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.

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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.

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.

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.”

Reel librarians in ‘Rollerball’ | Analyzing the 1975 original film and 2002 remake

I have seen Rollerball, the 1975 sci-fi cult classic starring James Caan, several times, and the film features a couple of reel librarians and corresponding library scenes. I had not yet seen the 2002 remake starring Chris Klein, due to scathing reviews, but I decided to watch the remake recently for the purposes of comparing and contrasting it to the original film — and to see if the reel librarians made the cut in the remake. I also wanted to revisit the original Rollerball film, to see how well it held up.

Ready, set, analyze!


The original film: Rollerball (1975)


In Rollerball (1975), a not-too-distant future controlled by corporations, Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the star of the ultra-violent sport Rollerball. The corporate executives want him to quit, but Jonathan defies them.

Rollerball Official Trailer #1 – James Caan Movie (1975) HD,” uploaded by Movieclips Trailer Vault, 2012, under a Standard YouTube license.

Library computer center scene

The first library scene — in this future, they are called “computer centers” — takes place 35 minutes into the 2-hour film. It is a short scene, lasting only a minute and a half. Jonathan goes with friend and teammate Moonpie to the local branch, and the location is like that of a futuristic mall, with escalators. (This location is in Germany, and as director Norman Jewison reveals on a commentary track, it’s a building that was built specifically for the Olympic Games.)

Reel Librarians | Library of the future, set in a mall-like luxury center, in 'Rollerball' (1975)

Library of the future, set in a mall-like luxury center, in ‘Rollerball’ (1975)

There are different information desks, including one labeled “Library” and another one labeled “Travel.” The message is that the “Library” is just another service and just another desk among countless others.

Reel Librarians | The library Circulation desk in a scene from 'Rollerball' (1975)

The library Circulation desk in a scene from ‘Rollerball’ (1975)

At the “Library” desk, a young, pretty, brunette Circulation Clerk — listed as “Girl in Library” in the film’s credits and played by Nancy Bleier– starts off the conversation.

Girl in Library:  Can I help you, please?

Jonathan:  Yeah. I tried to order some books. They sent me this notice that I had to appear at the center personally.

Girl in Library:  That’s right. This is our circulation unit. You can make your choice here or by catalog. There must be some mistake. The books you’ve ordered are classified and have been transcribed and summarized.

Jonathan:  Who summarized them?

Girl in Library:  I suppose the computer summarized them.

Moonpie:  What do you need books for?

Jonathan:  I just want to study up on some things.

Girl in Library:  You could go to the computer center where the real librarians transcribe the books, but we have all the edited versions in our catalog, anything I think you’d want.

Jonathan:  Well, let’s see then. This is not a library, and you’re really not a librarian.

Girl in Library:  I’m only a clerk, that’s right. I’m sorry about it, really.

Cue vacant expression:

Reel Librarians | The Circulation clerk's vacant smile and facial expression

The Circulation clerk’s vacant smile and facial expression

Jonathan:  And the books are really in computer banks being summarized. Where is that?

Girl in Library:  There’s a computer bank in Washington. The biggest is in Geneva. That’s a nice place to visit. I guess that’s where all the books are now.

Jonathan:  Thank you.

This is a pivotal scene, one that confirms Jonathan’s suspicions that “something is not right” and provides him motivation to seek out the real books — and a reel librarians — in Geneva. The “Girl in Library” fulfills the Information Provider role.

Here’s how Norman Jewison described the scene and its importance, in a commentary track on the DVD:

Here is where we bring into the story, bring into the film, that knowledge and access to knowledge is controlled. Much like it was controlled in Nazi Germany, during World War II, or indeed in the Soviet Union, where books were banned. And of course in America. It’s happened here too. Where people are prevented from finding out information that may in some way increase their opposition, perhaps to established authority.

We keep referring to “something’s going on,” there’s some sort of conspiracy, this is the build to reveal to Jonathan, the gladiator, that he is really just a cog in the wheel and is being totally manipulated.

Reel Librarians | Walking and talking outside the mall library

Walking and talking outside the mall library

Jewison and screenwriter William Harrison also emphasized this theme as Jonathan and Moonpie walk out of the library:

Moonpie:  Yeah, but why books? I mean, anything you’d want to know, you could hire yourself a corporate teacher. Call somebody up. Use your privilege card.

Jonathan:  I can’t, and that’s just it. I feel like there’s something going on. Somebody’s pushing me.

Geneva library scene

An hour and a half into the film, Jonathan travels to the central computer bank in Geneva that the Circulation Clerk had mentioned. Jonathan wants to go to computer center in Geneva and see what he can find out. The Geneva library computer center looks like a classical building from the outside, but it’s all polished doors and computer machinery and fluorescent lights inside.

The exterior of the library computer center is the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. As director Norman Jewison stated in the director’s commentary, “We tried to show that there was still some respect for some older pieces of architecture, so we decided that we would make the League of Nations into the world’s library.

Reel Librarians | Contrasting the exterior and interior of the main library computer center in Geneva, in a scene from 'Rollerball' (1975)

Contrasting the exterior and interior of the main library computer center in Geneva, in a scene from ‘Rollerball’ (1975)

This is a longer scene, clocking in at six and a half minutes, and the English actor Ralph Richardson plays the librarian, who is star-struck at first by meeting Jonathan. We also get to see the librarian’s office, which looks like a computer storage area.

During this scene, the librarian happens to mention — in an offhand, casual kind of way — that he’s misplaced some data.

Reel Librarians | Librarian meets celebrity, in the Geneva library scene from 'Rollerball' (1975)

Librarian meets celebrity, in the Geneva library scene from ‘Rollerball’ (1975)

Librarian:  Hello, hello. Yes, it is. The famous Jonathan E. Hard to believe. Sorry things are in a mess. The rollerball champion. Wonderful. Not many people come to see us, you know. We’re not easy to talk to, Zero and I. We’re a little confused again here today. This is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to misplace things.

Jonathan:  Misplaced some data?

Librarian:  Hmmm, the whole of the 13th century. [Tears up cards and throws them on the floor.]

Reel Librarians | Losing the whole of the 13th century, no biggie

Losing the whole of the 13th century, no biggie

Librarian:  Misplaced the computers, several conventional computers. We can’t find them. We’re always moving things around, getting organized. My assistants and I. But this, this is Zero’s fault. Zero. He’s the world’s file cabinet. Yeah. Pity. Poor old 13th century. Well. Come along now. You want to get started, don’t you?

Jonathan:  Yes, sir.

Librarian:  This way. Now, we’ve lost those computers, with all of the 13th century in them. Not much in the century. Just Dante and a few corrupt popes. But it’s so distracting and annoying. You’ve unlimited restrictions here, of course. But you have to come so, so many times. It all takes such effort.

Yes, you read that right. The librarian just dismissed the WHOLE OF THE 13th CENTURY that just disappeared from archival existence. That “Just Dante and a few corrupt popes” amount to “not much.” So I’m pausing in the middle of their conversation to have a moment of silence for the “poor old 13th century” that just got wiped out. RIP, 13th century, RIP.

It’s also becoming obvious how emotionally numb and exhausted the librarian has become.

Reel Librarians | Reel librarian exhaustion, as seen in 'Rollerball' (1975)

Reel librarian exhaustion, as seen in ‘Rollerball’ (1975)

Jonathan:  Do the executives still come here?

Librarian:  Oh, they used to. Some of them.

Jonathan:  What about the books?

Librarian:  Books, books, oh no, they’re all changed, all transcribed. All information is here. We’ve Zero, of course. He’s the central brain, the world’s brain. Fluid mechanics, fluidics. He’s liquid, you see. His borders touch all knowledge. Everything we ask has become so complicated now. Each thing we ask. This morning we wanted to know something about the 13th century. It flows out into all our storage systems. He considers everything. He’s become so ambiguous now. As if he knows nothing at all.

Jonathan:  Could you tell me something about the corporate wars?

Librarian:  Wars? War? Oh, yes, of course. We have them all here. Punic War. Prussian War. Peloponnesian War. Crimean War. War of the Roses. We could recall them in sequence. But corporate wars… hmmm. Well, Zero will, or can, I’m sure, tell you anything.

Reel Librarians | Zero is not a hero

Zero is not a hero

Librarian:  A memory pool, you see. He’s supposed to tell us where things are and what they might possibly mean. Look, Zero, a visitor. Jonathan E., the rollerball champion. You’ve filed away a lot of data on him. Do you remember?

Jonathan:  Does it answer you?

Librarian:  Oh yes, it speaks. It finds things, and loses them, and confuses itself. [Dusts it.] Ask anything. He’ll find it for you, section and lot. Won’t you, Zero?

Jonathan:  All right. I’d like, uh, I’d like some information about corporate decisions:  how they’re made and who makes them.

Librarian:  Zero, you heard the question. Answer him.

Zero:  Negative.

Librarian:  You don’t have to give him a full political briefing. Answer.

Zero:  Negative.

Librarian:  This is Jonathan E. He has to know. Make it simple. Answer.

At first, the librarian speaks lovingly and protectively of Zero, almost like a parent reminiscing about a spoiled child’s antics. Things quickly go downhill from there, as the librarian realizes that Zero refuses to provide the information asked of it. In short, Zero lives up to its name.

Reel Librarians | Librarian dusts off Zero

Librarian dusts off Zero

Zero:  Corporate decisions are made by corporate executives. Corporate executives make corporate decisions.

Librarian:  I know we have the answers. It’s the waters of history.

Zero:  Knowledge converts to power. Energy equals genius. Power is knowledge. Genius is energy.

Librarian:  I don’t want to bully you. You have to answer!

Reel Librarians | Librarian sees red in 'Rollerball' (1975)

Librarian sees red in ‘Rollerball’ (1975)

Zero:  Corporate entities control elements of economic life, technology, capitol, labors, and markets. Corporate decisions are made by…

Librarian:  You have to, Zero! [kicks the base] Let’s show him! Answer him!

Zero:  Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative.

Reel Librarians | Librarian vs. Zero the library computer

Librarian vs. Zero the library computer

As the librarian kicks Zero, in a fruitless attempt to prize information out of it, Jonathan — along with the audience — realize how impotent we all are in this corporatized world. The librarian is educated and intellectual and still valued knowledge, but it is to no avail. The librarian in Geneva is of no more use than the Circulation Clerk back home.

Here’s how Norman Jewison summed up the scene in his director’s commentary:

We came up with the name of Zero for the name of the computer, because we felt that somehow zero was the beginning, and the end, of everything. And I guess we were trying to indicate that as you hear in this scene, that all knowledge. […] I think probably Kubrick’s film 2001, which dealt with HAL, actually was part of the inspiration for this scene. When you start to deal with information stored in one place and one computer, naturally the computer must take on a kind of an identity. You can see here… this is a wonderful scene. [Chuckles.] You can see this is a difficult question for… He’s trying to get Zero to give him some information.

And this is where Jonathan realizes that even the computer is, will not reveal the certain truths that he wants about who really is in charge. So we have a society in which nobody knows really, who’s calling the shots. And there’s only one man questioning it, and he can’t even, he can’t find the answers. And this is where the picture takes off, a little bit, emotionally.

The original 1975 version of Rollerball ends up in the Class III category of films featuring reel librarians, and Ralph Richardon’s librarian ends up being another Information Provider, however ineffectual his information turned out to be.

Although the library scenes in the movie combine for less than 10 minutes total, it’s obvious — especially from Norman Jewison’s commentary — how important those scenes are to the film’s overall message as well as its flow and plot progression.


The remake:  Rollerball (2002)


Rollerball Official Trailer #1 – Jean Reno Movie (2002) HD,” uploaded by Movieclips Trailer Vault, 2012, under a Standard YouTube license.

As I mentioned before, the 2002 remake of Rollerball was not well-received, to put it mildly. It has a 3% — !!! — freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes. As in 97% rotten. Yikes. The remake’s director, John McTiernan, also went to federal prison due to an investigation resulting from the production of this film. Double yikes.

As for the question of whether or not the reel librarians made it to the remake, the short answer is NO.

The long answer? Also NO.

There is just no room for subtlety or subtext in this remake, which is all about quick action shots and bad special effects. This remake epically fails on all levels, including acting, storytelling, casting, accents, reel librarians, you name it. Very disappointing since the original film was, well, so original. Some movies just don’t need to be remade. The Rollerball remake ends up in the Class V category, films with no librarians.

Just one more cinematic reason why I watch some films so you don’t have to. 😉


Details:

Original:  Rollerball. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck. MGM/UA Entertainment, 1975. Based on the short story “Roller Ball Murder” by William Harrison.

Remake:  Rollerball. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, Rebecca Romijn. MGM, 2002. Based on the short story “Roller Ball Murder” and 1975 screenplay, both by William Harrison.