her love life, that she’s been dating these tech bros in Seattle. And then comes this line:

[T]he only books they read are on tiny little screens. But maybe they’re right. That, as much as I love what I do, libraries are obsolete.

W.T.F. Libraries are NOT obsolete, and no self-respecting librarian would ever say that. We librarians actually deal with constant changes in technology and ongoing reassessments of community needs, while also trying to preserve access to information in disparate, older formats. It takes skill to balance all that.

And it’s her brother and sister-in-law who push back on this! Craig responds, “Not as long as you have anything to say about it, right?,” and Christine says, “Somewhere out there, there’s a guy who’s gonna appreciate your love of books.” Why are all these supporting characters doing all the work of validating this central librarian character?! I’m sensing some White woman privilege here.

Taylor gets comforted by her sister-inlaw
I’m not given any agency or storyline of my own in this TV movie; rather, I’m just here to comfort your White woman tears about your love life.

10. Does everyone think librarians judge people by their reading choices?

Craig, to his wife: Did I ever tell you that my little sister, back in high school, wouldn’t date a guy unless he could name all three Brontë sisters?

Taylor: That’s not true. Two out of three was OK.

Craig, Christine, and Taylor at breakfast
Craig, Christine, and Taylor at breakfast

This exchange was part of the scene above, and I rolled my eyes at the thought that everyone — or at least, this screenwriter — assumes that librarians judge people by their reading choices or knowledge. Not all of us are literary snobs! (I personally love reading mysteries and YA fantasy fiction. But our cat is named Brontë, so perhaps the lady doth protest too much, methinks? … 😉 )

11. Yes, librarians do visit other libraries wherever they go.

Exterior shot of Forest Ridge Public Library building
A librarian visits another library… so meta!

At 20 minutes into the film, Taylor visits the local public library in Forest Ridge. This rang true for me. One of the first things I do when I visit a new place is to visit a local library.

Note: Bracebridge Public Library in the Ontario province, Canada, served as the filming location for the fictional Forest Ridge Public Library.

12. Do they get the call numbers right?

A closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers
A closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers

As Taylor enters the library, we get treated to a closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers. This public library uses the Dewey Decimal classification system, which is common for public libraries, plus there are red Reference labels on the book spines. Hallmarks of actual library books! But they must be older library books, as it turns out that the 819 call number is no longer being used, at least not in the U.S. (but perhaps still in Canada?). The 810’s are used for American literature in English, and the 819 range used to be used for American puzzle books. Who knew?! 🙂

So they do get the call numbers mostly right in this TV movie. An A for effort. You can read more about call number shenanigans here in this post, and how you can spot the difference between a bookstore and a library here in this post.

13. Librarians deserve their own “meet cute” moment, too.

In this first public library scene, we get to meet another library director, Joyce, played by Darlene Cooke, a Black Canadian actress. Taylor and Joyce get their own librarians’ “meet cute” moment over a book display of “the greatest love stories of all time,” in which Taylor chooses Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Joyce convinces Taylor to get a library card in order to check out the book.

A librarians’ “meet cute” moment!

What purpose(s) does this scene serve? My guesses: To reinforce this Brontë thread that was introduced in the previous scene, and to introduce a way to get Taylor working at this library in order to stay in town.

And as lovely and warm as this “meet cute” moment is between the two librarians — and how appreciative I am that we are meeting multiple librarians of color in this TV movie! — I cannot help but notice that, once again, the persons of color seem to exist solely to direct attention toward Taylor (Joyce reveals that “Zoe always talks about her Aunt Taylor being a librarian too.”)

14. Is Anne Brontë the best Brontë?

The Brontë thread pays off in the next scene! At 23 minutes, Joel comes out of the coffee shop as Taylor walks by with her library book.

Joel and Taylor meet up on the sidewalk after Taylor has checked out a library book
Are we having our second “meet cute” moment?

Taylor: I just stopped by the library and got myself a card [shows her book, Wuthering Heights]

Joel: Ohhh! That’s a good choice, although I’ve always been more of a Charlotte fan.

Taylor: Charlotte?

Joel: Charlotte Brontë. instead of Emily. You know, Jane Eyre.

Taylor: But we cannot forget their favorite sister.

Joel: And how could we ever forget Anne? Oh, I love Anne!

Taylor: You’re full of a lot of surprises, aren’t you?

I also personally prefer Jane Eyre. (Don’t @ me, Wuthering Heights fans. We can co-exist.) And is Anne the best Brontë? I should finally get around to reading my copy of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall… if there are any die-hard Anne Brontë fans reading this right now, please leave a comment! Also, it’s hilarious to me that no one ever mentions their brother, Branwell Brontë.

Also, how many “meet cute” moments does Taylor need?! This movie is working VERY hard to convince us that it’s actually a romance and that Taylor and Joel have chemistry together. (I’m not convinced. And I’m not the only one. In this online review of the movie, the critic observes that “Taylor … isn’t in search of love as much as she is in search of a job.” )

15. A third of the way into this movie, we finally arrive at the central conflict and plot device.

The next scene takes place at the community center, in which city councillors are holding public comments on the proposed permits to turn the 100-year-old Graff Hotel into a glossy new “destination” resort. The problem? Taylor’s brother works at (or manages?) the Graff Hotel, and Joel is the one who has bought the hotel. Taylor is conflicted! But then Taylor has her BIG IDEA.

Joel and Taylor at the city council meeting
Taylor and Joel are at odds

Taylor: Isn’t the Graff Hotel 100 years old? So that means it’s eligible for a landmark status.

Phyllis (played by Andrea Davis, a Black American actress): For landmark status, the state of Montana says we have to prove that a significant historical event took place involving the building.

Joel: That’s exactly right. Thank you, Phyllis. And according to our research, there’s no evidence of that with the Graff Hotel.

Taylor: Well, who did this research? […] So you’re saying that if we find a significant event happened at the Graff, then the hotel would be preserved?

Phyllis: According to the state of Montana, yes.

Craig: Phyllis, maybe we could take some time to explore this before the council makes their final decision?

Phyllis: All right, this is what we’ll do. We’ll take a week to look this over, then we’ll reconvene and hear what everyone has to say. Any objections?

Ah hah! This is where it pays off that Taylor’s a librarian, and that she knows her way around research. Librarians to the rescue!

16. Is this movie correct about the qualifications for landmark status in Montana?

City council chairwoman Phyllis commands attention at the community meeting
City council chairwoman Phyllis commands attention at the community meeting

So Phyllis, the city council chairwoman, stated above that, “For landmark status, the state of Montana says we have to prove that a significant historical event took place involving the building.” Is this accurate?

Yes and no. Yes: one of the criteria for landmark status is association with a significant historical event. No: that’s not the ONLY criteria to be considered for landmark status.

According to the National Register of Historic Places page on Montana’s official state government website, there are four criteria for consideration:

1. Be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

2. Be associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or

3. Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

4. Have yielded, or may likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history. In addition, properties must possess a high degree of integrity to qualify for listing in the Register – in other words, they must be relatively unchanged in appearance from the historic period.

I mean, y’all knew I would look this up, right?! Right. I’m glad y’all know me so well. 😀

17. I guessed correctly about the part-time library job opportunity!

This TV movie is very predictable. Thirty-eight minutes in, Joyce asks Taylor to work part-time at the library.

Joyce asks Taylor to work part-time at the public library
Your niece Zoe gave you a great reference. Would you like to work part-time at the library?

Joyce: Are you enjoying your visit with Catherine and Heathcliff?

Taylor: Very much. 

Joyce: I was thinking, my part-time librarian recently moved to Denver, and I’ve been looking someone to help out around here, if you’re interested.

Taylor:Oh, I mean, that would be amazing, I just… I don’t know how long I’m here for. 

Joyce: Well, while you are here, I could sure use your help. […] Come by tomorrow and we’ll get you started.

My next prediction? Taylor’s going to use the library’s resources to research the Graff Hotel. But uh, that’s not the same thing as working in the library. This is just being used as a plot excuse.

18. In two minutes, you can get a job AND a date!

At this point, my husband, Sam, joined me. He stayed long enough to comment on this next scene, in which Joel and Taylor have YET ANOTHER “meet cute” moment. Joel asks her for reader’s advisory recommendations as a way to actually ask her out on a date.

Joel and Taylor at the public library
Can I get some librarian help over here?

Joel: I was wondering if you could help me find a book. You see, I finished this one. Again.

Taylor: Jane Eyre. That’s impressive.

Joel: And I’m looking for something a little different. I figured, who better to ask than a librarian?

Taylor: Well, I don’t officially work here yet.

Joel [looking around and lowering his voice to a whisper]: Well, then we’ll make it unofficial. 

Here is Sam’s tongue-in-cheek reaction to Joel essentially shushing himself:

Sam: She hasn’t even shushed him yet! Librarians are professionals. You can’t just shush yourself. You have to WAIT to be shushed.

Me: I’ve written so many posts in which patrons shush each other. [Example: The school library scene in Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before]

Sam: Each other, yes. But not themselves. It’s a totally different thing to shush each other.

Me: 🙄

Sam: You are welcome for my contributions to this viewing experience. I am making this movie better.

Indeed.

19. “That’s not how any of this works!”

After three (!!!) “meet cute” moments, Taylor and Joel finalllllly go on a date, to a private dinner at the Graff Hotel. As they get to know each other beyond their mutual love of the Brontë sisters, we learn that Taylor doesn’t know the difference between library volunteers and actual, paid librarian professionals.

Craig and I grew up in Seattle. He’s actually the reason I got my first librarian job. […] We were in high school, and this one summer, our local library was looking for a volunteer, and I wanted the job more than anything, so Craig took the bus all the way downtown so that he could go talk to the head librarian, and he told him that no one loves books as much as I do, and that he would never have even opened a book if it weren’t for me. He must have been really convincing because I got the job, and… he’s been there for me ever since.

Sam beat me to it:

That’s not how any of this works! Volunteers are not the same thing as librarians!

I’m sure this backstory confessional had good intentions, but it unfortunately serves to reinforce the misconceptions that (1) loving books is the only requirement for a librarian, (2) anyone working in a library is a librarian, and (3) that you don’t have to pay librarians a fair wage. Real-life librarians are professionals with actual training and graduate-level education, and we deserve to be recognized and paid as professionals.

20. Yep, primary sources are important for historical research.

At 50 minutes into this TV movie, we get a library tour with Joyce — presumably on Taylor’s first day working at the public library — and OF COURSE Taylor asks about local history and primary sources. Joyce leads her to the archives room. So yes, the part-time librarian job IS a convenient plot device for Taylor to have time and access to research the Graff Hotel.

A glimpse at the public library's archives room
A glimpse at the public library’s archives room

Taylor: The best way of digging up the hotel’s history was from some local sources. Perhaps a first person’s account?

Joyce: Much better than searching the internet, yes. 

Taylor: And, considering you know the area so well, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction.

Joyce: Ah! I may have one idea. [takes her to the archives room]

Joyce: Over the years, the library’s collected a kind of archive of the town’s history. [points] Newspapers, photographs, letters and diaries. 

Taylor: What do you do with all these?

Joyce: Well, the plan was to have it digitized and online, but as you can see, we haven’t made much progress. If you think it can help. 

Taylor: It looks like a great place to start.

My next prediction is that Taylor’s going to parlay her short-term, part-time job into a long-term job digitizing the archives!

21. Pay attention to signage.

The library signage (newspapers and periodicals) doesn't match what's in the shelves (children's books)
The library signage (newspapers and periodicals) doesn’t match what’s in the shelves (children’s books)

Along the way to the archives room, we do get some glimpses of other parts of the public library, including this children’s book zone. But the signage on the ends of the bookcases says “newspapers back issues” and “periodicals back issues.” My guess is that the real-life library did have periodicals in this part of the library, but the set dressers moved children’s books into this area to be more visually dynamic and colorful — but then forgot to remove the signs off the ends of the bookcases.

Details matter.

22. Is Taylor the luckiest librarian in Montana?

At 56 mins, Taylor goes back to the hotel to see her brother. Craig asks how the search is going, and Taylor responds that “I’m hoping something turns up.” The pair then stroll by the old maids’ quarters — which have apparently just been serving as storage for the past hundred years? — and Taylor starts looking around the wardrobes and drawers.

The plot is too predictable… I think it will come as no surprise to you that within 30 seconds, Taylor finds EXACTLY the evidence she was hoping would turn up, an old scrapbook of letters and photographs from a maid who worked at the hotel in the early 1900s — including a photograph of Teddy Roosevelt in front of the hotel! Historical significance and landmark status, I can smell you coming down the research trail. Zero stars for predictability, but a gold star for depicting primary sources as discovered treasure!

Taylor finds an old scrapbook of letters and photos
I am the fastest research librarian in Montana!
A closeup of an historical photograph
Primary sources, like photographs and letters, for the win!

23. Librarians are like private detectives.

The next 10 minutes reveal how there are so many similarities between librarians and private detectives. (If you need more evidence, see this post, this post, and this post.)

I won’t get into all the details, but we next get a scene with Taylor, Joyce, and Craig in the public library’s archives room, and Taylor brandishes a magnifying glass to show the others how the photo is of Teddy Roosevelt during his time as U.S. President, between 1901 and 1909. (“Now that we know the timeframe, we can just narrow down the dates.”)

Taylor uses a magnifying glass to show Joyce and Craig that the historical photograph includes Teddy Roosevelt
If I told you I was Nancy Drew, y’all would believe me

In the next scene, Taylor uses clues in the photograph to discover the probable reason Roosevelt was in Forest Ridge (a freak snowstorm in springtime).

24. Yes, librarians seek help from other librarians.

Taylor then reveals to Craig that she has a friend, Caitlin, who works at the National Archives in Washington DC. (Do you think Caitlin knows Dr. Abby Chase?!)

So I emailed her [Caitlin] the photo and she said she was going to search the records to see all the traveling that the president did during that time… She said she would get back to me as soon as possible, but I think it’s looking good.

Do we have any doubt that the information she gets from Caitlin will be exactly what she needs to save the hotel? I don’t think so!

And yes, librarians do get help from colleagues and other librarians, archivists, and information professionals. We take our own advice; when we’re stuck in a research dead end, we ask each other for help!

25. A librarian gets a Poirot moment.

Reinforcing that link between librarians and private detectives… just like the literary private detective Hercule Poirot loves a rapt audience when he solves the mystery at the end of an Agatha Christie novel (I told you I like mysteries), Taylor gets her Poirot moment at the city council meeting, when she gets to reveal the hotel’s historical significance.

Taylor has her Poirot moment at the city council meeting
Librarians also have presentation skills, y’all

And this movie drags this out to the wire — complete with frantic texting and her brother knocking over the microphone stand to stall for time– even though there is zero suspense about what the outcome will be. (What I find most interesting during this bit are glimpses of the evidence Taylor was compiling on her laptop, including 1903 Montana weather maps and historical photos of 1900s Montana. Again, primary sources for the win!)

Here’s how Taylor’s Poirot moment goes down, complete with a slideshow, historic photographs, handwritten letters, diary entries, and official government documents:

Phyllis, city council chairwoman [to Craig]: Being old doesn’t qualify a building for landmark status. I’m afraid unless you have something new to add, you’re going to have to yield the floor.

Taylor [rushing into the community center]: I may be able to help with that! I think I may have found proof that shows that the Graff Hotel deserves to be a historic landmark. […] In April 1903, [the hotel maid] Mary Catherine had her photograph taken next to President Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Graff Hotel. 

Phyllis: Teddy Roosevelt was in Forest Ridge?

Taylor: That spring, he was at Yellowstone National Park to lay the cornerstone of the Roosevelt Arches, which still stand at the north entrance today. Teddy loved this part of the West more than anything, so he decided to stay and do a little bit more exploring. What nobody was expecting was that it was going to be the coldest spring on record. A freak snowstorm rolled in, leaving three feet of snow, leaving Teddy and his entire crew stranded just outside forest Ridge. By the time that the party made it back into town they spent three nights at the Graff Hotel until the roads were clear.

Phyllis: And you have proof of all this?

Taylor: I do, actually. Right here, I have a diary entry from Roosevelt. He kept one most of his life, and in April 1903, he wrote: “Snowed in at a little scrappy town called Forest Ridge. Beautiful country. Good and amiable folk. Stayed at the Graff Hotel. Best three nights of sleep in years…

But it wasn’t just the Graff that inspired him. It was… Forest Ridge. It was Montana. It was this entire part of the country and its people and the culture that inspired him while he was snowed in. So, shortly after he went back to Washington, he decided to sign the Antiquities Act, which gave him and all the future presidents the power to preserve the beautiful country of ours so that future generations could enjoy everything that he had. By making the Graff Hotel a historic landmark, we are not only celebrating Roosevelt’s legacy, we are celebrating the spirit that makes this city, this country so special. Thank you.

The city council announces that they will be applying to the state of Montana for the Graff Hotel to be granted landmark status. The town erupts in applause, while Craig hugs his sister who just saved the hotel! Librarians are heroes!

As a librarian, I appreciate this scene because of its focus on research, but I suspect that not everyone does. This reviewer commented that “Some scenes take place only to deliver information rather than emotions.”)

This presentation lasts 3 minutes total, with 10 minutes remaining in the film, just enough time for Taylor and Joel to wrap up their supposed romance.

26. How historically accurate was all that?

A (fictional) diary entry about Forest Ridge by Teddy Roosevelt
They didn’t even try to match Teddy Roosevelt’s actual handwriting

I do appreciate how confident Taylor is in her Poirot moment — and the suspension of disbelief in how quickly she set up her laptop to project onto the big TV screen! — but you know I had to wonder, how historically accurate was her evidence? So yes, I paused the movie to spend time digging into the possibilities and online archives of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential papers.

So all in all, even if not totally historically accurate — I mean, Forest Ridge is a fictional town — then it is, for the most part, historically probable for the purposes of this film’s plot. A solid B, with marks off for the handwriting mismatch and fudging of the dates.

27. The real romance is not between Taylor and Joel.

The final few minutes of the TV movie try to create suspense about whether or not Taylor will stay in Forest Ridge and whether or not she and Joel will get together. For me, the ending didn’t hold much interest — except for when I realized there was a(n unintended?) love triangle. Before Taylor goes to the Harvest Ball, we learn that she has been offered the Seattle research librarian job again (“The library in Seattle called and they want me back”). A woman’s love story with primary sources… which archives will she choose, the Seattle reference library or the archives room of the Forest Ridge Public Library?

Taylor’s joyful face when she’s researching in the Forest Ridge Public Library archives sealed the deal, right? 😉

Taylor in the archives room
I love digitizing archives!

And my final evidence for the TRUE love story of a librarian and her primary sources is in the final closeup at the end: A framed photo of the couple kissing alongside framed primary sources, including the Teddy Roosevelt photograph and historical letters!

The final shot of the movie, framed photographs and letters
The photograph of the kiss is the smallest frame on this wall… just sayin’

28. Is Montana this ethnically diverse?

This TV movie did seem to be making an effort to make this small town in Montana quite ethnically diverse. Two Black Americans are serving on the city council, including Phyllis as the council chairperson; Craig’s family is multiracial; Craig mentions that Forest Ridge was his wife’s hometown; Craig works with a woman of Asian descent at the hotel; and there seems to be a racially diverse array of townspeople at the city council meeting.

An ethnically diverse audience at the city council meeting
An ethnically diverse audience at the city council meeting

I couldn’t help but wonder if Montana is this ethnically diverse? So I looked up the most recent census records for Montana, and per 2021 estimates, the White population in Montana totals almost 89%. The Black population in Montana clocks in at .6%. So it would seem that this TV town is more ethnically diverse onscreen than it would be in real life. But I also researched if there was a history of Buffalo Soldiers in Montana — Buffalo Soldiers were Black American soldiers during the Civil War and into the 20th century — and lo and behold, I learned that many of the Buffalo Soldiers resettled in Montana after the Spanish-American War and also served as the state’s first park rangers. Very interesting!

Although I applaud the attempt at onscreen diversity in this TV movie’s cast list, I also noticed that the people of color do not have distinctive backstories or experiences of their own. We only hear about Christine growing up in Montana because Craig mentioned it. We learn nothing personal about Taylor’s niece Zoe and perhaps how it feels to grow up biracial; she exists solely to set up plot points for Taylor. We learn nothing about Craig’s Asian co-worker. And Joyce’s main function seems to be to react to Taylor’s research findings. Everyone is very pleasant to each other, and there are no overt racist acts, but it’s like the TV movie is striving to be colorblind. They don’t mention race at all. It’s like “Montana nice,” ultimately making the onscreen diversity very surface-level… only skin-deep, so to speak.

As Ibram X. Kendi, who wrote the 2019 book How to Be An Antiracist, stated in an interview:

People who say they don’t see race are, “not seeing the diversity of humanity, whether that diversity is about skin color, or hair texture, or culture.”

I also cannot help but recall Sandra Oh’s comments in a recent interview in People and how her words also apply to this movie:

Progress is not sticking a bunch of people of color [into a show or movie] and having them speak like everyone else.

29. This movie is NOT a “winter romance”

On a lighter note, I’m assuming that this TV movie’s title got rebranded to A Winter Romance because of the popularity of Christmas-themed TV romances during the end-of-year holidays. But it’s clear throughout the film that “An Autumn Romance” is a much more appropriate title. I mean, the central social event in the movie is the “Harvest Ball,” for goodness sake, and each set is drowning in orange-and red-colored leaves, pumpkins, and sunflowers.

Autumn decorations for the Harvest Ball
I thought I was starring in a movie called “An Autumn Romance”

30. These librarians have style

I also have to point out how every librarian in this TV movie has their own distinctive style.

I love the patterns and bright colors here in this screenshot from the Seattle research library:

Three librarians onscreen at the same time! They are also stylish in their own ways, in either bright colors or dynamic patterns.
Three librarians onscreen at the same time! They are also stylish in their own ways, in either bright colors or dynamic patterns.

Joyce sports long necklaces and free-flowing silhouettes throughout the movie, including in her black floral evening wear at the Harvest Ball:

Joyce at the Harvest Ball
I would wear Joyce’s black floral caftan and long gold pendant necklace

And Taylor rocks amazing coats and jackets throughout the movie:

I will definitely have to add to my stylish female reel librarians post one of these days!

31. Was this movie good? It doesn’t really matter.

This movie has quite a few positives, including several library- and librarian-focused scenes that I have rarely seen onscreen, including the repeated joy Taylor expresses when researching and looking through historical documents and primary sources. And the fact that Taylor is a librarian is absolutely critical to this movie’s plot, which is why it ends up in the Class I category of films.

There are also several negatives, which I’ve detailed in this post, including the surface-level view of librarian qualifications as well as the missed opportunities to explore the community’s diversity. The screenplay is super predictable, and the central romance between Taylor and Joel is not very compelling.

Do these positives and negatives cancel each other out? Is this a good movie? No, not really. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I do not begrudge people who watch and enjoy this kind of lightweight romance, especially in these turbulent, stressful times. But perhaps highlighting my own thoughts and questions and research tangents that came up while I was watching this movie can spur some deeper thoughts and questions — and research explorations! — of your own.


Have you seen this TV movie? Do you like this kind of post? Would you like to see more of these stream-of-consciousness types of posts? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Lovecraft Country’s ‘A History of Violence’ and segregated libraries

“The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest”

One of my favorite TV series last year was Lovecraft Country (2020), a horror drama series developed by Misha Green, a Black American screenwriter, producer, and director. This Emmy-winning series, based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff and produced by Jordan Peele, was one of the most innovative, compelling, and groundbreaking TV shows I’ve seen in awhile. It wasn’t a perfect series — the pacing was all over the place, for one — but watching this show was an exhilarating experience! And I’m not the only one who loved it. The show earned 2 Emmys this past September: Courtney B. Vance won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as George Freeman, and the series also won for Sound Editing. Among the show’s 16 other Emmy nominations: Outstanding Drama Series, Writing for a Drama Series (Misha Green), Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Jurnee Smollett as Letitia “Leti” Lewis), Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Jonathan Majors as Atticus “Tic” Freeman), Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman), and Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (RIP, the iconic Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman).

And although it was reported in February 2021 that showrunner Misha Green was working on a second season, HBO (inexplicably) cancelled the series in early July 2021. Worst of all, they cancelled the series shortly before the show earned the 18 Emmy nominations that I mentioned above. For shame, HBO. For shame. We need innovative, creative, diverse shows like Lovecraft Country!

As detailed in a Rolling Stone article:

“The series follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he joins up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams),” HBO said in its synopsis for the series, which premieres in August [2020]. “This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback.”

From “‘Lovecraft Country’: See First Trailer for Jordan Peele-Produced HBO Horror Series” by Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone, 1 May 2020

Here’s a look at Episode 4, “A History of Violence,” which includes a scene in a library!

Lovecraft Country: Season 1 Episode 4 Promo | HBO” video uploaded by HBO, Standard YouTube License

Library scene in Episode 4, “A History of Violence”

There are a LOT of different threads and characters in this series, so I’m not going to be able to summarize this episode very well. I mean, I’ve watched the entire series, and even I found the recap of this episode hard to follow! Before this episode, we had earned that Titus Braithwhite, a slave trader, had founded a secret occult society of (White, male) wizards called the Sons of Adam. In the beginning of this episode, Montrose learns where some pages from the Book of Names are located, and Tic does some research on Braithwaite and the Sons of Adam.

At 6 minutes into the show, Leti — having learned some startling news about Tic — stomps up the stairs to the Southside Colored Library to confront him. Although this part of the episode is set in Chicago, we know that this is a segregated library by the sign and name. Again, this show finds ways to reiterate that segregation and racism extended beyond the American South.

The exterior of the Southside Colored Library, as seen in Episode 4 of "Lovecraft Country"
The exterior of the Southside Colored Library, as seen in Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country”

The outside of the library looks very traditional, with the red brick and white detailing. (I was not able to find out where this scene was filmed. If you know, please leave a comment and share!) Inside, the traditional feel continues, with dark wood tones, book-lined walls, and a fireplace. A portrait of Carter G. Woodson, a well-respected Black American historian, author, and journalist, watches over the library from its perch above the fireplace.

In the screenshot below, we can see a “Quiet Please” sign by the door, and we also glimpse the back and shoulders of a Black woman librarian at the central wooden counter, checking out books to a young Black man. (Both seem to be uncredited in the cast list.)

A bird's-eye view of the library and reel librarian
A bird’s-eye view of the library and reel librarian

As Tic comes back to a table loaded with books, Leti confronts him — and earns the ire of a young boy (Ian McKay as “Cute Kid in Glasses”) who’s reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, a classic science fiction novel by Jules Verne.

Leti: Answer me.

Young boy: Shhhh.

Tic: Could you calm down?

The young boy shushes them!!! And the book he’s reading? It totally foreshadows the adventure we’re about to see in the rest of the episode. It’s too cute — I’m dying, y’all! 😀

As film critic Steffan Triplett wrote:

Give the boy in the library a YA spinoff!

Lovecraft Country Recap: Disappointment Above, Disappointment Below” by Steffan Triplett, Vulture, 6 Sept. 2020
A young boy shushes Leti and Tic in the library
Shhhhh! I’m reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, which foreshadows the rest of the episode!

Ok, back to the episode!

Tic takes Leti to the stacks so they can talk. (We can just spy the young boy seated at the table in the background. I feel that both he and Carter G. Woodson are keeping a watchful eye on them!) Tic and Leti discuss Christina Braithwhite, a descendent of Titus Braithwaite, who is protected under a spell of invulnerability.

Tic and Leti converse in the library stacks
Can you feel that kid’s eyes on me? He’s gonna shush us again!

During their heated, yet hushed, conversation in the library stacks, Tic reveals why he’s at the library — that through research, he’s trying to figure out a way to stop Christina. Leti then stalks back to the table to look at the books that Tic has gathered.

Leti: All right. So what’s all this got to do with her? Go on, tell me.

The young boy then scrapes back his chair, stands, and throws his book down in disgust as he rolls his eyes and walks off. EPIC. This kid knows how to steal a scene. He says so much without saying a word.

Leti and Tic continue their conversation, as she picks up books and looks through them. They discuss the lost Book of Names and a vault that Titus Braithwaite kept his pages in.

Tic: If I can get my hands on those pages, I can learn the Language of Adam and start casting some spells of my own to protect us. 

Leti: Okay. So where’s this vault?

Tic: I don’t know. I’ve been reading everything I can on Titus to try and find a clue. [Leti starts looking through the books on the table.] I might have to go back to Ardham.

Leti: And what? So you can excavate something out of the rubble? They teaching colored boys paleontology in the army now? You need to talk to your father.

Tic: No.

Leti: He probably did all this research and more once he got wind of your mama’s connection.

Tic: I don’t want him involved, or you either, for that matter. [He takes the book out of her hands.] Go home.

Leti and Tic discuss research leads in the library
Leti and Tic discuss research leads in the library

Leti leaves, and Tic looks at the book she was holding. That’s when he spies the check-out card in the front, where “Montrose Freeman” name is written. He then checks other books, and sure enough, Montrose’s names is in those books, as well.

How does Tic react to the realization that Leti was right, and that his father, Montrose, has done all this research already?

Tic: Shit!

Cute Kid in Glasses: Shhh!

I was laughing so hard, y’all! I mean, can’t a kid just read a book in peace?! I know it plays into stereotypes that libraries are quiet tombs, rather than the not-so-quiet centers of community they are in real life, but it’s. just. too. cute.

And the production design and cinematography in this show is top-notch excellent. This boy and his book, set against the backdrop of these card catalog drawers? Chef’s-kiss perfection!

The young boy shushes Tic for a second time in the library!
I said, Shhhhh!

This library scene ends at 9:43, so the scene lasts in total for 3 1/2 minutes. And it is an efficient 3 1/2 minutes, as they cram in a lot of exposition — and humor!

Although we only see a glimpse of the reel librarian from behind, it’s clear that this library serves the role of Information Provider, as she helps establish the library setting. The role appears to be uncredited in the cast list.

Although we don’t see this reel librarian doing much — I mean, the patrons are shushing each other! — I loved this critic’s take on this scene and the library’s collection:

In a whirlwind of world-building and backstory downloading, Tic and Leti meet up in the Southside Colored Library underneath a portrait of Carter G. Woodson to do some research on Titus Braithwaite and the Sons of Adam. I love the idea that this random Chicago library has a huge, extensive section on White Magical Racism. Look, I love libraries and librarians but I do have some questions about the idea that Tic just rolled up to the information desk and was like “Good afternoon, I’m looking for any journal articles or published works relating to a secret society of white men who are trying to destroy the Black race through time travel” and the librarian was like “Oh, that again? There’s a whole shelf dedicated to it next to the Farmer’s Almanacs.”

But, libraries are magical in their own right and Tic and Leti get the information they need.

A Scaredy-Cat Recap Of Lovecraft Country Episode 4: ‘A History Of Violence‘” by R. Eric Thomas, Elle, 7 Sept. 2020

A history of segregated libraries & what this scene reveals

Although I found this scene quite humorous — the rest of the episode gets real dark, real fast — it’s important to note the serious undercurrents this scene reveals and reiterates.

As Sabrina Reed points out:

Lovecraft Country has unrelentingly made the point that Jim Crow’s reach went further than the South and actually encompassed the Midwest and the Northeast as well. […]

The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest … Here, Black library patrons can access information or read at the leisure. While the building is not spacious and the collection isn’t vast — Leti makes a quick circuit of the library in mere seconds before finding Tic — the Black citizens of Chicago’s Southside are fortunate in that it they at least have a library. […]

The history of libraries is one rife with a continuous reckoning and evolution stipulated on who has access to information, who is allowed in the room, who is allowed on the stacks, and whose work is displayed, recommended, and purchased for distribution. It’s a history that moves toward increased equity even if progress is slow or hampered by old schools of thought. But, like American history overall, racism and racist practices under the guise of betterment still permeated library institutions.

Lovecraft Country fact vs. fiction: Segregated public libraries” by Sabrina Reed, Fansided, 8 Sept. 2020

While thinking about and writing this post, I couldn’t help but also think back to a post I wrote earlier this year, about the ‘The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program’ video lecture presented by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson for the Augusta Baker Lecture Diversity Series. In this lecture, Dr. Johnson detailed how “Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.” Again, a reminder of how much representation matters, onscreen and off.

Have you watched Lovecraft Country? Did you remember the library scene in Episode 4? Did the “Cute Kid in Glasses” make you smile? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

‘Just Cause’ to re-examine a Latina newspaper archivist portrayal

“Delores Rodriguez. Keeper of the archives. News trivia expert.”

It’s scary season again during the month of October, and this is a time when I focus on analyzing reel librarian portrayals in horror movies, thrillers, etc. We’re also finishing up the annual observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15, when we celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” This is a time to research and reflect on more diverse stories and figures of Hispanic history — and present. It’s also a time to reflect on and re-examine one’s own biases. There are unfortunately very few Latinx portrayals of reel librarians or archivists; in my most recent “Reel librarians of color” post from earlier this year, I have identified only 4 (!) Latinx reel librarian portrayals thus far. I chose to revisit the 1995 thriller Just Cause, in which Liz Torres, a well-known American character actor and comedian with Puerto Rican heritage, plays newspaper archivist Delores Rodriguez, a character with Cuban roots.

At first glance, Just Cause (1995), which stars Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne, Blair Underwood, Kate Capshaw, and Ed Harris, seems to have a patina of respectability and pedigree, thanks to its extremely talented cast. Connery also served as an executive producer on the film, which is based on John Katzenbach’s 1992 novel of the same name. Here’s an original trailer for the movie, which outlines the plot:

“Just Cause (1995) Official Trailer – Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne Movie HD” video, uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License.

As I think you can tell from the trailer, this film is a MESS. In my opinion, this movie actually gets worse the more you watch it and the more you think about it. I found myself nodding in agreement at this recent analysis of the film, “Racial Inequalities of the 90s Brought to Your Screen: Review of Film ‘Just Cause’,” a review which points out how problematic and racist this film is, with scenes and themes of White saviors, White privilege, and racist stereotypes. This movie wants to get credit for “good intentions” when Sean Connery’s character, a law professor, calls out in a legal debate the unjust imbalance of Black men in prison and Black men who are prosecuted, but the script and its “shock” twist ending end up contradicting itself.

No surprises, then, when I share that the portrayal of reel archivist Delores, a Latina, is not particularly positive, either. Let’s examine the 3 scenes in which Delores features.

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS ALERT*

Introduction to the newspaper archives and archivist

At 13 1/2 minutes into the movie, law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) has traveled down to Florida with his wife (Kate Capshaw) and young daughter (a very young Scarlett Johansson in her second movie role!). Paul visits his father-in-law, Phil Prentiss (Kevin McCarthy), who seems to be the head of a Miami newspaper, in order to get access to records and archives. Phil also takes the opportunity to diss the newspaper — “Not a bad paper as papers go, but of course that’s not saying a hell of a lot” — as he walks Paul through the newspaper offices. (White privilege alert! This movie has a lot of “good ol’ boy” types of scenes.)

Phil introduces the archivist Delores to Paul. We see that the archives room is filled with stacks and stacks of folders atop every surface. We also get a glimpse of Delores’s work station cubicle and computer. And Delores seems to be the only archives staff? (Compare to the 2015 film Spotlight, in which there are multiple newspaper researchers.)

A glimpse of the newspaper archives in Just Cause (1995)
A glimpse of the newspaper archives

Phil: Delores, sweetheart.

Delores: Hey, Mr. Phil. [They hug.]

Phil: It’s been a long time. This is Paul Armstrong, my son-in-law. [Delores takes off her glasses.]

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Phil: Delores Rodriguez. Keeper of the archives. News trivia expert. Buried three husbands. Were it not for Libby [his wife], I could well be photo op #4. 

Delores: And how is Libby’s health these days?

Phil: It’s very good.

Delores: Pity. [Phil chuckles.]

Phil: Business. Paul needs to see what you’ve got on the Joanie Shriver murder trial.

Delores: That poor kid from Ochopee? 

Phil [to Paul]: Watch your back in here.

Delores then looks over Paul, bites her lip, and hums as she walks him over to the archives section, which has compressed shelving that she has to crank to open.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Delores only puts her glasses on to read files. She then takes off her glasses again when she returns to Paul.

We then cut to Paul seated at a microfiche machine reader, and we see a montage of articles relating to the murder case that led to the conviction of Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood).

Delores: So far, we are online back to 1985. Everything else before that is still on microfiche, but I can dig around the back and see what else I can find.

Paul: How long will that take?

Delores [leaning in, wearing her glasses this time]: Oh, that depends, sweetheart. You would be amazed at what I can do with a little help.

Paul smirks, sighs, and turns back to microfiche machine.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Three side notes here:

  • The captions state that Delores “sings Guatanamera in Spanish” while she’s opening up the archives. OF COURSE I looked that up, and “Guatanamera” is a very famous Cuban song, and the title translates in English to “(The Woman) from Guantánamo.” This tidbit is primarily why I assume the character of Delores is meant to have Cuban heritage.
  • The call number label on the right-hand shelves reads: “Photos / Names / RAN-STI” (sorry the screenshot above is blurry, but you can make it out), but the stickers on the folders in that shelf clearly have “DEL” on them. The left-side shelf has folders with “ADJ” labels, so the “RAN-STI” call number label on the outside of the shelves is clearly an error. (Yes, I analyze call numbers on screen VERY thoroughly, as evidenced in this prior post, because incorrect call numbers are a personal pet peeve.)
  • Why is Paul on a microfiche machine? Delores just said that they have everything online back to 1985, which should cover the time period he’s looking at. And he’s clearly not searching archives online at a computer, because we can see the standard microfiche/film screen markings on the article closeup. Looks like another error to me.

This introductory scene lasts two minutes total. What did we learn from this scene about Delores?

  • Delores is definitely NOT the “Spinster Librarian” character type. We learn that she has been married multiple times, and she is still clearly interested in men, from her flirtatious remarks at both Phil and Paul. But she is written more as an aggressive, man-mad flirt — although Phil is the one who first calls her “sweetheart” and jokes about her love life while introducing her!
  • Delores clearly cares about her appearance, wearing colorful clothing, full makeup, and her hair in an updo hairstyle. Overall, she makes quite a glamorous impression. But is she also being sartorially styled to evoke a Latina stereotype of the “sex siren and feisty-Latina trope“?
  • Delores is self-conscious about her glasses — or perhaps she has traditional, old-fashioned ideas about female beauty and glasses (e.g., that outdated saying that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses“).
  • Delores is most likely Cuban or of Cuban heritage, based on the Cuban song she is humming. (And she is being played by a Latina actress of Puerto Rican heritage.)
  • Delores immediately demonstrates her knowledge of the murder trial and location. However, her knowledge of the murder and phrasing of “that poor kid from Ochopee” comes off more like gossip, rather than professional knowledge.

This scene could have been a much more straightforward scene, with a brief introduction and then the newspaper archivist pulling the necessary files to propel the plot. I’m left with a lot of “Why?” questions. Why did they include so much backstory for a minor character? Why was Delores portrayed this way, as an incurable flirt always “on the prowl” for her next husband? Why do the male characters have to smirk at her and treat her like a running gag? Why was she portrayed as more of a gossip than a knowledgeable professional? Why isn’t she thanked for her help? Why is Delores seemingly the only Latinx character in a film set in Miami and the surrounding rural counties?

And as this article points out:

When it comes to Latino representations in Hollywood, they’re often rooted in stereotypes. Most female characters are either cleaning ladies or spicy Latinas.

Tre’vell Anderson, “4 Latino stereotypes in TV and film that need to go,” LA Times, 27 April 2017.

While Delores is not a Latina cleaning lady in Just Cause, she is portrayed as a “spicy Latina” stereotype.

Spoiler: It goes downhill from here.

More microfilm research

At 48 mins into the movie, Paul returns to the newspaper archives for information on another convicted serial killer, Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), who Bobby Earl claims is the real killer. We get another closeup of microfiche.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Delores: They called it “The Pilgrimage of Death.” Sold a lot of papers. The guy started out with his landlady in New Orleans, a prostitute in Mobile, and a sailor in Pensacola. And then he got real busy — a body every 100 miles.

Paul: Pensacola? When was that? 

Delores: Oh, late April, early May? You know, it was incredible. APBs in 3 states, FBI flyers all over the place,  and nobody spots him.

In this 30-second scene, Delores’s information once again propels the plot forward. She is serving as an Information Provider in this scene. But again, the script is written as though Delores is gossiping (“sold a lot of papers,” and “then he got real busy“), rather than being the informed professional that she is. It comes across so contradictory and condescending to me. Delores is also dressed in another colorful top, and she is wearing her glasses again.

Party scene

At one hour and 9 minutes into the movie, the legal team gathers for a celebration party at the newspaper businessman’s home. (Is that a conflict of interest? Very sketchy.) Also, they planned this party before inviting Bobby Earl to it — in an earlier scene, he turned down the invite and said that he had other plans — even though they are ostensibly celebrating Bobby Earl. I guess they’re really just wanting to celebrate the “just cause” and not the Black man at the center of their “just cause”? Are they just wanting to celebrate how the White men saved a Black man from injustice? (Fumes of White supremacy and White saviors here…)

Surprise, surprise, Delores is at the party — and looks to be the only person of color there. We get to see Delores out of the archives, and she is stunning with bright red lipstick and curly hair down with one side pinned back with a bright red flower.

As Phil gets drinks to pass around for a toast, he passes by Delores, who is talking with Bobby Earl’s attorney, Lyle (Chris Sarandon).

The newspaper archivist, Delores, attends a party.
#TeamDelores

Lyle: The firm’s been more successful than I ever dreamed it would be when I started it.

Delores: So, Lyle, are you single at all?

Lyle: No, I’ve been married for 8 years. 

Delores: Oh good. It’s time for you to fool around.

[Phil hands Delores a glass of champagne.] 

Delores: Thank you, Phil.

Phil [shrugs and smirks at Lyle]: Oh, Delores.

After the toast (“To innocence revealed. To death denied. To the triumph of truth over appearance” — again, a vague, self-congratulatory toast ostensibly to the Black man who wasn’t there), we return to Delores’s conversation with the lawyer Lyle.

Delores: What are you doing after the party?

Lyle: What am I doing after the party? I have a very important appointment. I’m afraid, in fact, that I have to leave now.

This is the last time we see Delores onscreen, and her part of this scene lasts less than 30 seconds. It’s just a throwaway aside during the party scene. So why is this scene in here? They’re not bothering to also celebrate Delores’s contributions to cracking the case. Rather, AGAIN, Delores is portrayed as man-crazy, and determined to go after married men. And she is now openly encouraging an affair (“It’s time for you to fool around” followed by “What are you doing after the party?“). And again, the man in her sights is shown to be visibly shaken at her attentions — even showing disgust? — and Phil is still hanging around long enough to “jokingly” warn other White men about Delores.

I’m honestly so angry at this script and how it has written Delores’s character. I have no idea if Delores is a character in the source novel; please leave a comment if you have read the book. Sure, it’s nice to see a newspaper archivist out of the archives and enjoying her personal life. Delores, at least, is confident in being herself. But then we constantly witness how men react negatively or jokingly around her, again like they’re not taking her seriously. They do not take her seriously as a woman. These men are laughing at her, and by proxy, it feels like the movie is inviting the viewers to laugh at her — to laugh at, again, the ONLY LATINX PERSON in a film set in and around Miami and southern Florida. Given how racist this movie is with other BIPOC characters, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In essence, Delores “Keeper of the archives, news trivia expert, buried three husbands” Rodriguez serves as the film’s running gag. It’s such a condescendingly written character, and it feels more negative every time I think about it. And I do not pin the blame on Liz Torres. She seems to be making the best of a bad situation and having fun in the role — she is an Emmy-nominated comedian — but I feel uneasy being encouraged and manipulated to laugh AT her, not WITH her. Liz Torres deserved better than this tone-deaf script. Real-life newspaper archivists deserved better. We all deserved better.

My own self re-examination

This post was hard to write. Like I mentioned above, the more I sat down to write about this movie, the more frustrated and angry I got, and the harder it got to try and articulate WHY I was angry. And I’m going to be honest, part of the reason is because I was angry at myself. Because when I first analyzed this movie — maybe 20 years ago? — this is the way I summarized it:

Law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) investigates the case of a young man (Blair Underwood) on death row in a Florida prison. A newspaper archivist, Delores, helps him find information for his research; she is also known as a flirt.

Tone deaf. So innocuous-sounding (“she is also known as a flirt“), but that description papers over the harm of how this character is written. I also didn’t mention race at all in this description. I also originally stated that this character fulfills the Information Provider and the Naughty Librarian character types. After having revisited this film, I stand by the Information Provider role. But now I realize that, as written, this character was also meant to fulfill a Comic Relief role. We are being manipulated to laugh at her. It’s just not ok.

I know I didn’t like this movie when I first watched it — and this movie was not a commercial success! — but I didn’t realize back then the extent of how problematic, racist, and stereotypical this movie was. I didn’t call it out then, because I hadn’t taken the time to reflect. But this month IS a time and opportunity to reflect, and I’m calling it out now.

Additional perspectives

So you’ve read how negatively I reacted to Just Cause. How did other critics react?

Here are excerpts from a contemporary review by movie critic Desson Howe in The Washington Post:

Connery is touched by Dee’s devotion, as well as the revelation that Underwood went to Cornell. (What would he have done if Underwood hadn’t gone to Cornell?) […]

Of course you want Connery to rain justice on those small-minded rednecks (no matter what color they are) and save Underwood from the chair. Unfortunately, this desire for retribution is dangled like a moral carrot before the audience. […]

So it’s brutal, horribly manipulative, and we’ve seen this stuff before in better pictures.”

Desson Howe, “‘Just Cause’ (R).” The Washington Post, 17 Feb. 1995

I’ve linked to the following review a few times already in this post, and it’s well worth a read.

To clarify; Armstrong is a man who dedicates his life fighting for justice for black people he thinks are wrongfully imprisoned. So the only conclusion one can draw from this instance is that his entire premise is a fallacy. Connery’s only potential arc is to become a racist. All black people in jail should be there, according to Just Cause. […]

Most of the conversation was focused on plot twists and lines like Connery’s, “If that’s a confession, then my a** is a banjo!” Not on the fact that it was promoting an agenda with harmful consequences on an entire community. However, this film speaks to the decade and it is something we can learn from. Just Cause got a pass at the time because we didn’t see a very obvious problem that’s apparent today.

Kenneth Hedges, “Racial Inequalities of the 90s Brought to Your Screen: Review of Film ‘Just Cause’,” ArtsHelp, June 2021

My husband’s summation was similar:

The moral of the story seems to be that even an innocent Black man is guilty.

Continuing the conversation

Let’s wrap this one up!

Did you ever catch Just Cause back when it was released in the mid-1990s? Have you watched it since? Is it as problematic as you remember? Did you recall Delores’s character as a reel archivist? Please leave a comment and share.

Sources used

First impressions: Wong’s cameos in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (2021)

“Wong! I always bet on Asian.”

This is another post in my “first impressions” series, which focus on current films that I have watched in theaters that include reel librarians and/or scenes in a library or archives. It’s been more than two years since I’ve written a “first impressions” post — the most recent one before this was in June 2019, for ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ (2019) and its memorable fight scene in the NYPL‘ — because of, you know, the ongoing COVID pandemic. (Please get vaccinated if you can!) I am still not comfortable going inside a movie theater for 2+ hours to watch a movie with other people, but luckily, we have a drive-in theater nearby, the Rodeo Drive-in. I was sooooo happy they were showing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) on opening weekend, because (a) I really wanted to see the movie sooner rather than later, (b) I want to support a Marvel movie with a primarily Asian cast, hopefully the first of many, (c) I knew that one of my fave reel librarian characters, Wong, would be making a cameo, which I wrote about earlier this summer here, and therefore, (d) I wanted to write up a “first impressions” post for you all.

Please note: My “first impressions” posts are necessarily less detailed, as I don’t have the luxury of pausing the movie, taking notes, and rewatching scenes. I do, however, take notes as soon as I can after watching the film.

This also marks the fifth (!) time I’ve analyzed a reel librarian, library, or archives scene in a Marvel movie, three of which were “first impressions” posts. These past posts include: 

Below again is the full trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and you can see a glimpse of Wong battling Abomination in a cage fight at 1:51 minutes into the trailer below:

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Trailer” by
Marvel Entertainment
, Standard YouTube License

First impressions of the movie overall

I’m sooooo happy that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a certified hit already after smashing Labor Day box office records — and during an ongoing pandemic! It deserves all its accolades and then some. Everything worked in this movie, as it had great balance with drama, action, humor, casting, direction, and special effects. Tony Leung’s performance was particularly epic and grounded this larger-than-life movie in real-world heartbreak.

This tweet really sums up my feelings about the movie, including the final bullet point:

As a White person, I know that I cannot fully comprehend what this movie — and its vision and execution of Asian excellence on and behind the screen — must mean for Asian viewers all over the world. But I do know how much representation and visibility matter, and I know this movie matters. As Vox reporter Alex Abad-Santos stated in a review about the movie, “It’s fantastic at touching upon the Asian American experience, and it’s so buoyant in how it celebrates Asian American culture. I, like [lead star Simu] Liu, would love if we could change the world and smash ceilings and persevere against the nasty stuff — racism, prejudice, hopelessness — that keeps us pinned down. If only it were as simple as buying a movie ticket.

My husband woke me up on Saturday morning with the news that Wong was trending on Twitter… because reel librarian Wong made not one, not two, but THREE cameos – !!! – in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Plus, we already know that Wong makes a cameo in the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home, and of course, he will return in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.) It is quickly becoming the Wong Multiverse, and I’m not the only one who is excited about that!

Also, this realization warmed my librarian heart: ❤

Okay, so let’s get into each Wong cameo. And I cannot fully discuss Wong’s cameos without getting into major spoilers, so you are heretofore warned. If you haven’t already seen this movie, then go and watch it!

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*

We good? Let’s go! And by the way, all the movie quotes below are to the best of my recollection. If I need to correct anything, please leave a comment and let me know.

Wong cameo #1

Wong’s first cameo comes in at about 30 minutes into the film, when Shang-Chi and Katy travel to an underground fight ring in Macau, which they later learn is run by Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (played by Meng’ er Zhang), who is a total badass. They’re led through the club by Jon Jon (played by Ronny Chieng), who takes them to the main cage fight, where Wong is battling Abomination. Abomination lands a punch on Wong, who shouts, “That hurt! Want me to show you how it feels?” Wong then manifests a couple of sling ring circles so that the Abomination punches himself out!

Shang-Chi Sees Wong and Abomination Fighting! Scene – SHANG-CHI (2021)” video, uploaded by KinoCheck International, Standard YouTube License

My favorite part of this scene? The reaction to Wong winning! The crowd erupts and chants Wong’s name. And Jon Jon shouts out the best line in the movie:

Wong! I always bet on Asian.

My second favorite part of this scene? That Wong thinks his way to a victory in the cage fight. Reel librarian role model. 😀

After the fight, we see Wong offering the Abomination some cream to help him heal. Wong then says something like, “Maybe you’ll start controlling your punches, like we talked about?” before they step through another sling ring circle.

My husband and I had slightly different takes on this scene. To me, it seemed like Wong was more like a mentor and helping to train Abomination (perhaps helping him to re-enter the MCU, as Abomination is most likely set to return in the upcoming She-Hulk TV series?). My husband focused more on the fact that the fight was staged, and wondering why trustworthy Wong was willing to participate in a rigged fight. Perhaps this is a Wong from another multiverse? Director Destin Daniel Cretton revealed in this interview that they had gone through many scenarios and pairings for this cameo, and that “we landed on a pairing [of Abomination and Wong] that felt really great, but it was also a pairing that made sense to what’s happening in the MCU around the time of our movie.”

This Screen Crush video also goes into some of the possibilities behind this cameo:

SHANG CHI: Wong and ABOMINATION Fight EXPLAINED” video by ScreenCrush, Standard YouTube License

Wong cameo #2

At the very end of the movie, Shang-Chi and Katy are sharing their adventures with a couple of their friends at a bar, and they see a sling ring circle appear behind their friends. Wong emerges, and we can see rows of books behind him. He’s back in a library!

And we are are ALL Shang-Chi in this exchange:

Wong [calling out]: Shang-Chi?

Shang-Chi: [raises his hand]

Wong: Shang-Chi? I’m Wong.

Shang-Chi: Yes, I know. I’m a big fan.

Wong then asks Shang-Chi if he has the ten rings, and that they have work to do. He also invites Katy along. And then we are blessed with another meme-worthy bit from actor Benedict Wong as he downs the friend’s drink and pulls this face:

Comic gold! Benedict Wong really has perfected the balance of the serious and humorous facets of Wong’s character.

In a red-carpet interview at one of the movie’s world premieres, Benedict Wong shared that he thinks Wong will be getting out of the library more in upcoming films. You can see the exchange at 1:18 minutes into the video below:

Benedict Wong on Leaving the Library | Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi Red Carpet LIVE” video by Marvel Entertainment, Standard YouTube License

But my favorite part of these this second cameo — plus the final cameo, which we’ll get to next! — is that Wong is back IN the library! It’s unclear whether he’s in a library at the New York sanctum or back in the main library at Kamar-Taj. My bet is on Kamar-Taj, based on the conversation in Wong’s third and final cameo.

Wong’s cameo #3

As the film finished, my husband remarked that this movie had focused on the legend of the ten rings — specifically, the legends stemming from Wenwu’s thousand-plus reign with the rings — but not the origin of the rings.

Enter Wong’s final cameo that slides in during the credits, in which Wong has clearly been wondering the same thing. Katy and Shang-Chi have joined Wong in the library — again, my bet is that he’s back in the Kamar-Taj library, where Wong is the master librarian — where Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner (just Banner as himself, not as Professor Hulk) have also joined in via hologram Zoom.

This line about the ten rings from Wong made the librarian side of me squeal in delight:

They don’t match any artifact from our codex.

Wong has been researching the ten rings! As Wong is the expert on the Infinity Stones, as demonstrated in a brief but pivotal scene in Avengers: Infinity War, it makes sense that he would be researching the ten rings, as well. And just the fact that the word “codex” is mentioned in a Marvel movie… yes, I am geeking out over that! (In historical contexts, a “codex” refers to a bound collection of handwritten sheets of paper, essentially an ancient manuscript and precursor to modern books. In more modern library science contexts, a “codex” is also used to mean an official list of names, ingredients, definitions, or artifacts, etc., kind of similar to an index. But a codex is complete unto itself, while an index usually accompanies a resource.) Wong could be using either one — or both! — meanings of the word “codex” in this scene.

Also, I loved that Wong is in top reel librarian mode in this scene. He’s doing what librarians do best: knowing who to ask for help! There’s a saying in the library world, that we librarians do not need to know everything ourselves, we just need to be able to find out who does. 😉 So that’s what Wong is demonstrating, that he is researching the ten rings, but he is also reaching out to others for help, such as Captain Marvel (for her expertise and experience in intergalatic technology) and Bruce Banner (for his scientific knowledge).

Wong also says to Shang-Chi that “every time you used the rings, we could feel it in Kamar-Taj.” This line is VERY revealing. For example, it reveals that:

  • the sorcerers could NOT feel the rings for the thousand-plus years that Wenwu controlled the rings, meaning that Wenwu was also accessing only a portion of the rings’ power
  • that Shang-Chi wields the true, full power of the rings, confirming what we saw visually when the rings’ aura turned from blue to a golden hue in Shang-Chi’s hands during the fight with his father
  • probably other beings or dimensions felt the rings, too, when Shang-Chi used them (ruh roh)
  • this is NOT the last we shall see of the rings or or Shang-Chi… perhaps we’ll even get a Shang-Chi and the Origin of the Ten Rings movie??

And finally, more comic gold, as Wong then joins Shang-Chi and Katy in singing karaoke! EPIC. 😀 😀 😀

You can see more of this mid-credits scene and theories in this Screen Crush video:

SHANG CHI POST CREDITS SCENE EXPLAINED” video by ScreenCrush, Standard YouTube License

Final thoughts and musings

  • I was surprised — pleasantly so! — that Wong was as impactful a character in this movie as he was, and also what a vital character he is proving to be in the MCU, and potentially in the multiverse. Wong helps set up the continuation of Shang-Chi as a character (and the ten rings as important artifacts), so he is a crucial part of this movie. Wong’s not just a cameo.
  • Wong had to have been aware that Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, was the one running the cage fight club. But he didn’t know who her brother, Shang-Chi, was? There’s something fishy about that, especially as you would think Wong would be sure to research who owned the club, plus their family connections. Hmmm….
  • Wong is very well-connected and knows EVERYBODY, based off his holographic Zoom session with Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner. In my experience, this is also pretty true-to-life to librarians, at least for academic librarians. On a college or university campus, librarians tend to work with a wide range of faculty, students, and staff across various departments and program areas, so we tend to have a lot of connections and personal relationships across campus. It makes sense to me that Wong would also have a lot of connections across the MCU.
  • Wong is well-known AND well-loved, judging by the crowd chanting his name after his cage fight with Abomination (and the fact that Wong was trending on Twitter the day after the movie’s premiere!)
  • In my post exploring perspectives about Wong’s reel librarian character, I noted the criticism about how Wong’s character lacks agency or a central, in-depth narrative. In that post, I wondered “Will Wong have more of an independent identity and narrative” in upcoming films? And this film seems to be answering that question with a resounding YES! 😀
  • And whatever Dr. Strange is up to, Wong is the glue, and the one doing the work out there. Wong is not just Dr. Strange’s sidekick; rather, he is his colleague and demands recognition and respect on his own terms. (Also see my post about Avengers: Endgame and how Wong is the one who actually assembled the Avengers.)
  • Wong serves as both an Information Provider and Comic Relief character types in his cameos in this movie.

Continuing the conversation

So those are my thoughts and first impressions after watching — and cheeringfor ! — Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. What are your thoughts? Did you like the movie? What do you think Wong’s up to with Abomination? Please leave a comment and share!

Also, can’t get enough of Wong? Here are additional posts I’ve written about reel librarian Wong:

Sources used

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

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