Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

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

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

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

Library scene #1

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

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

The librarian is surrounded

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

Librarian torture

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

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

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

The book of spells falls into the villain’s hands

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

Library scene #2

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

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

Wong the librarian and Doctor Strange “meet cute”

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

Wong’s librarian glare

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

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

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

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

Wong the librarian provides backstory and context for Doctor Strange

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

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

Wong the librarian chooses books for Doctor Strange

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

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

Strange: I’m fluent in Google Translate.

Wong: Vedic, classical Sanskrit.

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

Wong: The Ancient One’s private collection.

Strange: So they’re forbidden?

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

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

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

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

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

Wong lays down the (library) law for Doctor Strange

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

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

Strange: People used to think that I was funny.

Wong: Did that work for you?

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

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

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

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

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

Library scene #3

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

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

Facial expression showdown!

Wong: What do you want, Strange?

Strange: Books on astral projection.

Wong: You’re not ready for that.

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

Wong: No.

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

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

Library theft!

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

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

Strange: Wong told on me?

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

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

Library scene #4

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

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

Doctor Strange resurrects the missing pages from the book of spells

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

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

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

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

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

Strange: Really should put the warnings before the spell.

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

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

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

Librarian as teacher

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

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

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

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

History lesson from the reel librarian

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

Librarian as warrior

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

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

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

Wong the warrior librarian

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

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

Wong the warrior librarian

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

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

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

Reel librarian death

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

Reel librarian resurrection

Librarian as comic relief

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

Strange: Breaking the laws of nature, I know.

Wong: Well, don’t stop now.

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

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

[Pause]

Wong [laughs]: Oh, that’s funny.

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

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

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile

Final library scene

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

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

Strange: A what?

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

Strange: We’ll be ready.

Role of the reel librarians

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

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

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

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

Librarian as right-hand man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this?

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

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

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

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

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

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile

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

Changes from comics to cinema

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

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

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

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

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

Book cameo

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

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

Cameo of Stan Lee

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

Last but not least…

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

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

Sources used:

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.

 

Of monsters and missing maps

My colleague Michael from the Century Film Project passed on The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) to me for the website. It’s a ’50s sci-fi film about how an earthquake in California unleashes radioactive mollusk monsters. As you do. The special effects are… pretty much what you’d expect from that plot description. Earnest and enjoyably cheesy.

Reel Librarians | 'The Monster That Challenged the World' VHS

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

I also love the film’s tagline, “Distinctly chilling. So real that it is nearly incredible.” Nearly incredible. Nearly. A ringing endorsement! 😉

So where does a reel librarian fit into the picture? There’s not a librarian technically, more a museum archivist. But I’m still including the character in the reel librarian category, as the character is primarily an Information Provider, along with a little Comic Relief thrown in for good measure.

The Naval officers on a base near where the mollusk monsters were unleashed are working hard to contain the issue and track down the remaining monsters. Fifty-five minutes into the film, Lt. Commander John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt) and a scientist figure out that the mollusks are traveling by an underground river through a system of 700 miles of canal bank. The scientist advises them to be on the lookout for a survey map that would show underground rivers.

Twill assures him, “If there is such a map, we’ll find it.

A couple of minutes later, the director cuts to the Imperial County Museum, and we see a middle-aged, balding man closing a file cabinet drawer. Milton Parsons plays the museum archivist Lewis Clark Dobbs, in an uncredited role.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Let’s listen in on the exchange:

Dobbs: Well, now, we gave most of our map collection to the library.

Twill:  Mr. Dobbs, we’ve already been to the library. We’ve checked every possible source. You’re our last resort.

Dobbs:  Too bad, too bad. We don’t have many documents. We don’t have room for them. We put up a bond issue, Proposition 14-A specifically asking for a document room, but… Oh, here. Here we are. [He hands them one rolled-up map.]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Twill:  Is this all you have?

Dobbs:  I’m sorry, just not a speck of room.

Twill:  Mr. Dobbs, this is very important. Have you ever heard of an underground river or an ancient waterway in the valley that empties into a deep pool?

Dobbs:  Dear, dear. Let me think. I can’t think of a thing. But every once in a while, somebody dies, and leaves us a whole lot of documents for our room, the one we didn’t get, you understand. Propositition 14-A was defeated.

Twill:  Well, if you should hear of anything, let me know. You should be able to get me at the base.

Dobbs:  Oh sure, sure, I always cooperate with the authorities. You’ll find that I’m a very cooperative person. Just call on me any time, night or day.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

The officers are as eager to get away as Dobbs is eager to continue talking to them. He is very solicitous but doesn’t actually help them (at least not yet). He is more interested in talking about the failed bond issue. I KNOW THE FEELING. It’s an interesting choice to highlight public funding issues for a library or museum. This is definitely an issue that continues today — but not one I’d expect to find in a cheesy ’50s sci-fi flick.

I honestly thought we had seen the last of Lewis Clark Dobbs. But I was mistaken! At one hour and seven minutes, he shows up at the base — so nondescript that Twill doesn’t notice him on his way out; Dobbs calls out to him to no avail. Dobbs holds a briefcase and has smartened up a bit with a blazer and hat. He takes off his hat when the phone operator asks if she can help him. Dobbs dithers, muttering, “Well, well” several times and announces that he will wait. The phone operators shrug, and Dobbs sits down in the corner. Awkward social manners, to be sure.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

House later, Twill comes back to the base and is so focused on fighting mollusk monsters — as you do — that he doesn’t notice Dobbs in the corner. (Dobbs is probably used to this.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

After they shake hands, here’s the resulting conversation:

Dobbs:  It’s probably not anything at all.

Twill:  I see. [turns away, dismissive]

Dobbs:  You said it was important, you know, about the map.

Twill:  Yeah.

Dobbs:  Well, a very strange thing happened. I was looking for these papers — well,  actually, I was looking for this petition. [Takes out papers.] We’re campaigning again, for the Proposition 14-A, the one that was defeated. [Twill nods.] And there was this folder, and in this folder, there was this map.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Monster That Challenged the World'

As Twill reviews the map, Dobbs mutters on about a family that helped settle the area, the family that donated the map; Dobbs is oblivious that Twill is not listening. Instead, Twill points to the map and asks him if this is a river.

Dobbs puts on his glasses, and states, “Oh no, but the Indians dug wells all along there. It says here — in Spanish, of course — the wells of life. I read 18 foreign languages.

So what do we learn about Dobbs?

  • He dresses conservatively
  • He is patient
  • He doesn’t read social cues very well (which adds to the “Comic Relief” role)
  • He is a multi-linguist
  • Proposition 14-A is his favorite topic of conversation

Twill, a man of action, immediately sends the map off to the photo lab to help identify the location of the mollusk monsters. He doesn’t even thank Dobbs for the map! Twill gets all the credit (of course), but it’s really Dobbs who provided the essential evidence that saved the day. And if only that Proposition 14-A had passed, he could have helped them sooner… and perhaps saved a few more lives.

I was hoping this Class III film would end with Twill saying that the Naval base would contribute funds to the Imperial War Museum and their documents room, but alas there was no more mention of Dobbs or Proposition 14-A after that third short scene with the reel librarian. Oh, well. In my head, that’s what happened: the Imperial War Museum got a donation (and a plaque) to celebrate their pivotal role in challenging the mollusk monsters that challenged the world, and Dobbs is now happily puttering away in his new documents room.

Reel librarians save the world! Now THAT’s a movie tagline. 😉

Reader poll write-up: Transylvania Twist

Thank you to everyone who voted in the recent reader poll, scary movie edition to choose the next film for me to analyze! And here you have it, an analysis post about your chosen winner, the horror comedy spoof, Transylvania Twist (1989).

Reel Librarians | VHS cover of 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

VHS cover of ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

I had never seen this movie before, and I knew little beyond the fact that legendary Hollywood producer Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors) was involved (he served as executive producer). What I knew about the film involving a reel librarian came from the Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography site, which stated that Angus Scrimm plays Stefen, a librarian from Transylvania who tries to collect the fines on a book that’s 200 years overdue.

When looking up the film on its IMDb.com page, however, I encountered some conflicting info:

  • From the film’s summary:  “The nephew of a librarian must go collect a 200 year old book, ‘The Book of Ulthar,’ that should have never been checked out by the Evil Count Orlock.”
  • From the film’s synopsis page:  “Marissa Orlock [Teri Copley] and librarian Dexter Ward [Steve Altman] go to Transylvania, she to attend the funeral and will-reading of her dead father Count Orlock and he to retrieve a 200-year overdue book titled ‘The Book of All Evil.'”

So who’s the librarian? The nephew or the uncle? Both? Another character named Stefen? Obviously, I needed to pay careful attention watching this film.

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*

The movie doesn’t take long to jump right into the action… and into a coffin!

Reel Librarians | Reel librarian in a coffin in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Reel librarian in a coffin in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Dexter Ward, played by Steve Altman, shows up at the funeral for his uncle, played by Jay Robinson. But when Dexter comes up to the casket to pay his respects, his uncle pops up, very much alive — and angry!

Reel Librarians | Funeral scene in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Funeral scene in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Uncle Ephram:  The book. The Book of Ulthar. You must find it. You know, it has the power to summon forth the evil one. What am I doing here?

Dexter:  You’re dead, Uncle Ephram.

Uncle Ephram:  Like hell I am! Get me out of this goddamn thing! What stupid son-of-a-bitch pronounced me dead? … You can all go home. I’m not dead. Get out of here, you miserable toadies.

Turns out, Uncle Ephram is a librarian. And next we see an exterior of the library to set up the next scene inside the library.

Reel Librarians | Library exterior from 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Library exterior from ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Dexter:  You’re looking much better since the funeral, Uncle Ephram. You know, I think death agrees with you.

Uncle Ephram:  Dexter, you’re the only person who seems genuinely happy that I’m still alive.

Dexter:  Remember what they said about that condition of yours. You sure it’s such a good idea to return to work this soon?

Uncle Ephram:  This library is my life. For 40 years, I’ve been responsible for the world’s largest collection of books on witchcraft and the black arts.

Dexter:  That’s what I call job security.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Library scene in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Uncle Ephram delves into exposition, explaining about the Book of Ulthar and its history and importance. Ulthar was a sorcerer and cast a spell that trapped an evil spirit, and the book contains a counter-spell that would free the forces of evil. And OF COURSE this book would wind up being guarded by a librarian — who, we learn next, wasn’t really up to the task.

Uncle Ephram:  He [Ulthar] placed all his mystic incantations in one volume, which has been carefully guarded throughout the ages. Then, 20 years ago, I made a tragic error. I lent the book out.

Dexter:  Isn’t that what libraries are supposed to do?

Uncle Ephram:  Not with such a priceless volume. The culprit’s name was Meredith Orlock. His academic credentials were impeccable. A few days later, he simply vanished, with my book. For two decades, I vainly attempted to find some trace of him. Finally just recently, I unearthed a clue, a daughter, living in Los Angeles. 

Dexter alludes again to his uncle’s health condition — which led him to having an attack and being pronounced dead. That is then why his uncle gives his nephew the task to contact Orlock’s daughter, Marissa, and hunt down the book for him.

Throughout this conversation — which sets up the entire plot of the movie, such as it is — Uncle Ephram and his nephew have a “walk-and-talk” through the library. We therefore get treated to an extended tour of the library stacks, along with a peek of the back area and front counter.

Reel Librarians | Library scene in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Library scene in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

When Dexter tracks down Marissa — who happens to be filming a cheesy music video, as one does in the ’80s — he tells her that in the ’60s, her father borrowed a book from the “Arkham Public Library.” Dexter also describes his uncle as the “head librarian at Arkham.”

Wink, wink, “Arkham” is an integral setting of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, and “Arkham Asylum” features in the Batman stories.

Marissa then learns via telegram that her father has died, and she has been summoned to his castle in Transylvania. Dexter and Marissa travel together to Transylvania and are greeted at the castle doors by the butler… named Stefen (played by Angus Scrimm). So Stefen turns out to be a butler who materializes when called, but he certainly is no librarian.

Marissa and Byron then view the last will and testament, via a game-show-themed video, of Meredith Orlock, who reveals that the Book of Ulthar is hidden somewhere in the castle. Marissa inherits the castle, but her Uncle Byron vows to track down the book. The race is on — as is the remainder of the film’s plot.

Reel Librarians | Quest to find the missing Book of Ulthar in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Quest to find the missing Book of Ulthar in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

As a horror spoof, Transylvania Twist helped pave the way for later movies like the Scary Movie franchise. I’m not sure that’s a compliment. The film pokes fun at both classic and ’80s horror movies, including Young Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, among others. The film has several positive user reviews on IMDb.com, and I can understand why fans of cheesy horror spoofs might enjoy Transylvania Twist. I have to admit, I am not a personal fan of horror spoofs, so I did not particularly enjoy the film. I found it pretty tedious overall, the jokes and asides and acting included.

Reel Librarians | The missing Book of Ulthar in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

The missing Book of Ulthar in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Dexter eventually finds the Book of Ulthar hidden in Orlock’s casket. It is kind of clever, structurally, how the book is introduced by a(n undead) character in a coffin, and the book itself winds up hidden in another coffin (one whose body is missing).

After having watched the entire film, here’s what we find out in the end:

  • The book is NOT 200 years overdue; it is merely 20 years overdue
  • The sole reel librarian in the film turns out to be Uncle Ephram, not the nephew nor the butler Stefen, as erroneously listed in other write-ups
  • Uncle Ephram fulfills the role of Comic Relief (by popping up undead out of a coffin, hilarious!), as well as the role of Information Provider
  • The reel librarian provides the reason — and blame? — for the entire plot of the movie
  • Uncle Ephram is not a very good librarian, as he lent out the “priceless volume” of the Book of Ulthar — causing this whole mess in the first place — and he didn’t even do a thorough background check of the person he lent it out to. Tsk, tsk.
  • The film winds up in the Class III category, with a memorable supporting reel librarian character

Transylvania Twist ends with a bang. (Literally.) And a dancing librarian. As you do.

Reel Librarians | Dancing librarian in 'Transylvania Twist' (1989)

Dancing librarian in ‘Transylvania Twist’ (1989)

Again, thanks to all who voted in the reader poll. I’ll be back next week with another Halloween-themed post — next time, reviewing an actual ’80s horror classic. Stay tuned!

A magical librarian

A couple of years ago, when I started this blog, I received a reader comment adding the TV movie The Color of Magic (2008) to my Master List. The TV movie is adapted from two of Terry Pratchett’s books, the 1983 work of the same name (although it is spelled in the English way, The Colour of Magic, the first in his famous Discworld series) and the second book in the series, The Light Fantastic. About a year ago, a work colleague recommended Terry Pratchett’s book Men at Arms to me, as it is another book in the series that features the librarian character. I haven’t read The Colour of Magic yet, but I did enjoy Men at Arms, especially Pratchett’s sense of humor. So when on a recent trip to the public library I spied a DVD of The Color of Magic, I checked it out.

Reel Librarians  |  DVD case of 'The Color of Magic'

I had been warned that this TV movie was bad — even my work colleague, who loves the Discworld series, said it wasn’t very good. It is overlong, as it was conceived and developed as a two-parter. It’s also very cheesy in execution and special effects. Where the tone of the books is funny and whimsical, the movie feels silly and belabored; the filmsuffers from a lack of charm that is evident in Terry Pratchett’s writing. So, yes, this was another instance in which I watched this film so YOU DON’T HAVE TO. 😉

I also did not understand the general plot — this TV movie suffers from too.much.plot. — until I read this very detailed synopsis entry of the film in the Discworld Wiki site. This entry is SO detailed, but if you are unfamiliar with the Discworld books, suffice to say that (SPOILER ALERTS):

  • The Octavo is the greatest of all spell books and very dangerous, and it lives in the cellars of Unseen University.
  • Wizards keep killing — or attempting to kill — each other, because that’s what wizards do.
  • Tim Curry plays an evil-minded wizard named Trymon (no big casting stretch there) and wants to rule with help from the Octavo’s spells.
  • One wizard, Rincewind (played by David Jason), is the worst of the wizards because he can’t remember any basic spells or even to show up on time to wizard meetings.
  • Rincewind is therefore expelled at the beginning of the movie, which wreaks havoc because his mind inadvertently contains a spell from the Octavo. (This is also why he’s the worst wizard and can’t remember any other spells.)
  • Sean Astin ambles cluelessly through the movie as Twoflower, a rich tourist who hires Rincewind as his guide. They go on adventures outside the city but eventually come back for the final showdown against Trymon.
  • The Head Librarian starts out in human form… and then gets turned into an orangutan. Yes, an orangutan. Even in primate form, he continues to be Head Librarian of Unseen University.

The Librarian is played in human form by Nicholas Tennant, and in “Orang Utan” form by actor Richard da Costa, who also plays the Luggage. (That is a very strange sentence to write.)

Books also lead other, secret lives in the L-Space in the Discworld series — and as a member of the Librarians of Time and Space, the Librarian of Unseen University has an understanding of L-Space and its powers. It is no wonder that this TV movie highlights the Octavo, as Brian Cox (!) narrates that the “greatest of all spell books, locked and chained deep in the cellars of the Unseen University, the spells imprisoned in its pages lead a secret life of their own. And Rincewind’s departure … has left them deeply troubled…”

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The next scene involves the Head Librarian, deep in conversation with the Arch Chancellor. The Head Librarian reveals a lot of plot in this scene — and indeed, provides plot details throughout to several characters — so his primary role in this TV movie is that of an Information Provider.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The Librarian also reflects the fear others have of Trymon, who is power-hungry and trying to bump off any wizard in his way to the “room at the top.”

Librarian:  … I’m just glad he doesn’t want to be Head Librarian.

Trymon [who’s been eavesdropping and bursts into the room]:  Perish the thought, Horace. And I am looking for a book.

The next shot reveals the Unseen University Library in all its dusty, disorganized glory. The Librarian retrieves the book Room at the Top:  How to Succeed at Wizardry! (first chapter:  “Knife in the Back”) for Trymon and continues the theme of the previous conversation.

Librarian:  The position of Head Librarian isn’t one that really appeals to you, sir?

Trymon:  No. [smirks]

Librarian:  Oh, good.

Trymon:  It is quite possible that the next Arch Chancellor may well smile upon those who understand the importance of things being well organized.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

A rumbling, creaking sound from the cellars — the groans of the Octavo — interrupt this conversation.

Trymon:  Is everything in order down there?

Librarian:  Oh, yes, absolutely. Everything is in alphabetical order, in fact.

GROAN.

The Librarian, at least while in human form, comes off as quite cowardly and sniveling. He reacts in fear, and I don’t think it’s an accident that camera angles play up his diminutive form. (For more on the Librarian character in the books, click here.)

Reel Librarians  | Screenshots from 'The Color of Magic'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

In fact, I grew so tired of the Librarian cowering in and around Trymon — all the while supplying him with the information he needed to move forward with his evil plan — that almost halfway through the TV movie, I shouted out, “I am SO READY for the Librarian to turn into an orangutan!” And, yes, that is another strange sentence to say out loud and write.

The movie complied, as at the end of the first half, the Librarian gets accidentally gets turned into a primate by a spell released by the Octavo. The Arch Chancellor and the other wizard rush to the library, to be greeted with the Librarian sitting on his desk. Not at his desk, but ON his desk.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Even if I hadn’t know the Librarian got turned into an orangutan — he’s already in his primate form in Men at Arms — I could have guessed where the plot was going, based on the number of bad puns he slips in before the accident:

  • Better not monkey around with it [the Octavo], or who knows what will happen.
  • It’s the Octavo. It’s going really ape.

I was relieved that after he got turned into an orangutan, his vocabulary became limited to variations of “Ooook!”

The Librarian does not have as many scenes in the second half of the TV movie, but he does help Trymon find another book in the library. Trymon threatens him and also gives him a banana for his troubles (“it’s not as if bananas grow on trees”) — which proves to be his own downfall. Literally.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

At the end of the film, Trymon holds all the spells but the final spell in the Octavo and is engaged in a battle with Rincewind and the bumbling tourist, Twoflower, at the top of the tower. The camera then cuts to a close-up of the Librarian with a banana in his mouth (oook?), and then we get a lovely wide shot of the tower in silhouette. And who in the world would be able to scale a tower like this… but an orangutan librarian?!

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

And that banana? Well, a banana peel just HAPPENS to find its way underneath Trymon’s foot as he prepares to send one final spell toward Rincewind. Trymon is then blasted by his own ricocheted spell!

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Although Rincewind gets all the glory, it’s the Librarian who actually ended up saving the day! (Typical.) At the end, as Rincewind and Twoflower make their way out of the tower, the Librarian drops over the side of the wall and toward Rincewind. (Apparently, Richard da Costa studied real orangutans in a zoo to learn how they moved — not that it helped.) Rincewind hands the Librarian a banana and tells him to “Go on, you sort this all out.”

I think HE ALREADY DID. Ungrateful wizard. Ooook, indeed.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The Head Librarian is a minor character who appears in short scenes throughout The Color of Magic (2008), and therefore winds up in the Class III category of reel librarians. I’ve already mentioned how he fulfilled the role of Information Provider, and considering the bad puns and overly crude portrayals — both in human and ape form — he also serves as Comic Relief. We are definitely laughing AT him, even if that laughter could be characterized as nervous laughter. Plus, his last trick with the banana peel is the oldest, broadest slapstick humor there is, right?

Until next week … and make sure you look where you step! And be nice to librarians while you’re at it. Bananas optional. 😉