A research quest in ‘Winter’s Tale’ (2014) + how to tell the difference between microfilm vs. microfiche

And when you have a research quest, where do you go? The library, OF COURSE.

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day — or Galentine’s Day, whichever you prefer! ❤ And of course, I had to analyze a romantic movie for this post, and I chose Winter’s Tale (2014), starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, and Jennifer Connelly. The movie was adapted from Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel of the same name. (And if you were confused about this movie and thought it might be an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale,” then please know that you are not alone!)

This movie’s plot is impossible to describe — or follow that well, if you’re unfamiliar with the source novel, like me. The most straightforward way to describe it is that it is a time-bending fantasy romance that flashes between 1916 and 2014. The central romance is between Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay).

Spoiler alert: This movie is NOT GOOD. And I also get super CAPSY (which means cranky) throughout the following analysis.

Here was my reaction while watching this movie:

I do kind of love that the official trailer includes Jennifer Connelly asking, “What’s happening here?” (at 1:49 mins), which really does sum up this movie:

Winter’s Tale – Official Trailer [HD]” video uploaded by Warner Bros. Pictures, Standard YouTube License

Like I said, this movie is BONKERS. I can’t decide what’s worse… Colin Farrell’s haircut? Russell Crowe’s Irish accent? The endless parade of really good actors inexplicably popping up in minor or bit parts? (See my shout-out to legendary Broadway actor Norm Lewis in my tweet above.)

I have to imagine that the original novel is better able to capture the sweeping scale of the tale, right?! For example, the pop culture site Pajiba includes a review of the book (“I’m not sure if it’s the best… book I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty… close”), contrasted with a review of the movie adaptation (“The worst movie ever made can’t even touch this”).

If you have read Helprin’s book, please leave a comment and share.

Step 1 in the research quest: The New York Public Library scene

At 80 minutes into this 118-minute long movie, Peter is walking around with amnesia in 2014 but finds what he thinks is a clue to regaining his memory, a token that reads: “Coheeries Chocolates, Happy New Year!”

And when you have a research quest, where do you go? The library, OF COURSE. And not just any library. He heads straight for the central branch of the New York Public Library, with the iconic lion statues that are visible in the screenshot below. (I’m relieved that knowing about the NYPL withstands time-bending amnesia.)

The iconic lion statue(s) outside the New  York Public Library
The iconic lion statue(s) outside the New York Public Library

In a scene that lasts only a few seconds, we glimpse the famous Reading Room of the NYPL behind a White woman with long, straight blonde hair. She is wearing glasses and is sitting behind a tall counter with a laptop in front of her. The librarian doesn’t say anything — not even a greeting! — and doesn’t even look up at him until Peter comes up to the counter. Her facial expression is quite stern. (This is not realistic, from my experience. It’s almost Pavlovian for librarians to smile and say something encouraging like, “Hello, how can I help you?” when a patron comes anywhere near the reference desk.)

The NYPL librarian
The NYPL librarian

Peter hands her the token, and we get a closeup of the librarian picking it up.

A Coheeries clue
A Coheeries clue

The character is listed in the credits as simply “Librarian,” and is played by Caitlin Dulany. That’s all we see of this reel librarian, which lands this portrayal in the Class IV category, with librarian cameos.

Based on the next scene, the librarian is clearly successful in having found something useful and providing enough information for Peter to move to the next step. My guess is that she would have looked for any records of a company called “Coheeries Chocolates” and/or possibly just searched for “Coheeries” as a keyword; that is the research route that I would have taken in this situation.

Therefore, although we never hear the librarian speak or see any more of her, she serves as a successful Information Provider.

Step #2 in the research quest: The NY Sun’s Reading Room and newspaper archives

Next, at 1 hour and 22 minutes into the movie, we follow Peter to The Sun newspaper headquarters.

Next stop: The Sun's newspaper archives
Next stop: The Sun’s newspaper archives

As Peter walks up to another reference counter, we see the sign along the side wall that reads “Isaac Penn Reading Room.” Who is Isaac Penn? He’s played by William Hurt, and he is the father of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), the woman Peter fell in love with back in 1916.

A view of the (fictional) Isaac Penn Reading Room
A view of the (fictional) Isaac Penn Reading Room

At the reference desk — and in the screenshot below, you can see a small brown sign on the wall that reads “Reference Desk” above the fire escape floor plan — is Norm Lewis. The Norm Lewis, who was the first Black American actor to play Javert in a production of the musical Les Misérables (in 2006) and the first Black American actor to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway (in 2014; Robert Guillaume was the first Black American actor to play the Phantom regionally, in 1990). The Norm Lewis, who has also starred in productions of Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Chicago, Hair, The Little Mermaid, The Music Man, and Porgy and Bess. The Norm Lewis, who has been nominated for a Tony, a Drama Desk award, a Grammy, and a SAG award. (Can you tell I’m a fan? This man’s skill is undeniable.)

And in this movie, Norm Lewis gets stuck playing a bit character called “Custodian” (WTF?!!!), with his natural charisma muted to being a cardigan-wearing obstructionist to Colin Farrell’s floppy hair. Norm Lewis deserved better; we all deserved better. (To be clear, playing a reel librarian or reel archivist is not the problem here; the way this character is written and used in this scene is the problem.)

Norm Lewis in 'Winter's Tale' (2014)
Hi, I’m the Norm Lewis. Show some respect!

Let’s listen in as Peter walks up to the desk and asks to meet with Isaac Penn.

Custodian: This is the Isaac Penn Reading Room.

Peter: I’d like to speak to him if I could.

Custodian: Be a neat trick … Penn’s been dead 90 years. [He’s so deadpan! Peter is unamused.]

Peter: There’s a theater on Hudson Street, called the Theater of the Coheeries. Can you tell me if you have any information on it please? Isaac Penn donated it.

He taps on his computer, and as he leans forward, we also glimpse two more workers behind him, a Black woman at a desk and another shadow-y figure (a man?) seated at another desk behind a column. These two roles are uncredited in the cast list.

Three reel librarians in one screenshot!
Three reel librarians in one screenshot!

Custodian: I see it here. But the information on it hasn’t been cataloged from the microfiche.

Peter: Ok, might I see them please? These “micro fish.”

Custodian: Sure. Two forms of ID .[He reaches for a form.] Fill this out. Two-week approval period, and you can search back there til your heart’s delight.

Peter: Can I just —

Custodian: I’m sorry, can’t help you.

Let’s pause for the EPIC “I don’t give a f—” facial expression that Norm Lewis is giving Colin Farrell here. You can just tell the weariness behind trying to explain policies to a person — especially a White man? — who doesn’t want to listen and thinks those policies don’t apply to them. (For what it’s worth, the policies above sound pretty standard to me, for access to a private newspaper’s specialized collection of archives. It’s not a public library. Or am I just used to policies like these? Leave a comment and share what you think.)

That is also ALL OF US as we are forced to gaze upon Farrell’s haircut in this movie.

A closeup of Norm Lewis in 'Winter's Tale' (2014)
Dude, don’t give me attitude with that haircut.

At this point, Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly) — the one who says, “What’s happening here?” in the trailer — walks over. I guess because reasons of PLOT, but also because I guess White-presenting people gotta stick together when a Black man is explaining the rules to a White man who doesn’t want to listen? It’s not a good look, y’all. 😦

Virginia: There are so many regulations these days. 

ROLLING MY EYES HERE. Ok, Karen.

After Virginia introduces herself and asks if she knows him from somewhere, Peter shares that he’s lost his memory but is starting to remember things again.

Peter: I’ve become convinced that if i can just learn what this Coheeries is, it may help jog my memory. And now they’re telling me [he gestures to Norm] I have to wait two weeks, and I have to have two forms of ID that I don’t have, just to even get back there. Although I have a growing suspicion that I may be able to get to what I need faster as soon as everybody goes home for the night… if only I knew what a “micro fish” looked like. 

Virginia: You know, places like this have all sorts of security systems.

Peter: Well, somehow I find myself undaunted.

Jennifer Connelly in 'Winter's Tale' (2014)
What are you even saying right in front of Norm Lewis?!

Ok, just to point out the obvious… so Peter is talking about breaking into a place of business, and he doesn’t even know what he’s looking for. Pause to point out that Peter is also saying all of this RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE PROFESSIONAL AT THE REFERENCE DESK. We’re not invisible, y’all! The Black man at the counter right next to you is not invisible! The White privilege rolling off Peter is so palpable it’s like its own character.

This is deeply disturbing and condescending behavior. Regardless, Virginia — inexplicably, because EVERYTHING IN THIS MOVIE IS INEXPLICABLE — decides to help him out.

Virginia: You’re in luck. I work here, so I don’t need any approval. Isn’t that right, Jack?

Jack: Reporters come and go as they please, Miss Gamely.

Pause to recognize that the “Custodian” listed in the credits gets a first name in the movie: Jack! Not a full name, just a first name. Still not enough to earn him that name in the credits. And Jack still calls her “Miss Gamely.” So it’s clear that they’re not on equal footing in this scene, and this scene is written to emphasize that. She is giving favors and bending the rules for a strange White man who just threatened to break into the place, after which she tells the Black man to step aside. Again, NOT A GOOD LOOK.

Norm Lewis, Jennifer Connelly, and Colin Farrell in 'Winter's Tale (2014)
#TeamNormLewis

But let’s applaud the fact that Norm Lewis is giving another “I don’t give a f—” facial expression to Virginia, similar to the expression that he gave earlier to Peter. How much of the resigned weariness in his face is informed by his own experiences as a Black man dealing with people who seem to have, and act upon, a sense of entitlement? Am I reading too much into this? Maybe, but that’s how I’m reading the scene at this point in time.

This scene ends at 1 hour and 24 minutes into the movie, so this newspaper reading room scene lasts two-and-a-half minutes.

What role does Norm Lewis play?

I struggled with how to classify the role that Norm Lewis plays in this film. He’s a staff member at a newspaper’s reading room reference desk, so it’s not a typical library. Or you could argue that this is an archives rather than a library.

I asked this on Twitter, if his role would be considered an archivist or a librarian working in an archives, or something else.

If you follow the tweet thread embedded above, you’ll see that Burkely Hermann (the real-life archivist behind the Pop Culture Library Review site) replied that “Maybe they’d be a records clerk or something? It might be a bit of a stretch to call them an archivist” but also that a “recordkeeper… is basically equivalent to archivist from what I’ve read.

So this role seems to fall more on the reel archivist side of the scale than a reel librarian, and I am also going to land more on the reel archivist side for Jack the Custodian, especially in contrast with the reel librarian role shown earlier at the New York Public Library scene.

The library and archives scenes last only a few minutes total, and only a few lines of dialogue for the reel librarians/archivists, so I would argue this lands the movie in the Class IV category, with cameo roles.

One final note to sum up this very odd scene in a very odd movie: I’ve NEVER heard of the term “custodian” being used before in our respective fields. A “custodian” is a more common term for a facilities worker who does the (often dirty but absolutely vital) work of cleaning and maintaining buildings. This is NOT THE SAME WORK as a librarian or an archivist or any kind of records keeper. They are different jobs. Yet one more tone-deaf strike against director/screenwriter Akiva Goldsman.

Or is this how this character was referred to in the source novel? (I hope not.) Is this newspaper reading room scene in the novel? Please leave a comment and share!

Archives scene: How to tell the difference between microfilm vs. microfiche

And now, for my final rant regarding this film. I also tweeted about this, that NO ONE in this movie seems to understand the difference between microfiche and microfilm.

Yes, fair warning, this is a personal pet peeve. I’m going to continue getting all CAPSY in this post.

So let’s do this.

Most of this stack of archival materials includes cardboard boxes of microfilm
Most of this stack of archival materials includes cardboard boxes of microfilm

After Virginia gets Peter past Jack, we next we see a stack of archival materials labeled “Coheeries.” Almost everything in this stack of materials is microfilm. You can tell by the boxes.

Then we see Virginia rolling a spool of microfilm (NOT microfiche, although that’s the word everyone used in the prior scene) into a microfilm reader.

That is a spool of microfilm, NOT microfiche

Something’s not working, so Peter fixes the machine with his magical power of feeling and fixing things with his mind and hands, because SURE WHY NOT.

“What’s happening here?” indeed.

Virginia: But you didn’t even know what microfiche was.

Peter: I’ve just got a knack with machines.

[Insert my real-life librarian’s scream here: Maybe the problem is that NO ONE knows what microfiche is… because THERE IS NO MICROFICHE IN THIS SCENE.]

We learn what Coheeries is — it doesn’t matter, because nothing in this movie matters, but I’m a completist, so I will share that Coheeries is a town — and the photos of Isaac Penn and his daughter, Beverly, help Peter’s memory restore itself.

So this archival research was vital to the plot, after all! Hurray???

This scene lasts less than a minute and a half total, but it is rage-inducing — to me, at least — for showcasing a careless mix-up of microfilm vs. microfiche. I guess they just wanted the verbal comedy (?) of Peter saying “micro fish” instead of “microfiche,” like the, uh, fish out of water (sorry, terrible pun) he is in the year 2014? Y’all, microfilm and microfiche are still important in the field of research. Many primary sources, such as newspaper articles, have been converted into microfilm or microfiche over the past century (for preservation and storage purposes), and there are soooooooooo many of these resources that have not yet been digitized and are not accessible online. I know I’m a librarian, so I’m biased, but it’s true: Not. Everything. Is. Online. It’s good to know that these microform formats still exist, and why they’re still important.

So, to clear up any confusion for an issue you have probably never thought about twice, or even once ( 😉 ), here are the major differences between microfilm vs. microfiche, which are both types of microforms:

Microform:

  • Microform is the umbrella term used to describe scaled-down reproductions of documents for the purposes of easier storage.
  • Microform images are commonly reduced to about 4% or 1/25 of the original document size.
  • Microforms are commonly used to store newspaper archives in library and archival collections, because newspapers are bulky and take up a lot of space, and the material used to print newspapers easily decomposes.

Microfilm:

  • Microfilm” is a type of microform is that is printed on reels or spools, often referred to as cartridges.
  • Microfilm is stored in a cardboard box because of the circular shape of the cartridge (this is how I instantly knew that most of the archival materials in the screenshot above were microfilm, because of the cardboard boxes).
  • Microfilm is not as easy to use, as the spool of film has to be looped carefully into a microfilm reader, as demonstrated in this movie.
  • Microfilm is older technology, and reader machines have often been adapted to read both microfilm and microfiche. So you’ll often hear librarians say “microfilm reader” even when the machine can read, or project, both microfilm and microfiche. (Maybe that helps explain where the confusion between the two stems?)

Microfiche:

  • Microfiche” is another type of microform that is printed on flat cards.
  • Microfiche is stored in a paper sleeve that is open along the top.
  • Microfiche is easier to use, as it slides easily under a projector, similar to how you slide things under a microscope.
  • Microfiche is newer technology and developed from microcards, which are no longer produced but were similar to microfiche but printed on cardboard.

It’s REALLY EASY to visually tell the difference between microfilm vs. microfiche, as seen in the comparison graphic below. Use the slider on the graphic below to compare the microfilm, on the left, which looks like a miniature film reel, versus the microfiche, on the right, which is a flat sheet seen stored in a paper sleeve.

Microfilm vs. microfiche. Image credits: Microfilm image (left) by Ianaré Sévi for Lorien Technologies via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.5 / Microfiche sleeve image (right) by SCARC via Flicker, CC BY NC SA 2.0

It’s NOT HARD, y’all, to tell the difference. Right? And honestly, just ASK A LIBRARIAN. Propmasters and screenwriters of the world, please just ask a librarian.

And that’s just good life advice in general, y’all. Ask a librarian. We answer questions for a living! And I promise not to get all capsy on you in real life if you ask me how to tell the differences between microfilm and microfiche. But I WILL get capsy on you if you ask me to watch Winter’s Tale again. 😉

Continuing the spool of microfilm?

You’ve made it through my rant about microfilm vs. microfiche — congrats! — and while it is a pet peeve, it’s not quite on the same level for me as getting call numbers wrong onscreen. But would you like me to write a longer post about how and when movies get it wrong about microfilm vs. microfiche, similar to what I did in this epic post about call numbers? Leave a comment and let me know!

In the meantime, if you’re jonesing for more library or archives scenes with microfilm or microfiche — and why wouldn’t you be?! — here are some past posts to enjoy:

Sources used

‘South Street’ librarian

Earliest film I have come across so far to feature an African-American reel librarian

The 1953 film noir minor classic, Pickup on South Street, stars Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter. It includes a brief library scene that combines microfilm, a pickpocket, and the first African-American librarian portrayal on film — all in less than a minute!

A well-known pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Widmark), picks the wrong purse one day on the subway, accidentally stealing a roll of microfilm a lady (Peters) was on her way to deliver. As you do. This leads to a clash between the police and a Communist gang — OF COURSE — while Skip schemes amongst all the chaos.

Skip discovers the microfilm in his stash and has the idea to visit the public library in order to get a close look at the microfilm. Very clever! About 25 minutes in, he skips (har har) up the stairs to the New York Public Library, where we get a shot of a sign that reads, “Newspapers on Microfilm — Apply Here.”

Screenshot from Pickup on South Street
Microfilm sign

The camera then pans over two white gentlemen behind a library counter, both in white shirts and ties. The older gentleman is flipping through a book with a male patron, as seen above. Skip moves down the counter to a African-American male, also outfitted in the standard white shirt and tie.

Screenshot from Pickup on South Street
First African-American librarian sighting in film — 1953!

Microfilm Library Clerk:  May I help you?

Skip:  Yes. I’d like to see a copy of the New York Times, January 5, 1947.

Microfilm Library Clerk [hands him a card and pencil]:  Fill this out, please.

The microfilm library clerk, played by Jaye Loft-Lyn, is portrayed as friendly and competent, a classic Information Provider. No fuss, no muss. The scene lasts only seconds, ending up in the Class IV category. Although the length of the scene is short, it is significant, as I mentioned before, in that it is the earliest film I have come across so far to feature an African-American reel librarian. Too bad the role is uncredited.

The next scene cuts to Skip rolling the stolen microfilm onto the library microfilm reader, looking TOTALLY nonchalant and unsuspicious while doing so.

Screenshot from Pickup on South Street
Looking oh-so-innocent

Although the public machine is used for illicit reasons, Skip did end up a satisfied library patron! 😉

I also watched the remake of Pickup on South Street (1953) — I am NOTHING if not thorough, and it’s all for you, dear readers!  —  a tedious 1967 affair called The Cape Town Affair, which changed the locale from New York to Cape Town, South Africa, and starred James Brolin as pickpocket Skip McCoy. Instead of going to a local library, Skip goes to a fellow thief (one who has ripped off a camera store) to view the microfilm. A decidedly inferior remake in every way, including in its decision to nix the opportunity of showcasing a library onscreen.


Sources used:


  • Pickup on South Street. Dir. Samuel Fuller. Perf. Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Richard Kiley, Thelma Ritter. 20th Century Fox, 1953.

The fastest librarian in the West, as seen in ‘The Changeling’

He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

My vote for the quickest reel librarian EVER? The Microfilm Clerk in The Changeling (1980). Behold (and please excuse the grainy quality of my screenshots):

Microfilm librarian in The Changeling
The clerk takes the microfilm box… starting the timer…
Microfilm in The Changeling
… and 4 seconds later!

If this library clerk (played by David Peevers) had set up this microfilm in 4 minutes, I would have been impressed! But this scene demands suspension of disbelief, as the young clerk is able to take the microfilm box out of the drawer (top screenshot), roll the microfilm out of its box, thread it through the microfilm reader in the next room, AND spin it through to the requested article — all in 4 seconds (!!!!). WOW. He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

Not sure what microfilm is? Read more about it here. The microfilm reader — kind of looks like a computer, right? — can be seen in the 2nd screenshot above.

Where were we? Oh yes, the fastest reel librarian ever. The library clerk is a young, white male with short brown hair and mustache, and he wears a fairly conservative brown sweater and dark collared shirt. He begins the reference interview with “1909? I’ll set it up for you” and leaves them with “It’s all ready to go, and the scanner’s on the right.” They thank him for his help (yay!).

Ok, a little context. In this atmospheric thriller, George C. Scott plays John Russell, whose wife and daughter are killed in a freak road accident. He rents a house with a mysterious — and murderous — past and goes about researching the tragedy he believes the house is trying to communicate to him. John first goes to the local Historical Preservation Society and meets Claire (played by then-wife in real life, Trish Van Devere), who joins him on his research quest. Their next step is the local library, to look up newspaper articles from 1909.

Note: This is in a time period before full-text articles become available through electronic library databases — but some newspaper archives are still only available through microfilm or microfiche. Not sure what an electronic library database is? Read all about ’em here.

The label on the microfilm box? It reads “Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 13, 1909 thru Feb. 22, 1909,” which fits John’s inquiry. However, this drawer of microfilm is not organized very well, as one box of the Seattle Daily Times sits next to Farm Electrical Studies in the Pacific Northwest. But hey, with the fastest librarian in the West on your staff, who needs organization?!

John gets more help when he goes to the Hall of Records. The Archives Clerk (Robert Monroe), an older white male with glasses, thinning hair, and white beard and mustache, is quite tall and wears a dark shirt and grey blazer. He shows John property atlases of Seattle and helps explain the system of maps and legends.

Although the two male librarians in this film combine for very little screen time, they are helpful and efficient Information Providers — supplying information vital to John’s discovery of the film’s central mystery. It is also refreshing how the film showcases an effective research strategy. Remember, ask a librarian!


Sources used:


  • The Changeling. Dir. Peter Medak. Perf. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas. Image Entertainment, 1980.
%d bloggers like this: