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 (slideshow of tweet screenshots archived from my now-inactive Reel Librarians Twitter account):
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:
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.)
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.)
Peter hands her the token, and we get a closeup of the librarian picking it up.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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” 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 terms?)
- “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.
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:
- ‘Just Cause’ to re-examine a Latina newspaper archivist portrayal (Oct. 2021)
- ‘The Forgotten’ librarian (July 2020)
- Reel librarian cameo in ‘A Simple Favor’ (2018) (Nov. 2019)
- Law librarian sighting in ‘The Pelican Brief’ (July 2019)
- First impressions: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018) (Nov. 2018)
- A variety of research scenes in ‘Double Jeopardy’ (Oct. 2018)
- Reel archivist in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (Aug. 2018)
- Reader poll winner write-up, Fall 2017: ‘Possession’ (Nov. 2017)
- An ‘abandon’-ed reel librarian (Oct. 2017)
- ‘Spotlight’-ing a news library (May 2016)
- Amityville horrors in ‘The Amityville Horror’ and ‘Amityville II’ (Oct. 2015)
- ‘WarGames’ and research (Dec. 2014)
- ‘South Street’ librarian (Sept. 2014)
- A tale of seven shushes in ‘City Slickers II’ (Jan. 2012)
- The fastest librarian in the West, as seen in ‘The Changeling’ (Nov. 2011)
- ‘Killer Movie,’ scary librarian (Oct. 2011)
- Clark, Jason. “Watch Norm Lewis as Broadway’s first African-American ‘Phantom’.” Entertainment Weekly, 20 Aug. 2014.
- Meyncke, Amanda Mae. “‘Winter’s Tale’ Review: The Worst Movie Ever Made Can’t Even Touch This.” Pajiba, 19 Feb. 2014.
- “Microform” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- “Norm Lewis” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- Winter’s Tale. Dir. Akiva Goldsman. Perf. Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, and Jennifer Connelly. Adapted from Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel.
- “Winter’s Tale (film)” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- “Winter’s Tale (novel)” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- U., Jen. “Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.” Pajiba, 9 Nov. 2009.