Reader poll winner write-up: Possession

Possession (2002) won the most recent reader poll, so let’s get to it!

The film is based on A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, a “brainy romance” which contrasts modern and Victorian times and uses a flashback structure to move between a current investigation and a long-ago affair. Two literary scholars, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, an American playing British) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, an American playing a character who was British in the book but got turned into an American in the film) track down the heretofore unknown correspondence and relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Director Neil LaBute also helped adapt the screenplay.

How does the title come into play? As per the book’s Wikipedia entry:

The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artefacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.

Maud and Roland explore their own budding relationship as they research Ash and LaMotte’s relationship — but it’s really the latter that holds the viewer’s interest. The chemistry, such as it is, between Paltrow and Eckhart really cannot hold a candle to the scorching sparks between Ehle and Northam, as also evidenced in the film trailer below:

I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.

The reel librarian

How does the reel librarian fit into all this literary foreplay and mating rituals? I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if there is a librarian character in the source material. But in the movie adaptation, we actually get our first glance at the reel librarian less than 3 minutes (!) into the film, in a library scene critical to the entire plot.

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*

Roland Michell is a research assistant and scholar of the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, and he catches a London double-decker bus to the London Library to pick up a book for a professor. The reel librarian (played by Hugh Simon) plonks down an old book from Ash’s personal library.

(I love this screenshot of the old book, carefully tied with ribbon, juxtaposed next to a computer keyboard and mouse!)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The book that started it all

Although we first see the hands of the reel librarian before we see his face, the camera is not kind to the facial expressions of the reel librarian:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The librarian at London Library

Let’s see how the researcher and the reel librarian “meet cute,” shall we? 😉

LibrarianBit of an old monster.

RolandYeah, but an important monster. It’s Randolph Ash’s.

LibrarianYes. Who are you with again?

RolandI’m Roland Michell.

LibrarianWho?

RolandProfessor Blackadder’s research assistant.

LibrarianIsn’t that Dr. Wolfe?

RolandWas. Fergus got the lectureship position at St. John’s… over me.

LibrarianOf course he did. Oh yes, Dr. Wolfe mentioned you. You’re that American who’s over here.

RolandWell, I’m sure there are others. I mean, after all, you are our favorite colony.

The librarian has no comeback for that. Score a point for the American! The librarian drops what he’s holding, sighs, then picks up a book to read it.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland and the librarian at London Library

We learn several things from this short, but contentious exchange, between Roland and the librarian, who is definitely serving as an Information Provider. We learn that the librarian is old-fashioned and conservative, dressed in his sweater vest, tie, and tweeds. The librarian also manages to be both oblivious AND nosy at the same time. The librarian’s nosiness is convenient for purposes of exposition, as we get to learn not only a brief backstory (and credentials) of Roland’s character, but we also learn about his rivalry with another researcher, Dr. Wolfe. Also, this “Britains vs. Americans” theme — unique to the film, as Roland’s character was British in the book — will come up again throughout the film. The librarian is also dismissive of Ash’s book, which helps provide plausibility to Roland’s impending discovery.

The London Library and the letter

This first scene in the library lasts less than a minute, but we return to the London Library a minute later, with this bird’s-eye view:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

London Library

We then zoom into Roland’s table, surrounded by books and index cards, as he starts going through Ash’s book, a setting nicely juxtaposed with a brief flashback of Ash inserting the letter into the book 150-odd years ago:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland Michell finds the letter

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Randolph Henry Ash hides the letter

Roland immediately understands the significance of what he is reading. Randolph Henry Ash is known for his love poems, but here he is writing a letter to a woman, a poet, who is NOT HIS WIFE. Roland looks up and around, suddenly acutely aware of other researchers… and the reel librarian’s suspicious gaze.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland Michell’s reaction to the letters

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The librarian’s look

The music swells as we see Roland mentally wrestle with what to do. Should he put the letter back into the book and inform the London Library of his discovery? But based on what we’ve already heard — he’s gotten passed over for a position, he’s an American who isn’t respected over here in England, nobody attaches any importance to Ash’s old book — we anticipate what he’s about to do instead.

Yep, Roland Michell chooses to pilfer the letter. (That’s fancy talk for “stealing.”) And see how nonchalantly he pulls it off, in the following pair of screenshots.

Step 1: Move the letter over to his personal notebook, which is behind the column, out of sight from the librarian.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland hiding the letter from the librarian in London Library

Step 2:  Sliiiiiiiide over to the other seat behind the column and close the notebook. Done! Now you see him, now you don’t…

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland hiding the letter from the librarian in London Library

Selling the plot

This pivotal scene ends at 6 minutes and 50 seconds. The combined library scenes last a combined 3 minutes, setting up the premise for the rest of the film.

Roland takes the letter to his flat and reads it, and then visits his landlord, Euan, who also happens to be a lawyer (played by the always hilarious Tom Hollander). Roland buys “7 minutes of attorney-client privilege” to confess what he’s done, and therefore has the opportunity to really sell the plot to the viewer:

RolandThey’re practically love letters.

EuanRather racy, actually.

RolandYou see, Ash, supposedly, never even looked at another woman. I mean, not even glanced at one his entire marriage. Can you imagine what would happen if I could prove that Mr. Perfect Husband had this Shakespearean-type dark lady thing going on?

EuanYeah, but that would be extraordinary. It would be rewriting history, old chap.

PLOT. SET. MATCH. GO!

Research and the British Museum

I believe the library scenes, set in the London Library, were actually filmed on location, as evidenced by photos of the library seen on their website. However, the London Library is not included on the filming locations list on the IMDb.com page for Possession. The London Library is described as “one of the world’s largest independent lending libraries, and one of the UK’s leading literary institutions.” Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle helped initiate the founding of the London Library, formed in 1841, in reaction to the restrictive policies of the British Museum Library.

Knowing this rivalry between the London Library and the British Museum Library makes it even funnier when we realize that Roland works as a research assistant at the British Museum! We next see him entering the museum by the staff entrance, and then we are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at an office and private research library for Professor Blackadder:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland heads to his office at the British Museum

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Roland does attempt to tell Blackadder of his discovery, but Blackadder cuts him off with, “No need, the novice blunders on the discovery. The scholar investigates.”

As Blackadder rushes off, he instructs Roland to answer the “wretched requests” that came in from the public, including — and I am not kidding here — a question about how many jars of gooseberry jam Ash’s wife made in 1850.

Roland responds, “This is not a job for a grown-up!

But this job IS important, as Roland gets inspired for how to do more research for his own discovery in the midst of researching Ash’s wife’s diaries and personal correspondence. He begins getting clues (keywords!) from Ash’s letter and looking up his wife’s diaries to uncover the next step in the research trail.

Bonus:  The viewer gets treated to the old-school index files for this private research collection, as well as all the file boxes. Nothing looks computerized!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library files behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library files behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Teaming up

The research trail then leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey (Paltrow), who works at the University of Lincoln in Lincolnshire and is an expert scholar on Christabel LaMotte. We also find out that Maud is related to LaMotte. Maud is immediately dismissive of Roland’s theories (“It does seem rather pointless“) but humors him by allowing him to look over letters of LaMotte’s lover, Blanche Glover (played by Lena Headey), from that time period.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Maud and Roland walk through a library en route to Maud’s office

We also get to see Maud’s office, which is light and airy and filled with neatly stacked books and illustrations tacked up over the desk.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Dr. Maud Bailey’s office

Roland then stays overnight at Maud’s place, and at 21 minutes into the film, decides to take a chance at revealing his secret to Maud (to impress her?):

RolandMaud, can I show you something? [digs into his bag and hands her the letters]

MaudAre these…

RolandThose are the originals.

MaudHow did you get them?

RolandI took them.

MaudTook them?

RolandI sort of stole them.

MaudWhere from?

RolandThe London Library.

MaudHow could you do that?

RolandIt was on impulse.

Here is Maud’s priceless reaction to the letters — and to Roland’s cavalier attitude to stealing:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Maud’s reaction to the letters

This scene, which ends at 22 minutes, then completes the plot set-up, that Maud and Roland will team up to research the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, a journey that takes them several different places, including all over England and over to France.

Ethics? What ethics?!

Along the way, Roland’s unorthodox — er, unethical — practices totally corrupt Maud’s own standards as a scholar, all the way up to the end of the film. I won’t spoil all their adventures, but here’s just a smattering of quotes throughout the rest of the film that involve research, research methods, and increasingly deteriorating standards of professional behavior:

Maud, upon discovering a cache of letters between LaMotte and Ash:

Can we please do it properly. Let me run downstairs and get with some notecards and some pencils?

Maud’s reaction to the necessities of researching Ash’s wife’s diaries, an interesting way to rephrase that old saying, “The devil is in the details”:

God is in the boring housewife’s stuff. We should check it.

Maud’s reaction to Roland wanting to keep tracking down LaMotte and Ash’s movements, instead of going back to work at the British Museum:

I thought you were mad when you came to Lincoln with your stolen letter. Now I feel exactly the same.

Roland’s reaction to having to go back to work, while Maud leaves to doublecheck her archives:

Good. I guess I’ll just… I don’t know… go look up shit on the microfiche.

Spoiler: He totally doesn’t. We see him hanging out amongst the bookshelves instead, while his co-worker pushes a cart down the aisle, working.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library stacks behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Totally corrupted by this point, Maud’s smiley reaction to Roland taking the fax a rival researcher sent:

You’re shameless.

Perhaps “shameless” would have been a better title for the film? 😉

Sources used:

London Library” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Possession. Dir. Neil LaBute. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle. Warner Bros., 2002.

Possession (2002).” IMDB.com.

Possession (2002 film)” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Possession (2002) Possessão – Trailer” uploaded by dezeroadezfilmes, Sept. 4, 2009, Standard YouTube license.

Possession (Byatt novel)” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

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An ‘Abandon’-ed reel librarian

Continuing analysis of scary movies during this month of October… next up is 2002’s Abandon, starring Katie Holmes as a brainy and beautiful college student… named Katie. (Big stretch.) The film was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who was fresh off an Oscar win for writing the screenplay for 2000’s Traffic. This film was his first time to direct, and the story was “suggested” by the novel Adam’s Fall by Sean Desmond. Gaghan admitted in the director’s commentary that he just couldn’t get the script right, that he was rewriting until the first day of filming — and honestly, you can tell while watching the film. But it is an interesting film to watch, and it includes several scenes in the library!

College senior Katie (Holmes) is dealing with exams, finishing her thesis, doing job interviews, when a cop, Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), starts investigating the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (Charlie Hunnam). Then Katie starts seeing Embry again around campus—is she hallucinating, or is he stalking her? A few scenes highlight the socially awkward “Mousy Julie,” a student library assistant played by Melanie Lynskey, who provides insights into how Katie attracts male attention.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film gave it 2.5 stars out of 4, saying it was ultimately unsatisfying, mainly because it had to be a thriller. He called Lynskey’s character “snotty know-it-all.”

Here’s a trailer for the film. Interesting to note that Mousy Julie makes the trailer, as does the library. Its rows of bookcases (and lack of sight lines) makes for dramatic scary moments!

Library scene #1:

Six minutes into the film, we get a closeup of Katie working on her thesis in a study carrel, and then the camera pans over rows of bookcases in the college library, where we glimpse the cop. He has gotten microfilm to look up articles about the college student, Embry, who has disappeared. Old school research alert! One of the newspaper photos includes a shot of Larkin with his girlfriend, Katie, which leads the cop straight to Katie.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

I also rewatched the film with the director’s commentary. Stephen Gaghan is refreshingly candid on the commentary track! Here’s what he had to say during this bit of the scene:

This is one of my favorite sequences in the whole movie. I just love it… you come back to Katie, and she’s just going about the business of being a student.  You’re not really getting hit over the head with anything in particular, just feels sorta real to me. He’s doing his thing, he’s in a very cold blue institutional light, isolated. She’s in a very cold blue institutional light, and completely isolated. She’s down in the basement of the library, and I think it’s the first beginnings of these, hopefully, it feels sort of sinister without calling attention to itself.

The next scene returns to Katie at her library cubicle, tired and rubbing her head. And we get our first glimpse of “Mousy Julie,” who is dressed in a lumpy sweater. Here’s their first conversation, and you can tell Julie is socially awkward:

Mousy JulieHi, Katie Burke. There is a message for you. Your thesis advisor, Professor Jergensen’s office, they said I should find you. So I did. Here’s the message. […] It says for you to come to Jergensen’s house. That’s scary. How’s your thesis coming anyway?

KatieIt’s almost done. How’s yours?

Mousy Julie [with a smirk]:  Turned it in. 

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

The director’s commentary during this part of the scene reveals that they had to build this part of the library set!

Here’s that library again that we were talking about before. That cold light versus the warm light. This is a set that we then link up with a location. The production designer did an incredible job. He built this thing that looks incredible, and I don’t you really feel the seams. […]

Melanie Lynskey, tremendous as “Mousy Julie.” This was a very interesting problem that we had. We had to build this section of the set… we had to build the library carrel set to match something in Montreal, and it was a big problem, I remember. I really wanted to shoot all or most of this movie on location. […] In this particular case, when we were looking at that library set, we didn’t have enough books to build the real maze that we wanted, so we ended up kind of doing it in pieces between different locations.

Library scene #2:

Eighteen minutes into the film, Katie is back in the library working on her thesis. Detective Handler comes up behind her, addresses her as “Ms. Burke?” This is in contrast with Julie, who says, “Katie? Katie Burke?” Handler keeps asking Katie about Embry and the possibility of him killing himself.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Next, Katie’s friends (played by Zooey Deschanel and Gabrielle Union) come up behind her and scream, “We need to be quiet… in the Library!

We also get confirmation from her friends that Katie is often in the library:  “10:30 on a Friday night. I wonder where Katie is?

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Her friends then drag her to a party — again, a study in contrast to the previous library set!

Library scene #3:

Almost 40 minutes into the film, Katie’s back in the library! (Remember that previous director’s commentary that he purposely reiterated these scenes? He wasn’t kidding!) We see a bird’s-eye view of her cubicle, which is filled with books, post-it notes, wadded-up paper, and multiple cups of coffee. Her private study space reflects her increasingly frazzled inner state of mind.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

As Katie takes out her laptop and looks through library books, she hears squeaking behind her. We then see Mousy Julie pushing a squeaky library cart — librarian prop alert! — and wearing another dumpy sweater cardigan. Julie waves at Katie, who turns around and suppresses a laugh.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Director’s commentary during this scene:

Trying to make her [Katie] feel more isolated. Also trying to messy up the cubicle to reflect her state of mind, like she’s not caring.

Call numbers + scary thrills:

Katie feels drowsy and puts her head on her arms — but then wakes up suddenly with a whisper, “Katie.” She checks her watch and then notices a call number scratched into the top of her desk:  851.1 .D192i

Reel Librarians | Screenshots from 'Abandon' (2002)

Katie then walks down the rows of bookshelves looking for the call number.

Side note:  It’s interesting to note that this is a Dewey Decimal call number, which is an odd choice for a college/university library. Usually, college and university libraries have larger collections and therefore use the Library of Congress (LC) classification system.

So y’all know I had to look up this call number, right? RIGHT. Turns out it’s the call number for Dante’s Inferno (Embry’s last student production was “Trip Hop Inferno” — spooky!). Then I had to look up where this scene was filmed, and it was in a library at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. That then led me to look up the book in the McGill University’s library catalog — and they use the LC classification system, NOT the Dewey Decimal system! So CLEARLY this whole call number sequence in the movie was created just for the film. Odd.

Back to the film… Katie then tracks down the call number, which is when she sees a pair of eyes staring at her over the tops of books on the shelf. Classic scary movie library scene! She runs away and finds herself in the library’s basement.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots from 'Abandon' (2002)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Director’s commentary during this call number scene:

Here, now we’re on location. You could see how well Gideon matched them. This was in a student library, library in McGill. But it was small. It’s a very small space, and I always wanted this to feel like a labyrinth, you know, like someone could really be lost, and I wanted to take advantage of all the things a labyrinth could give you, mystery, sense of being lost, and we just didn’t have it. We never got it in the locations, and I think it was a mistake although I think Gideon did a great job.

This scene works well because of the hand-held movement, I think. I think once we went into that, we graduated to another level in this scene emotionally. It’s probably the best scare in the film.

I joked several times that we were making a new sub-genre of film called the “thrill-free” thriller, until I learned the catchphrase “mystery.”

Therapy and scary libraries:

Katie then relates this incident to her therapist, played by Tony Goldwyn, who flat-out states that old libraries are “terrifying under the best of circumstances.” Gotta admit, I was IMMEDIATELY biased against this character. 😦

Dr. David SchafferAnd he was locked inside the library with you? … But you hadn’t seen him in two years?

Katie. I know how this sounds.

Dr. SchafferKatie. You fell asleep in an old library, which is terrifying under the best of circumstances. You’re facing your graduation, the completion of your thesis, job interviews, life-changing transitions. You need to make allowances for the emotions that this will bring up.

Library scene #4:

Almost an hour into the film, we see Katie back in her library cubicle, frantically typing away at her thesis. And Mousy Julie again interrupts her to make space for another socially awkward conversation.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

JulieKatie. Hi Katie Burke. Do you know anything about somebody being in the tunnel? Because the door was open and it’s not supposed to be open and it’s to remain closed at all times unless you’re maintenance and you haven’t been around to ask about it and I’m supposed to ask.

KatieNo, I don’t. I’m busy. Goes back to typing.

JulieThat’s not very nice. Should I tell you what I know? I was going to, but now maybe I’ve changed my mind.

KatieWhat are you talking about?

JulieHarrison Hobart is missing. That’s two, isn’t it?

[Note:  Harrison is a friend of Katie’s who had a crush on her.]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Director commentary during this scene:

And Mousy shows up. And heaps more shit on her. … There’s a fatigue from being inside in these dank locations, and there’s a cumulative effect. … [W]e just keep coming back down to these same spaces that are just bleak. I hope it has a tonal effect, cumulatively.

Library scene #5:

Although this next scene in the library follows close on the heels of the previous library scene, at a little over an hour into the film, it serves a very different purpose and has a different look and feel, switching from cold blue tones to warm tones. This next scene is tucked into a little office in the library and features a conversation between Mousy Julie and Detective Wade Handler and the disappearances of Harrison and Embry and their connection to Katie. Mousy Julie ultimately comes off as very observant and also very jealous of Katie.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

JulieI’m sure he was in love with her. Harrison is a good guy. He mooned around, but he was sweet. He got his name on scientific papers when he was about 12. So, what did he know about anything?

WadeDo you think it was odd that he still liked a girl who hadn’t shown him any real interest in over two years?

JulieI thought it was the opposite of odd. Guys are drawn to her like bugs around a bug lamp.

[At this point, Julie switches a window on her computer, which was originally set to an article about grief, but she quickly clicks over to an article about electronic journals available on campus.]

Reel Librarians | Screenshots from 'Abandon' (2002)

JulieFor four years, I’ve had the privilege of watching it.

WadeThat bother you, Julie?

JulieThink you see the horns of jealousy?  You got my angle? You might want to ask yourself why you’re so interested in her. They think it’s a coltish vulnerability, but it’s just self-obsession. The pea brain says, “She needs saving,” and the pea brain says, “I can save her,” and then she doesn’t notice them. So, they go crazy. It’s about the missing dad… and validation. She just needs a friend.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Abandon' (2002)

Very insightful!

Here’s the director’s commentary for this last scene featuring Mousy Julie:

This we used an abandoned elevator foyer to make this little room. I think it looks right. It’s like Mousy Julie’s mousy cubby hole.

Private libraries:

Just a quick note that while watching the film, I noticed that there quite a few private library collections featured in the film, too, including rows of books in her thesis advisor’s office, the counselor’s office, and detective’s home, plus there are book collections in both Katie’s and Embry’s dorm rooms. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan definitely filled his film with different kinds of libraries and book collections!

Deleted scene in the library:

The bulk of the film was shot at a library at McGill University, in Montréal, Québec, Canada. In a behind-the-scenes feature on the DVD, writer/director Stephen Gaghan admitted that he wanted the multiple library scenes to be “ominous and oppressive” — and Montreal provided that!

The DVD’s special features included deleted scenes, which included a scene in the library. We see a bored woman (played by Joan McBride) at a large desk in the middle of the library floor, and Benjamin Bratt looking through a sheet on a clipboard on the counter.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from a deleted scene in Abandon' (2002)

Library assistantCan I help you?

WadeYeah, I’m, um, looking for a student. She’s not at her carrel and I can’t find her in here.

Library assistant:  If she’s not in the book, she’s not in the library.

Director’s commentary during this deleted scene:

I just love this woman and how she delivers this line.

The architecture of the library is quite stunning.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots from a deleted scene in 'Abandon' (2002)

Reel librarian roles:

Abandon lands in the Class III category of reel librarian films, as it features reel librarians as supporting characters.

Melanie Lynskey in the recurring supporting role of Mousy Julie primarily fulfills the character type of the Information Provider. She is there to be a contrast to the central role of Katie, and to relay information and suspicions to the audience. That last scene with Julie, the conversation she has with the detective, reveals a more personal side to Julie, in which she displays jealousy of Katie — and perhaps her own wistfulness of not attracting male attention herself? In this way, she subtly plays off the role of Spinster Librarian, albeit a more modern, younger version of the stereotypical character type.

The library assistant from the deleted scene is clearly serving a role as Information Provider. The credits also list Robert Burns in the role of Archivist, but I honestly cannot recall seeing or noticing this role. I’m assuming it was a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo kind of role. (I obviously blinked and missed him, both times I rewatched the film.) Regardless, this role serves as another Information Provider.

Sources:

Abandon. Dir. Stephen Gaghan. Perf. Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel. Buena Vista, 2002. Suggested by the novel Adam’s Fall by Sean Desmond.

Abandon (2002) Official Trailer #1 – Katie Holmes Movie HD,” uploaded by Movieclips Trailer Vault, 6 Nov. 2012, Standard YouTube License.

Ebert, Roger. “Abandon.” RogerEbert.com. Accessed 17 October 2017.

Conan the Librarian and Chainsaw Sally

It’s October, which means it’s scary movie time! I am commencing on my annual tradition of scary movie-themed posts during the month of Halloween. (Want to revisit past October posts? Just click on the Archives drop-down menu on the right navigation menu.)


A few years ago, I mused in my post about Chainsaw Sally (2004) that the title character, Sally, and “Conan the Librarian” in UHF (1989) would probably have a lot to talk about. Upon closer inspection, I believe that “Conan the Librarian” and “Chainsaw Sally” would be a match made in heaven… or hell?! 😉

Let’s explore the love and gore, shall we?

Conan the Librarian

“Conan the Librarian” is a brief — but memorable — character featured in a brief sketch in the Weird Al Yankovic film, UHF (1989). The character is introduced in the form of a television ad for a show on an almost-bankrupt public TV station. “Conan the Librarian” is a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard, and the clip lasts only 40 seconds. But it’s enough time for two scenes featuring “Conan the Librarian’s” wrath.

"Conan the Librarian" character from 'UHF' (1989)

“Conan the Librarian” character from ‘UHF’ (1989)

Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket who, with a tremor in his voice, asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?

Conan heaves the man up by his shirt collar and shouts, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?!

Conan then goes on to slice a young man in two because his books were overdue.

Here’s the “Conan the Librarian” scene:

I explored this character more in this 2011 post, “He’s… Conan the Librarian!

Chainsaw Sally

“Chainsaw Sally,” the title character in the indie 2004 film, wreaks havoc on library patrons all throughout her film.

Reel Librarians | The lead librarian and title character in 'Chainsaw Sally' (2004)

The lead librarian and title character in ‘Chainsaw Sally’ (2004)

What counts as a killable offense in Sally’s library?

  • A man who talks loudly in the library, spouting off curse words and heckling his girlfriend for needing to finish a school report. He also ignores Miss Sally’s warning that he be quiet in the library. (See his fate in the YouTube video below)
  • A woman who never returns a book she checked out.
  • A woman who works at the local ice cream truck misspells “malt” on an order form and also makes fun of Sally when Sally tries to correct her misspelling.

I delved deeper into this film and title character in this 2013 post, “Little Miss Serial Killer Librarian.”

Conan and Sally sitting in a tree… K-I-L-L-I-N-G

Both films are cult classics, and both characters are quite memorable. Both films are also comedies, although on different points on the comedy scale. (UHF often feels like a long series of comedy bits and sketches, while Chainsaw Sally is more of a dried-blood “dark comedy.”) Conan also serves as Comic Relief while Sally is the ultimate Naughty Librarian.

What is the secret to a successful relationship? One often-read tip is to share common experiences and/or similar values. In a twisted way, that would ring true for Conan and Chainsaw Sally. To wit:

  • They both make fun of patrons for not understanding or appreciating rules or organization (Conan berates a patron for not knowing the Dewey Decimal system while Sally chastises a woman for misspelling a word)
  • They retaliate through violence (hacking, slicing, etc.)
  • They enjoy weapons to aid in violence, like swords and chainsaws
  • They believe in over-the-top and deadly punitive punishments for overdue books

So much to bond over!

Conan and Chainsaw Sally collage

Conan and Chainsaw Sally collage

Sources:

Chainsaw Sally. Dir. Jimmyo Burril. Perf. April Monique Burril, Mark Redfield, Alec Joseph. Shock-O-Rama Cinema, 2004.

Scene From Chainsaw Sally,” uploaded by OneMinuteReviewer, 2011. Standard YouTube license.

UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.

UHF Conan The Librarian,” uploaded by sirstrongbad, 2006. Standard YouTube license.

 

A closer look at the reel librarians in the original Ghostbusters

I have written about 1984’s Ghostbusters in bits and pieces before on the blog, including a “Who you gonna call?” post delving into the Librarian Ghost, as well as a “Repeat offenders” post highlighting John Rothman and his penchant for playing insensitive librarians in the early ’80s, including Ghostbusters. The comedy classic was also on the original list of reel librarians films I watched for my original undergraduate thesis, as well as on my list of best librarian films by decade.

However, when I recently rewatched Ghostbusters, I realized there was an opportunity for a closer, more comprehensive look at the librarians and library scene that opens the film. After all, the film features not one, but three, librarian characters in the opening scenes filmed at the iconic central branch of the New York Public Library.

Opening scenes in the library

The film opens on the steps of the New York Public Library, with a close-up gaze upon one of the iconic “Library Lion” statues guarding the central branch.

Reel Librarians | One of the "Library Lion" statues at the New York Public Library, opening shot of 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

One of the “Library Lion” statues at the New York Public Library, opening shot of ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The film then immediately cuts to a close-up of a reel librarian, who is also as stone-faced as the statue outside. Character actress Alice Drummond, 56 years old at the time of filming, plays a public librarian named Alice, and her librarian props are out in full force, with a cart and books. Her clothing, consisting of a ruffled tie blouse and a cardigan sweater, is also conservative and buttoned-up. The only thing missing to complete the picture of a stereotypical librarian is a pair of glasses on a chain!

Reel Librarians | Opening shot of Alice the librarian in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Opening shot of Alice the librarian in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

We follow Alice as she goes downstairs to shelve a few books.  The DVD commentary revealed that while the upstairs scenes were filmed in the actual New York Public Library — the library allowed the film crew to film until 10 a.m., so they had to work quickly! — the downstairs scenes were filmed at the Los Angeles Public Library.

As Alice walks deeper into the stacks, spooky things happen behind her back (literally), as books float past shelves, and card catalog drawer fly open and start spewing cards into the air. (I learned through the commentary that this was a practical effects shot of pushing drawers from behind a fake wall and blowing air through tubes to make the cards fly up.)

Reel Librarians | Paranormal activity in the library card catalog, in the opening scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Paranormal activity in the library card catalog, in the opening scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

It’s interesting to note that Alice is almost completely silent through this opening scene. The first time we hear her voice is when she screams. It’s also very clever that we don’t see the ghost ourselves in this opening scene. In fact, with the screaming and up-lit visage of the scared librarian, she looks kind of like a ghost herself!

Reel Librarians | Reel librarian screams in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Reel librarian screams in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

You can see a clip from the opening scene here:

Ghostbusters Library Index Card and Entrance Theme,” uploaded by Dan Baierl, Standard YouTube license

A quick scene in-between the two library scenes takes place at a local university, at the Paranormal Studies department, and helps establish the characters of the scientists and soon-to-be-Ghostbusters.

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is conducting an experiment when Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) bursts in, excitedly shouting, “This is it. This is definitely it!” He goes on to explain:

At 1:40 p.m. at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 5th avenue, 10 people witnessed a free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparition. It blew books off shelves from 20 feet away and scared the socks off some poor librarian.

This bit of dialogue bridges to the library scenes, as Venkman and Stantz meet up with Egon Spengler in the library itself. Venkman makes noise slamming a book on the table, which alerts the library administrator. This is our first glance at Roger Delacourt (John Rothman), who is dressed conservatively in a dark blazer and tie:

Reel Librarians | First glance at the library administrator in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

First glance at the library administrator in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

Delacourt — notice that he gets a last name, plus a pair of glasses! — approaches the three scientists. After brief introductions, he immediately gets down to business and reveals his real concern:

Thank you for coming. Hopefully we can clear this up quickly, and quietly.

Reel Librarians | Meet cute between the library administrator and the Ghostbusters

Meet cute between the library administrator and the Ghostbusters

Next, everyone is clustered around a table, with “some poor librarian” on her back and murmuring. This scene is also when we first hear her character’s name, Alice (but we only get her first name). Delacourt, the library manager, hovers around as if he’s fighting the urge to all shush them for causing a scene in the library.

Reel Librarians | Not a meet-cute between the scared librarian and the Ghostbusters

Not a meet-cute between the scared librarian and the Ghostbusters

Remember, up to this point, all we’ve heard from Alice is her screaming. This next scene, we get to hear her actual speaking voice as Venkman asks her a series of questions, in order to gauge her competency.

Alice:  I don’t remember seeing any legs but it definitely had arms, because it reached out for me.

Peter Venkman:  Alice, I’m gonna ask you a couple of standard questions, okay? Have you or any member of your family ever been diagnosed schizophrenic, mentally incompetent…?

Alice:  My uncle thought he was St. Jerome.

Peter Venkman:  I’d call that a big yes. [Pause] Are you habitually using drugs, stimulants, alcohol?

Alice: No. [horrified]

By this point in the interview, Roger begins to look even more nervy and agitated.

Peter Venkman:  No, no, just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?

Roger can no longer stand it and butts in.

Roger Delacourt:  What has THAT got to do with it?

Peter Venkman:  Back off, man. I’m a scientist.

Reel Librarians | The library administrator gets the jitters in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library administrator gets the jitters in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The three paranormal scientists then go down to the library basement themselves. The first spooky thing is… symmetrical book-stacking! The horror! As Venkman assesses, “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.

We learn on the DVD commentary that it was Ivan Reitman’s idea on the day to do the symmetrical book-stacking!

Reel Librarians | Paranormal book-stacking in a library scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Paranormal book-stacking in a library scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

They then come across the card catalog drawers and ectoplasmic residue — “Look at this mess!” — and as they round a corner, a bookcase topples. Turns out, this bit was not planned!

The part where the bookcase falls over and Venkman asks Ray “Has this ever happened to you before?” was not part of the original script. The bookcase actually fell over of its own accord (possibly from being disturbed by various crew members) and the subsequent lines were ad-libbed. It was decided to leave this material in as it added an extra element of mystery to the atmosphere as to whether it was a natural occurrence, or a malicious act on the part of the ghost for which the soon-to-be Ghostbusters were looking. (from IMDB.com Trivia page)

Reel Librarians | A library bookcase falls -- by accident! -- in a library scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

A library bookcase falls — by accident! — in a library scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The scientists then come across the Librarian Ghost — excuse me, the “full torso vaporous apparition” — who is reading a book and floating in her Victorian-style dress.

When Venkman tries to speak to her, the ghost shushes him. (That’s how we know it’s a librarian!)

Reel Librarians | The library ghost in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library ghost in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

When they try to corner the Librarian Ghost, she morphs into a monstrous form and scares the socks off them, “some poor scientists.”

The DVD commentary revealed that this scene was one of the first ones they finished the special effects for. This first moment of seeing the librarian ghost was one the producers screened about 3 weeks after editing the film, and the audience freaked out, screaming and laughing at the same time. That’s when they knew the film was going to work!

As the soon-to-be Ghostbusters run screaming from the library, the hapless library director runs out after them.

Did you see it? What was it?

We’ll get back to you.

WHAT?!

Reel Librarians | The library administrator freaks out, at the end of the library scene in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library administrator freaks out, at the end of the library scene in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The role of the librarians

Now that we’ve gotten a look at all three reel librarian in Ghostbusters, let’s delve into the roles and purposes they provide in this Class III film:

I previously identified Alice as fulfilling the dual roles of the Spinster Librarian character type, as well as the Comic Relief character type.

Her Spinster Librarian role is reflected in:

  • Her conservative, buttoned-up clothing
  • Uptight demeanor, as shown in the first shot, turning into timid/meek personality, after being scared by the librarian ghost
  • Rule-monger who is horrified first by the mess made by the spilling of library cards in the card catalog
  • Her sexual undesirability, or at least de-emphasis on her femininity, as revealed through the menstruation question and her horrified (and speechless) reaction to it

In my post about Comic Relief librarians, I wrote:

“The films that provide glimpses of librarians for comedic purposes only also are the films that depict the crudest portrayals overall of librarian stereotypes. The Comic Relief librarians mostly wind up in comedies — shocker, I know — or at least in films that include comedic undertones or situations. Their purpose is the most obvious of all reel librarian roles, but the librarians of this type do not necessarily entertain themselves or other characters in the film — rather, they entertain the audience. Exclusively minor characters, the Comic Relief librarians serve as the target of jokes, and the audience is encouraged to laugh at them.”

This description perfectly sums up how Alice fulfills the Comic Relief role in this film. We most definitely laugh at her distress, or at least remove ourselves, like the Ghostbusters, from her personal distress in order to focus on the cause (the ghost) rather than the effect (“some poor librarian”).

I also enjoyed putting together the different facial expressions of Alice the librarian. Her facial range is impressive!

Reel Librarians | The many facial expressions from Alice the librarian in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The many facial expressions from Alice the librarian in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

Interestingly, the Librarian Ghost (Ruth Oliver) also fulfills the Spinster Librarian role:

  • Conservative, buttoned-up clothing? Check.
  • Hair in a bun? Check.
  • Rule-monger? CHECK. (Evidenced by her shushing.)
  • Unfriendly/stern demeanor? DOUBLE CHECK. (She suffers no fools, y’all.)
Reel Librarians | The varied facial expressions of the library ghost in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The varied facial expressions of the library ghost in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The library administrator, Roger Delacourt, is in his early 30s, a white male. He is an insensitive, nervy library bureaucrat, one who is more concerned about his precious reputation than about his librarian employee who got the shock of her life in the New York Public Library basement. His role fulfills the Anti-Social Librarian character type:

  • Conservative clothing
  • Poor social skills
  • Elitist—rates the library and its rules above the public
Reel Librarians | The main facial expression from the library administrator in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The main facial expression from the library administrator in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

His job centers on protecting the library’s reputation. He seems totally oblivious that a poor librarian (Alice Drummond) was scared out of her wits by a ghost. He is concerned only with how people will regard the library, and by association, himself.

Hmmm… I think I should add him to either my Hall of Shame or Dishonorable Mention lists…

The role of research

The combined scenes in the library wrap up by 12 minutes into the 105-minute film. We never go back to the New York Public Library — what happened to the Librarian Ghost?! — but the role of research still played a vital role in the film.

Even though the Ghostbusters lose their university funding because their “methods are sloppy” and their “conclusions are highly questionable” — thus providing the incentive to start the Ghostbusters business — the three scientists do highlight their scientific chops in a brief scene after Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) comes to report a demon named Zuul in her refrigerator.

Venkman:  There are some things we do, standard procedures in a case like this, which often brings us results.

Stantz:  I could go to the Hall of Records and check out the structural details in the building. Maybe the building itself has a history of psychic turbulence.

Spengler:  I could look for the name “Zuul” in the usual literature.

Stantz:  Spates Catalog.

Spengler:  Tobin’s Spirit Guide.

Dr. Spangler also references the book, The Roylance Guide to Secret Societies and Sects (also known as simply the Roylance Guide), in the film.

Side note:  Y’all know I looked up those titles, right? Although they were invented for the film, making Wikipedia’s List of Fictional Guidebooks, each title does play a role in subsequent Ghostbusters-related series and games. Each title — as well as the book Dr. Spengler wrote later on, Spengler’s Spirit Guide — is detailed in the Ghostbusters Wikia site. See here for the entry on Tobin’s Spirit Guide, here for the entry on Spates Catalog, and here for the entry on the Roylance Guide. Also, Ghostbusters: Tobin’s Spirit Guide was published last year, as a guide for the original movies, as well as the “expanded Ghostbusters universe, delving into supernatural phenomena from the comics, animated shows, video games, and other aspects of the franchise.”

An hour and 10 minutes into the film, Stantz pulls out the building plans — in a jail cell, as you do — and reveals that “the whole building… was designed and built expressly for the purpose of pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence…. Spook Central.

Their research pays off! 😀

Need more Ghostbusters?

Alice, the one who got her “socks scared off” in the film, is also featured in the music video for the Oscar-nominated title song by Ray Parker, Jr.

Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters,” uploaded by RayParkerJuniorVEVO, Standard YouTube license

For those who would like to read more of those bits and pieces I’ve written previously about Ghostbusters:

Do you vividly recall the film’s opening scenes in the library? I have to admit that I had forgotten that the two scenes in the library were on either side of the scene in the Paranormal Studies office. I had melded the two library scenes together in my mind.

Have you revisited the original Ghostbusters lately? Or seen the recent remake? Please leave a comment and share! 🙂

 

All the president’s librarians

As I featured last week, All the President’s Men (1976) is one of the few films featuring reel librarians that have been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It also seemed timely to revisit this classic film, which follows the Watergate scandal uncovered by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), the scandal that eventually brought down President Nixon. The film closely follows its source material, Bernstein’s and Woodward’s book of the same title, published just two years earlier in 1974.

All the President's Men book and movie collage

All the President’s Men book and movie collage

When I first watched this film, I noted four reel librarian characters. After carefully rewatching it recently, I realized I was mistaken — there are actually FIVE reel librarians.

Let’s count ’em down, shall we?

Reel Librarian #1

Almost 25 minutes into the film, Bernstein flirts with interviews a former assistant to a Nixon administration staffer, who was paranoid about Ted Kennedy. The assistant reveals, “I remember seeing a book about Chappaquiddick on his desk. He was always getting material out of the White House Library and the Library of Congress. Anything he could find.

Cue the next scene, Bernstein on the phone to the White House library. This reel librarian is never seen, only heard, a female voice on the other end of the line. Let’s listen in to their conversation:

Bernstein:  This is Carl Bernstein, from the Washington Post. I was wondering if you can remember any books that a Howard Hunt checked out on Senator Kennedy?

White House librarian:  Howard Hunt? … Yes, I think I do remember. He took out a whole lot of material. Why don’t you hold on and I’ll see?

Bernstein:  I sure will. Thank you very much.

Reel Librarians | Bernstein calls the White House librarian in 'All the President's Men' (1976)

Bernstein calls the White House librarian in ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

White House librarian:  Mr. Bernstein?

Bernstein:  Yes, ma’am?

White House librarian:  I was wrong. The truth is… I don’t have a card that says Mr. Hunt took any material. I, uh, I don’t remember getting material for… I do remember getting material for somebody, but it wasn’t Mr. Hunt. The truth is I didn’t have any requests at all from Mr. Hunt. The truth is, I don’t know any Mr. Hunt.

As seen in the collage above, Bernstein’s facial expressions reveal his investigative instincts, as his face goes from polite, distant interest to confusion to suspicion. He smells a rat. Why would a librarian lie?! Definitely something is up!

Bernstein immediately walks across the room to Woodward. This is how he describes the interaction: “I just got off the phone with the librarian. … Between the first and second quote there’s a complete contradiction… in a space of about five seconds.”

Woodward immediately calls the White House Communications office. While he’s waiting for a response, Woodward and Bernstein suss out the significance of what had just happened:

Reel Librarians | Bernstein and Woodward discuss notes in a scene from 'All the President's Men' (1976)

Bernstein and Woodward discuss notes in a scene from ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

Woodward:  This was all one conversation?

Bernstein:  First, “I think I got a bunch of books for Hunt.” Five seconds later, she says, “I don’t even known a Mr. Hunt.” It’s obvious someone got to her.

Woodward:  There’s not enough proof. If there was a piece of paper… that said Hunt was taking out books on Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Like a library slip.

Bernstein:  He also took out from the Library of Congress. But what’s more important, somebody got to her in that space of time.

Woodward:  How do you know?

Bernstein:  Because she said that Hunt… there was a lot of books that Hunt checked out. Then she comes back and doesn’t even know him.

The White House Communications officer than calls back, stating that the librarian “denies that the conversation with Mr. Bernstein ever took place.

Bernstein’s succinct response? “Total bullshit.” AGREED.

Side note:  I have not been able to find out much at all about the White House Library, mainly that the library was established by 1853 by First Lady Abigail Fillmore and that the collection was expanded in the early 1960s in order to reflect “a full spectrum of American thought and tradition for the use of the President.” Also, the page about the White House Library on the current White House website has been removed.

This scene in the film is very similar to how it’s described in the book, on pages 31-33 of the original 1976 hardback edition. The White House librarian has no name in the film — and doesn’t even get a screen credit! — but she is named (and therefore shamed?) in the book, Jane F. Schleicher.

This scene with the first reel librarian lasts about three minutes in total.

Reel librarians #2 and #3

Immediately following the contradictory story from the White House press office, Woodward declares, “We’ve got to get something on paper.”

Next stop? The Library of Congress!

Reel Librarians | Woodward and Bernstein climb the steps of the Library of Congress

Woodward and Bernstein climb the steps of the Library of Congress

While at the iconic library building, the two reporters are immediately blocked by a sneering, dismissive, white Congress Library Clerk, played by James Murtaugh.

You want all the material requested by the White House? All White House transactions are confidential. Thank you very much, gentlemen.

Reel Librarians | Woodward and Bernstein visit the Library of Congress

Woodward and Bernstein visit the Library of Congress

The reporters, however, remain undeterred. As they walk down a side hallway of the Library of Congress filled with columns, the two continue to strategize.

Reel Librarians | Woodward and Bernstein walk a column-lined hallway of the Library of Congress

Woodward and Bernstein walk a column-lined hallway of the Library of Congress

We need a sympathetic face.

We’re not going to find one here.

I can understand their lack of confidence in librarians, based on the two encounters they’ve had thus far. But they DO end up finding a friendly face while at the Library of Congress! Notice the differences in facial expressions below:

Reel Librarians | A contrast of two male librarians at the Library of Congress, in 'All the President's Men' (1976)

A contrast of two male librarians at the Library of Congress, in ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

Jaye Stewart plays a character billed simply as “Male Librarian,” with as much screen time and as many lines as the previous seen Library of Congress clerk.

You want every request since when? [The answer is July of ’71] … I’m not sure you want ’em, but I’ve got ’em.

Cue the stacks of library card checkout slips!

Reel Librarians | Checkout slips from the Library of Congress

Checkout slips from the Library of Congress

As Bernstein and Woodward flip through seemingly endless checkout slips, director Alan J. Pakula cannot help but take advantage of the round Reading Room, slowly panning up so we can get a glorious bird’s-eye view of this iconic space.

Reel Librarians | A bird's-eye view of the Library of Congress Reading Room, as seen in 'All the President's Men' (1976)

A bird’s-eye view of the Library of Congress Reading Room, as seen in ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

Alas, all that work to go through the library checkout slips does not provide the information they want, to confirm if any White House staffer checked out books on Ted Kennedy.

Bernstein:  Maybe they pulled the cards. Maybe they changed the names.

Woodward:  Maybe there was a card there, and we missed it.

But not all is lost, as Woodward gets another idea for how to confirm the information.

Side note:  As a librarian, I cringed a little during this scene. I had conflicting emotions. Although I was so glad that at least ONE librarian on screen had a face described as “friendly,” it’s sooooooo not ethical to give out checkout slips or records without a court order. We do have an obligation to protect the privacy rights of our patrons.

The two reporters then write up the article, and they take it to editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning turn for Best Supporting Actor. He is unimpressed.

You haven’t got it. A librarian and a secretary saying Hunt looked at a book. That’s not good enough. […] Get some harder information next time.

Reel Librarians | Reporters discuss a story in 'All the President's Men' (1976)

Reporters discuss a story in ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

The reporters, though disappointed, stay on the trail, which leads us next to two librarians at the Washington Post itself.

Reel librarian #4

Ten minutes later, at 41 minutes into the film, Bernstein is looking up newspaper article archives in the Washington Post library. We can just spot a male Post Librarian in the background, played by Ron Menchine, chatting away at a table.

Reel Librarians | Bernstein researches newspaper archives, while the Post librarian sits back and chats

Bernstein researches newspaper archives, while the Post librarian sits back and chats

The takeaway? Bernstein’s doing all the work while the reel librarian idles in the background. Reel librarian FAIL.

Can the fifth and final reel librarian help restore some shine to the profession?

Reel librarian #5

At 47 minutes into the film, Woodward is busy doing research in what appears to be the reference section of the Washington Post library. I spot several law books along the shelves.

A well-dressed woman walks into the frame, her back to the audience. We can see that she has long blonde hair and glasses resting on top of her head. Jamie Smith-Jackson plays the second Post Librarian seen in the film.

Reel Librarians | The second Post Librarian redeems the librarian profession, by providing a vital clue to Woodward, in 'All the President's Men' (1976)

The second Post Librarian redeems the librarian profession, by providing a vital clue to Woodward, in ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

Post Librarian:  You’re the one that wanted the articles on Dahlberg, Kenneth H. Dalberg? Couldn’t find anything in the clip file at all.

Woodward:  Oh, wonderful. [sarcastic tone]

Post Librarian:  I did find one picture, though, if it’s any help.

And lo and behold, it DOES help! What the female Post Librarian digs up in that picture provides a vital clue — a man’s name that they can directly connect to a check involved in the Watergate Hotel arrests — that leads to the unraveling of the scandal. This scandal turns out to be much bigger than anyone suspected at first.

Reel Librarians | Connecting the research dots in 'All the President's Men' (1976)

Connecting the research dots in ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

I also loved that old-school research materials (phone books, newspaper clippings) and research methods (cross-checking indexes and noting proximity of page numbers) are key to solving the mystery. I was reminded of similar details and research highlighted in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

Reel Librarians | Doing research in the Washington Post library

Doing research in the Washington Post library

How important is the work that Bernstein and Woodward are doing? As their editor Bradlee states toward the end of the film, “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters.

The final score

Ultimately, how do these reel librarians matter to this story and to this film? I enjoyed how the film — again, closely following the source book material — rolled back to the beginning. But the story was so layered and so huge that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to decide where the beginning was. And the beginning point that mattered, that spurred all the resulting actions forward, went back to the research. Back to when their suspicions were first roused by a White House librarian who lied. Back to when they had to ask themselves, Who got to her? Why would a librarian lie about a book being checked out? After all, if a librarian was lying to them, WHO ELSE was lying to them? And that trail led all the way to the President of the United States.

The final tally for the 5 reel librarians from All the President’s Men? When it came to helpfulness to other characters, only 2 of the 5 librarians scored any points. But when it came to helpfulness to advancing the plot, 5 for 5. 🙂

The Oscar-nominated film lands in the Class III category, in which reel librarians are minor or supporting characters, and all 5 librarians fulfill the Information Provider role.


For more about Ted Kennedy and the Nixon administration’s paranoia — and more details about which book Hunt did check out from the Library of Congress — check out this article from the Daily Beast, “How Kennedy Brought Down Nixon.”