Let them all talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!
I watched the movie Let Them All Talk (2020) this past December, when it was released on the streaming platform HBO Max. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film stars Meryl Streep as celebrated writer Alice Hughes; Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen as Alice’s university friends Susan and Roberta; Lucas Hedges as Alice’s nephew Tyler, and Gemma Chan as Alice’s new literary agent Karen. The bulk of the movie happens on a cruise ship — shot on location on the Queen Mary 2 — and there are more shenanigans to the plot than I have head space to tackle here, so here is a trailer that sums up the plot:
I know that Soderbergh likes to experiment with moviemaking techniques, but I didn’t realize until after I watched the film that the dialog was mostly improvised by the actors, which explains a LOT about the film’s odd pacing and how circular and repetitive the dialog felt. (Out of this celebrated cast, I think Gemma Chan and Dianne Wiest best handled that improvisational style.)
I also didn’t expect there to be a library scene in the movie! And OF COURSE when a library appears in a movie, I have to pause so I can take notes in the moment. Libraries and librarians really do pop up in all sorts of movies at the most unexpected moments.
Library scene #1: Introduction to the cruise ship library
At 34 minutes into this movie, Alice visits the cruise ship’s library. I chuckled that she went to check out which of her books were in the library’s collection. That is such a writer thing to do! (I should know. I’m married to one.) She also checks out what books the library has of another writer on the same voyage, Kelvin Kranz, who writes popular thrillers. And there is an entire row of Kranz’s books, which irks Alice, who is a writer who writes “serious” fiction — and who takes herself very seriously, indeed.
But of course, I was most interested in this AMAZING library, with its glossy wood bookshelves and inset lighting. It’s so sparkly, and it displays the books like jewels.
As you can see in the screenshots below, when Alice walks into the library, you can see a younger White woman, with dark hair pulled back and dressed in a uniform, standing behind a counter and handing books to another woman, a guest in a floral dress. And as the camera pans down the row of books as Alice looks for her own books, you can spy call number ranges (or thematic/genre indicators?) at the end caps of the rows.
And as Anna walks around another row of books, we see another cruise ship library worker, this time a younger Asian woman, again wearing a cruise ship uniform. She is wearing glasses and appears to be shelving books. Also, in the background along the wall, you can just spy a small gold sign that reads “Library.” (And you know I zoomed in on that sign to double-check, right? OF COURSE I did. 😉 )
This scene lasts only a couple of minutes. I reviewed the cast list, and there are no credits for these cruise ship library workers. We know that the movie was filmed on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, so were these two women — the White woman at the counter and the Asian woman shelving books — actual workers in this cruise ship library? At this point, my thoughts are leaning toward YES. (We will return to this question.)
Library scene #2: More views of the cruise ship library
At 51 minutes in, we revisit the cruise ship library, this time with literary agent Karen, who also tracks Alice Hughes’s books in the library collection! She takes down a copy of Hughes’s most famous book, You Always/You Never (which Karen wants Alice to write a sequel to), and she sits down in a comfy reading chair to (re)read it. Along the way, we get treated to more views of the library’s amenities, including the comfy seating area and several desks and tables with library computers or OPACs on them.
While Karen dives into the book, the writer Kelvin Kranz finds her, and it turns out Kelvin and Karen know each other quite well! The plot thickens… and I won’t spoil any more of the movie for you all. 😉
Library scene #3: Alice Hughes’s private library
The final library scene is right at the end of the film, practically the final shot. Alice’s nephew Tyler returns to his aunt’s home in New York, and we get a glimpse into her magical, old-fashioned library, with its mezzanine, fireplace, and rows and rows of books.
So we get TWO beautiful, gleaming, light-filled library spaces in this film — so delightfully unexpected!
Will the real cruise ship library please stand up?
So let’s return to that research quest to find out if we are seeing the actual workers in this cruise ship library.
The first step for me was to verify that the library we see onscreen was actually the library from the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship. So I searched online for any photos, and voilà, it is indeed the same library, as evidenced by this extensive slideshow of the Queen Mary 2’s library on this Cruise Critic site. Also, on slide 19 in this photo slideshow, you can see a chart of the color-coded call number system they use. (And props to the propmaster, if you scroll up to the close-ups of the book props for Alice Hughes and Kelvin Kranz, it looks like they used the same, or similar, color-coded call number stickers!! Such good attention to detail warms this librarian’s heart! ❤ )
“The library is physically connected to the ship’s bookshop. The librarian is stationed at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop. There is usually at least one other individual who works at this service point; that person handles most of the bookshop sales but also helps with library duties.”
Y’all, I squealed with glee when I realized we actually see this description of the library staffing model in the film! The woman at the counter is most likely the main librarian described “at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop,” which would also explain why that counter looked particularly busy. And the woman shelving books is likely the library assistant worker who “helps with library duties.” (But the two positions could be reversed.) There is no doubt in my mind now that we are seeing real-life cruise ship librarians in this movie!
Because the reel — and real-life! — librarians are seen onscreen for mere seconds and are there to help reinforce the library setting, they fulfill the role of Information Providers. Ultimately, the movie falls into the Class IV category, films with reel librarian cameos.
I also really enjoyed reading this article, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?,” published in The Washington Post in 2016, which was full of interesting tidbits. The Queen Mary 2 was ultimately rated the best ship library for traditionalists, as it has has the largest library at sea, with about 10,000 volumes! And I wholeheartedly agree with this summation:
“Staffed by full-time librarians, the collection holds a wide variety of materials, including bestsellers, classics and travel guides. Lush carpeting, leather sofas and armchairs, rich wood-and-glass shelves and semi-private Internet stations would be the envy of any public library.”
We got to see everything described in that article — the librarians, the collection with bestsellers and classics, the carpeting, the leather armchairs, the gleaming book shelves, AND the Internet stations — in the movie. Let Them All Talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!
Have you watched this movie? Have you ever been on a cruise ship that had an awesome library? Please share your thoughts and comments on this post. 🙂
Additional cruise ship librarian & library posts
Can’t get enough of ship librarians and libraries? Check out these additional posts!
In this 2011 post, ‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian, I delve into Bon Voyage! (1962), a Disney comedy about an American family on a “dream” vacation to Europe. In one scene, the father (Fred MacMurray) goes to the ship’s library and is greeted enthusiastically by the Ship’s Librarian, played by James Millhollin.
In this 2014 post, A ‘Libeled Lady’ and a library, I set sail on an ocean liner with William Powell in the 1936 film Libeled Lady. Although we never see a librarian on board in the film, Powell rings the ship’s steward for books on angling.
In the 2018 round-up about Private eyes in reel librarian films, I highlight the 1934 film, The Captain Hates the Sea, in which an alcoholic newspaperman boards a ship, hoping for a restful cruise and the chance to quit drinking and begin writing a book. Also on board is a private detective hoping to nab a criminal with a fortune in stolen bonds — and a librarian on vacation! However, this reel librarian may be using this occupation as a cover for illicit activities…
In this 2019 post about the 1960s Miss Marple movies, featuring her trusty sidekick and village librarian, Mr. Stringer, we get to see Miss Marple (played by Margaret Rutherford) visit the ship’s library in Murder Ahoy! (1964). In the ship’s library, Miss Marple finds a copy of a book that serves as a vital clue that proves Miss Marple’s theory about a murder — and she later uses this same book to catch the killer in the final act!
Burbank, Richard D. “The ‘Queen Mary 2’ Library.” Libraries & Culture, vol. 40, no. 4, 2005, pp. 547–561. JSTOR. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
Let Them All Talk. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges. HBO Films, 2020.
I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own.
The 2013 movie Beautiful Creatures — not to be confused with the 2000 British film of the same title, which starred Rachel Weisz — is an adaptation of the 2009 YA novel written by authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Richard LaGravenese, an American of Italian descent, both adapted the novel for the screen and directed the film. I first checked a DVD of this movie out from my library a few years ago, but the DVD was so scratched that I couldn’t finish the film or follow the plot very well, since the DVD kept getting stuck or skipping past entire scenes. I had a vague idea that Viola Davis played a librarian, but I couldn’t determine the extent of her role. Therefore, when I saw this movie come up in my local public library’s Hoopla streaming service recently, I pounced on the chance to rewatch it.
Here’s the description from Hoopla:
“Based on the New York Times best-selling young adult novel, this hauntingly intense coming-of-age story about two teenage star-crossed lovers in a small South Carolina town who uncover dark secrets about their families, their history and their town has been adapted by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King).”
And here’s the trailer:
My initial thoughts after finally being able to watch the movie all the way through? It is a frustratingly disappointing film, especially as you can see the level of talent involved and how it could have been so much better than the film ended up being. It really seems to be trying SO hard — too hard — to be an epic love story and build a foundation for the rest of the Caster Chronicles series. For me, the two leads — Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate and Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes — were just not compelling enough to carry the film, which was promoted as a “supernatural love story.” Ehrenreich seemed to be over-acting, while Englert seemed to be going for mysterious but landed on sullen. Also, having grown up in the American South myself (in the eastern side of Texas, which has a different kind of accent from other parts of Texas, let alone other parts of the South!), it grates on my nerves when each actor speaks with a different kind of Southern accent.
Viola Davis, who gets 4th billing in the cast list, does indeed play a librarian — and a reel librarian of color, as Davis is a Black American actress — and her role as Amma is VERY significant to this movie’s plot. Viola Davis always elevates each and every movie she chooses to invest her time and energy in, and in my opinion, she is far and away the best thing in this movie. Essentially, she is the only reason I would recommend watching Beautiful Creatures (2013), so I’m going to focus on her role in this post. Yes, I am biased in my love of Viola Davis, as well as in my love for librarians. #NoRegrets
There is no possible way I can adequately explain all the details and different relationships and characters relating to this book and the series. To get the gist and familiarize yourself with the main characters, I recommend visiting the write-ups on Wikipedia about the book and the movie version. And to delve into Amma’s reel librarian role, which is integrated throughout the entire film from beginning to end, I have to reveal major plot secrets.
You have been alerted to major spoilers. Let’s continue, shall we? 😉
A reel librarian’s role change
I have not read the original source novel, so I was unfamiliar with the world and characters of this series. In my prior post, I mentioned that Viola Davis’s role as Amma had been changed from a maid to a librarian, but it’s more complicated than that! It’s actually a merging of two different characters from the book:
Amarie “Amma” Treadeau: A grandmotherly figure to Ethan, as she was Ethan’s nanny and the family’s cook and maid, as well as a Seer who can communicate with her ancestors
Marian Ashcroft: The public librarian librarian (and librarian of the secret Caster libraries), as well as the best friend of Ethan’s late mother
The cinematic history of Black actors playing maids and other domestic servants is really complicated and sensitive, because it connects to and reflects the very real history of slavery in the U.S. and the painfully enduring effects of systemic racism. This is a subject for a book (e.g. A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation by Greg Garrett, 2020), but below are quotes from two Oscar-winning Black actresses that demonstrate the differences (and progression?) of perspectives on this issue this past century.
Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1939 when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, faced criticism from the Black community, including the NAACP, for playing servant roles. McDaniel reportedly responded, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one” (as qtd. in Garrett, p. 53).
Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2016 for her role as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences. After starring in 2011’s The Help in the Oscar-nominated role of Aibileen Clark, Viola Davis had “no intention of playing a domestic worker ever again” (Johnson). In a 2013 interview, Davis said she “was glad that the maid aspect of Amma was dropped from the film adaption.” Davis went on to say, “This is a total re-imagining of the character, and I like it. I’m going to be confident and bold and say I like it because […] this is 2013, and I think that when black people are woven into the lives of characters in 2013, then I think they play other roles than maids. I think that that needs to be explored” (Ford).
Atypical reel librarian
When I initially watch a film to analyze it for its portrayal of librarian(s), I always begin by jotting down notes as scenes unfold in chronological order (with a lot of pausing to get quotes correctly written down). That way, I get a sense of how important the librarian role is to the film as the plot progresses. And I often continue this basic structure in my analysis posts, where I detail each major scene with a librarian or library setting, and then sum up the purpose of the reel librarian role at the end. But that structure did not seem to make sense when I thought about how to put together this post. First of all, Amma is onscreen throughout the film in dozens of scenes. But most significantly, Viola Davis’s portrayal of Amma transcends easy characterization, as she is so multi-layered. As written, it makes sense that Amma is a more complicated character, as two characters in the book were merged together in this cinematic role. But Davis infuses Amma with much more depth; she has shared in several interviews that she did a lot of research about Black history and narratives for this role, and “Even if you didn’t see so much of it, it informed me, in a way” (Radish).
I argue that Amma’s role in this film is much more than that of an Information Provider character type. We are treated to so many sides to Amma’s character in this film that I believe this role falls into the Atypical character category, a(n imperfect) classification I use to denote portrayals that do not conform to type, i.e. characters with enough screen time to allow viewers to witness more fully rounded characterizations and glimpses of their personal life. Therefore, in this post, I will delve into Amma’s character and purpose through the different sides of her personality that we get to witness in this film.
Amma’s nurturing side
The first facet of Amma’s personality we see is her nurturing, maternal figure side. This makes sense, as it seems that Amma’s primary role in the source novel is to be a surrogate mother to Ethan, whose biological mother has passed away. In the film, she also shares that she promised Ethan’s mother that she would take care of him, and more importantly, that she wants to.
At 4 minutes into the film, we get our first visual introduction to Amma, as she walks into Ethan’s house and refills the refrigerator with groceries. She asks him, “Is that what we’re wearing our first day of school?” while bending down to kiss Ethan on the top of his head. She asks after his father; we never actually see Ethan’s father, who seems to have retreated from the world after his wife’s death. (Is this an early signifier of White privilege, that a White man is able to hide from the world and his responsibilities and trust that his wife’s friend, a Black woman, will take care of running his household and raising his son? Discuss.)
We also see how maternal Amma is to Lena. At 90 minutes into the film, Lena learns the disturbing truth of how to break the curse that’s been placed on her family for generations, and Amma pulls Lena in for a comforting embrace.
Amma: Lena, talk to me.
Lena: There’s only one way to break the curse. Genevieve [an ancestor] used the forbidden spell. To give life to the one she loved. To break the curse, the one that I love has to die.
Amma: Oh, God. What are you gonna do?
Lena [reflecting words Amma had said to her earlier]: I won’t hurt Ethan. Never. They’re only our words, Amma. They can’t explain everything. There are all kinds of ways someone you love can die.
In the next scene, we see the effects of Lena erasing Ethan’s memories of her and their love. Ethan wakes up to Amma, once again, refilling their refrigerator with groceries. As they talk, Amma realizes what Lena has done and that Ethan no longer remembers his relationship with Lena. This minute-long scene is a showcase for Davis’s acting skills. Her face freezes and then drops ever-so-slightly as we feel the devastation of her sadness, as well as Amma’s struggle to maintain her composure for Ethan’s sake. And in the next scene, Amma takes Ethan to church, again trying to comfort his soul — as well as her own.
At the very end of the film, Amma nurtures both Ethan and Lena. At 1 hour and 53 minutes into the film, Ethan is on his way out of town to tour colleges, but he stops off at the library to say good-bye to Amma, who is sitting at her desk behind the Circulation counter.
Amma: You all set?
Ethan: Yep. We should be in New York by Thursday, if we make good time. We’re gonna go stay with Link’s cousin in Brooklyn.
Amma: Come here. [They hug.]
Ethan: I’ll call you as soon as I get in.
Amma: You call whenever you can.
On his way out of the library, Ethan sees Lena, who is seated at a table with a stack of books, and strikes up a conversation about the poet Charles Bukowski that mirrors another conversation they had at the beginning of the movie — only it’s obvious that Ethan still doesn’t remember their past relationship. After Ethan leaves, Amma comes over and places a consoling hand on Lena’s shoulder. She then walks over to the front door and turns over the Closed sign, to provide them some privacy.
Amma’s protective/secretive side
Amma also is privy to secrets about the past, and she tries to protect and shield Ethan from knowledge that she feels could harm him.
For example, at 30 minutes into the film, Ethan wakes from another nightmare/vision, and he goes downstairs to their living room. There, he sees Amma sifting through a bookcase along one wall.
Amma notices a locket in his hand — which he found with Lena — and her face hardens.
Amma: Where’d you get that?
Ethan: I don’ t know.
Amma: Don’t lie to me.
Ethan: What’s wrong?
Amma: You listen to me. You go and bury that in Greenbrier and forget you ever found it.
Ethan: I never said I was in Greenbrier, Amma.
This scene ends with no resolution, but we learn that Amma knows more than she’s telling!
At 71 minutes into the film, we return to that same living room, this time after Ethan and Lena have gone out on a movie date and experience a disturbing vision from the past that plays out on the movie screen.
Back at Ethan’s home, Macon, Lena’s uncle, and Amma explain the backstory about the family curse and that Lena’s mother, Sarafine, is not dead but instead practices dark magic as a Dark Caster. Lena gets angry at Macon for telling her that her mother, Sarafine, had been dead. Amma interjects, both figuratively and physically.
Amma [to Lena]: Lena! Our words, our language, cannot explain all that there is. There are other ways someone can die to us.
Amma [to Ethan]: Sarafine’s using you. Macon’s right.
When Macon then gets mad at Ethan, Amma stands between them, in order to literally protect Ethan.
Amma’s no-nonsense side
I love that Amma also gets to show her no-nonsense side! She may be nurturing and protective, but she is no pushover. She does not suffer fools. In her calm, self-assured, no-nonsense way, she demands personal respect. Every time she calls out others on their disrespect, they immediately back down and apologize.
One example comes at 30 minutes into the film, at the beginning of that scene I first described above when Ethan wakes up and finds Amma shuffling their shelves of books.
Ethan: Oh Amma, what are you doing?
Amma: I’m looking for some books your mother had. I have to return them to the library.
Ethan then shouts at her, asking how he got back home. Amma blinks, and then calls him out.
Amma: Why are you shouting?
Ethan: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma in her role as Seer. Macon joins her in her ritual to call upon her ancestors.
Amma: Macon, no danger better come to that boy [Ethan] because of your kind.
Macon: Yeah well, then you keep him on a leash!
Amma: What happened at Greenbrier?
Macon: I don’t know. Lena was hysterical. Boy was unconscious. I brought him home, called you. You’re the seer. You tell ME what happened!
Amma: This is the sacred place of my ancestors, you hear? You want some answers, you show me some respect.
Macon: Yes. I apologize.
At 77 minutes into the film, Ethan and Amma are back in the Caster Library (a secret underground library), while Lena reads a secret book of spells. Seemingly bored, Ethan touches a book, which shocks him with electricity. Without skipping a beat or even looking up, Amma calls him out.
Amma: What part of ‘you cannot touch it if you are not a caster’ don’t you understand?
Like I said, Amma does not suffer fools. #TeamLibrarian
We witness Amma’s spiritual side through her role as Seer and her ability to communicate with her ancestors. From what I’ve read — again, I am not familiar myself with the book series — she can perform “Gullah magic,” and Gullah is the language of her ancestors. In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma preparing for the ritual, spreading out a blanket and taking things out of her large bag. Macon joins her, and we learn that Sarafine, Lena’s mother, is still around and causing trouble, and that Macon is trying to protect Lena.
First, we learn that Amma is receptive to dark Caster magic.
Amma: I felt something tonight. I’ve been feeling something every night since you brought that girl [Lena] here. […] So you bring darkness to this town. I can feel it like a hand twisting my insides.
Then we witness Amma’s ritual. She begins the ritual with offering of food to her ancestors.
Amma: Brought your favorites, Uncle Abner. Shrimp and grits. Fried oysters. And a coconut pie.
Macon: No wonder he’s no longer with us.
Amma: Pay no attention to him, Uncle.
Then, she takes off her outer layers of clothing, down to her tank top. It’s an intimate moment made even more intimate by seeing the scarred markings on her shoulders and back. (Does anyone recognize the style of markings? If so, please leave a comment and share!)
Amma: Uncle Abner, we are in need of your intercession. Along with Aunt Ida and Auntie May, I humbly call upon your spirits.
Macon: What are they saying?
Amma: Nothing yet.
Macon: Tell them they have to help us stop Sarafine.
Amma: Some things cannot be stopped.
During this scene, she also admonishes Macon and alludes to how he — the leader of Caster families who were former slave owners — has a fraught history with her ancestors, who were former slaves.
Amma: You know, it wouldn’t break your face to ask for some help instead of expecting it, like your family’s been doing with mine for too many years. Now, don’t you roll your eyes at me.
Amma calls to “Uncle Abner” in this scene, but I wondered how many generations of her ancestors she was calling to. I wasn’t the only one who wondered this! Here is an excerpt about this scene from a 2013 interview with BlackTree TV and reporter Jamaal Finkley.
Jamaal Finkley: One of the lines I found interesting is when you were in this scene with Jeremy Irons, and you’re talking about your ancestors. Do you think as a community, as a film community, that we do enough to celebrate our ancestors? I’m not sure if you was referring to the Gullah people or just slaves in general and that aspect, but in that scene, do you think that we could do more as an entertainment community to celebrate those people that are our ancestors?
Viola Davis: As Black people? […] Absolutely. When I did this role, one of the things I really researched was the past. Who we [Black people] were in the Civil War, who we were before we even came into America, and I went back to the Yoruba tribe. Actually read a memoir from a man who was born and raised on the plantation I was born on, Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, and I think those stories are so interesting, they’re so complicated. The human beings, the people that we were in the past, the people that we are now, is interesting.
You can view the rest of this interview with BlackTree TV below.
The spiritual side of Amma feels intrinsic to her character, and it is clear that Viola Davis took great care to root that spiritual side of her character in the traditions and stories of African and Black American culture.
The final side we get to see of Amma is her professional side as a librarian. Although we learned early on that Amma is a librarian — Ethan reveals this 26 minutes into the film, when he shares that “maybe I’ll take over the library from Amma” — we do not actually SEE Amma in a library until the 80-minute marker, over halfway through the 124-minute movie. I kind of like that we get to see other facets of Amma’s character before we see her in her professional library setting. And we soon get double the library scenes!
After Sarafine reveals herself to Ethan — one minor spoiler I will not completely reveal — Ethan takes Lena to the Gatlin Public Library. Through the front windows, we can spy Amma under a “Circulation Desk” sign. Amma comes to the front door, where we can also see the library’s open hours.
Ethan: Amma, we need your help.
Amma: Why come to me?
Lena: The way you talked about the locket, about the curse. Excuse me, Miss Amma, but I think you know more than you’re saying.
Ethan: Please, Amma.
Amma: This isn’t the place you’re gonna find anything you need. Meet me in the back.
They go down to the basement, where she opens a steel door. She opens a panel, which reveals an intricate lock, and she has a key. She then shares with them the secret Caster library and its history.
Ethan: This must run under the whole town.
Amma: The whole country. Gatlin is like the capital of Caster America. It used to be under Washington, D.C., until Nancy Reagan made them move. She was the only mortal they were ever scared of.
They go down a flight of stairs to a large room with books along the back wall and tables. Amma then reveals her role as Keeper of the Caster Library.
Ethan: Amma, why didn’t you tell us about this?
Amma: A Keeper has to be asked.
Lena: A Keeper, as in you’re a …
Amma: The Caster Library has been the responsibility of seers like me for generations. [She glides her hand along a book podium.] Something I had no choice about either, by the way. And these books hold the histories of the casters from around the world, the laws that keep balance between light and dark.
Ethan reaches out to touch a book. Amma educates him about manners (“Hey! Get away from that!“), and continues to educate us all about forbidden spells.
Amma: Macon comes here every day and reads every book he can for the forbidden spell.
Lena: He found nothing?
Amma: But you can do it. God gives us what we can handle, even if we don’t believe it ourselves. Close your eyes. See with your mind what you’re looking for, as if you’ve already found it.
Another door opens and reveals a room containing a locked book on a pedestal. Once again, Viola Davis’s acting skills are on display, as she reveals a tiny, satisfied smile, as if to show to the viewer that Lena has passed a secret test.
Amma: I knew it. Book of Moons. It’s the most powerful book of the Otherworld. It’s as alive as you or me. Strongest of every spell, good and bad.
Lena: Did Macon look through it?
Amma: No, he couldn’t. The book chooses who reads it. Its law is “like attracts like.” […] It won’t reveal itself so easy. A curse this dark takes its time showing itself. The dark will test you.
Amma leads Ethan away, and Lena stays with the book, which slowly reveals itself to her. Time for a research and reading montage!
It’s a treat that we get to see Amma be a professional in not one, but TWO, libraries. We see her professional work space in the public library, and we get to see her work with scrolls and old tomes in the Caster library. In the scene where she chides Ethan for touching a book even though he’s not a caster, she continues to impart wisdom as Ethan asks her questions.
Ethan: Were there casters in the Civil War?
Amma: Casters have been fighting alongside mortals for centuries, every war, every side. Just ‘cause they’re supernatural don’t make them any smarter.
Ethan: You know, what I can’t figure, is you go to church every Sunday? How do you believe in all this and still believe in God?
Amma: God created all things, didn’t he? It’s only men that go and decide which ones are mistakes.
It’s clear Amma takes pride in her role as Keeper. I just can’t help thinking how difficult it must be for her to compartmentalize her dual roles as librarian. One of those roles is very public, while she has to keep secret her other role as the Keeper of the Caster library.
And that title, “Keeper” is revealing, isn’t it? It reinforces the (stereotypical) role of librarians as literal gatekeepers, shielding resources and knowledge from anyone until they are deemed worthy. And although Amma is proud of her role as Keeper, it is also clear that she works within a system that she is unable to change. (Is this yet another glimpse into her identity as a Black woman working within an oppressive and rigid system? Discuss.)
Amma’s style roots
I’ve been sharing screenshots of Amma throughout this post, and hopefully, you’ve been enjoying her AMAZING style. I love that her hairstyle, clothing, and jewelry all reflect her Black and African identity and culture. Amma comes across as very rooted in her personal identity, and that her culture — and her personal expression of that culture — help ground her. She experiments with patterns and colors, and her jewelry is always front-and-center. Amma is no wallflower reel librarian. As a Black woman in a South Carolina town that seems mostly full of White people (except at church), there’s no way she could visually blend in, even if she wanted to. And it’s clear she doesn’t want to blend in; rather, she seems to radiate joy and self-confidence in her personal appearance. I found myself looking for Amma in every scene, eagerly anticipating what amazing jewelry or pattern-mixing combination she would wear next. I will definitely have to update my “stylish reel librarians” posts, as Amma needs to be at the top of the list!
I also looked for interviews and info about the costume design choices. In this EW.com article, I learned that costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, who is Jewish, designed all the costumes and jewelry in the film. Here’s what he shared about designing Amma’s memorable style:
“Amma is a very spiritual person, so we decided that her African roots are seen in her spiritual longings and reflected in her wardrobe. There’s a good deal of color and the jewelry that she wears is very heavy and iconic,” says Kurland, who notes that most of the jewelry worn by Davis’ character jewelry is from a collection of pieces that he created. “The other pieces are from places like Morocco, Africa and Tibet. There’s a certain spirituality that I wanted to infuse into her look while also showing that she’s a woman of style.”
However, the movie’s lighting was so dim most of the time that I couldn’t properly see what Amma was wearing! I found the lighting too dark overall — I guess they were going for moody? — and I’ve read before about how many cinematographers do not get properly trained on the best ways to light Black skin. I don’t know if that’s the case here — the film’s cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, is an award-winning French cinematographer who has worked with many directors, including with Denzel Washington when he directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) — but I thought that the lighting choices in Beautiful Creatures did not serve to highlight Viola Davis and her inner (and outer) luminosity.
To sum up, although I did not particularly like the film overall, I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own. There’s so much to unpack in this role and in Davis’s performance that I’m sure I have only scratched the surface. Have you also seen Beautiful Creatures(2013)? What did you think of the dual-librarian role of Amma? Have you read the original source novel or series? Please leave a comment and share!
Beautiful Creatures. Dir. Richard LaGravenese. Perf. Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson. Summit, 2013. Based on the 2009 novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
“Books are my life now. Don’t you dare laugh. In two years I put together one of the best special collection departments in the country.”
Since baseball — and all other sports — have been cancelled or delayed due to the global coronavirus pandemic, how about reliving all the spring training, Opening Day, and pennant-chasing fun in the 1989 film Major League? This classic comedy also happens to boast a memorable reel librarian character, Lynn (Rene Russo).
I (re)watched this movie from my personal copy of the “Wild Thing Edition” DVD — boasting astroturf, as seen in the image gallery below! — but you can also catch this movie on Amazon Prime. (It is sometimes available on Prime for free, but it’s also always available for a low-cost rental fee.)
Note: All the image galleries below display the images in circles. Just click on any image to view it larger in a new tab/window. (Did I display them in circles so that they would evoke baseballs? OF COURSE. 😉 )
If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen Major League, here’s the basic plot: The new owner of the Cleveland Indians purposefully puts together a team of bad players in order to sell the franchise and move to Florida. When the players find out, they start winning to spite her. Tom Berenger stars as Jake Taylor, the catcher, who also tries to woo back his ex-wife, Lynn (Rene Russo). The film also co-stars Charlie Sheen as “Wild Thing” pitcher Ricky Vaughn, Corbin Bernsen as Roger Dorn, and Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes. Bob Uecker steals all the bases — and the movie! — as radio commentator Harry Doyle.
So what does a movie about major league baseball have to do reel librarians? Let’s play ball and see, shall we?! 😉
First base: Off and running with a reel librarian reunion
Twenty-eight minutes into the film, Jake Taylor has made it to the final team with teammates Willie and Wild Thing, and they are celebrating at a fancy restaurant. He spies his ex-wife, Lynn, at the same restaurant with another man. She’s all dressed up and sexy, in an off-the-shoulder black dress and ’80s-tastic hair bow.
He calls her on the restaurant’s concierage phone, and here’s an excerpt from their “Meet Cute” phone conversation:
Jake: Hello, Lynn. It’s Jake.
Lynn: Jake? Jake Taylor? How’d you know I was here?
Jake: Just a hunch. I took you there when you got your master’s degree, remember? I figured you’re wearing that black dress with the red sash.
Lynn: How’d you know that? I didn’t even have this dress when — [she spies him across the room on another phone]
Jake: You’re still a stunner.
We don’t actually learn yet that she’s a librarian, but here’s what we do learn about Lynn, evident even from this short exchange:
She has a master’s degree
She is intelligent
She has a modern fashion sense (remember, it’s the ’80s!)
She exhibits a more traditional sense of femininity (long hair, off-the-shoulder and body-skimming dress, makeup)
She still has mad chemistry with her ex-husband
Lynn also says to Jake that her “life is different from when you knew me” and finally gives a phone number to Jake in order to end the conversation. This introductory scene lasts a total of 3 minutes.
Second base: A curveball and visit to a special collections library
At 39 minutes into the film, Jake calls Lynn’s number… which goes to a sheet metal company! Curveball alert — she gave him a fake number!
But that doesn’t deter Jake, because we next see him arriving at the library Lynn works at. He walks up to a counter, where Lynn is leaning and talking to another librarian, a snow-haired older white woman. We also get a glimpse of an older black man behind the desk, who looks to be filing. Later, at another counter in the library, we also encounter three more library staff workers: An older white man, an older white woman in a pussy bow blouse, and a younger white man with suspenders and glasses. None of these additional reel librarian workers get credits in the cast list. Also, please note that this library scene is the only time we see Lynn wearing glasses.
They then embark on a long-and-winding conversation, as they also weave in and about different parts of the library on their way to her office. I will not record every part of their conversation, but I will highlight excerpts with major bits of information we learn about Lynn, her work, and their relationship.
Lynn’s past and present:
In this exchange, we learn about Lynn’s past as a world-class athlete, and how successful she is in her chosen career as a special collections librarian.
Lynn: [W]e don’t have anything in common. Sometimes I wonder if we ever did.
Jake: What are you talking about? We were both athletes, world-class, hot for each other. What more could we have in common?
Lynn: I stopped being an athlete three years ago, Jake. Books are my life now. Don’t you dare laugh. In two years I put together one of the best special collection departments in the country.
Lynn’s reading recommendations:
Note: This scrap of conversation will prove important in later scenes!
Jake: What is this? You’re still sore I never read Moby Dick?
Lynn: You never read anything I asked you to.
Jake: All right, I’ll check it out now. Is this the Whales section?
Lynn stands up for herself:
In this exchange, we learn more about their past relationship, and the kind of behavior that Lynn is not going to tolerate anymore from Jake.
Lynn: I haven’t seen you in three years. You never even wrote me a letter.
Jake: I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t exactly proud of my situation. Come on now, you never thought about me at all while I was gone?
Lynn: Yeah, Jake, not so loud.
Jake: What about the three nights we spent on the beach in Veracruz? You ever have nights like that with Mr. Briefcase?
Lynn: What about the night you had in Detroit with Miss Fuel Injection?
Jake: Well, what was I supposed to do? She bet me 50 bucks she had a better body than you, and I had to defend your honor.
Lynn: Oh, what a bunch of bullshit. I have a much better body than she does!
Jake: She’s right.
This last outburst — when Lynn reaches her limit and yells at Jake in the library — causes a strong reaction from patrons in the library. Amusing that a librarian would have a good body, or rather, be proud of her own body…? Hmmm… 😦
Embarrassed, Lynn smiles ruefully and crosses her chest with the stack of folders in her hands. Lynn then ends the conversation, firmly closing the door to her office. Unwittingly, she also sets up a personal challenge for Jake, to finally stop being “the little boy who wouldn’t grow up.”
This library scene — the only scene actually set in an actual library — lasts 3 minutes. We get lots of info, and we follow Lynn on a whirlwind tour of the library, which seems to boast Gothic architectural details. Every space looks to be filled with patrons! And bonus, when Lynn passes through an open doorway (in the third screenshot below), we get a quick glimpse of a sign that reads “Special Collections.” Love that they included that detail!
Lynn’s lasting influence:
Remember when I mentioned how Lynn’s reading recommendations — as well as her parting shot at Jake to grow up — would be important? We get our first payoff a few minutes after this library scene, when Jake is reading the “Classic Comics” version of Moby Dick. He also turns down the opportunity to go to a club because “I got some reading to do.”
Continuing in this aside, a little over an hour into the film, Jake has gotten the entire team interested in reading the Classic Comics series! They highlight the graphic novel versions of Crime and Punishment, Song of Hiawatha, and The Deerslayer. Bless. ❤
Third base: A reel librarian at play
Desperate to reconnect with Lynn, Jake follows her home one night from the library. While I do NOT condone this kind of stalking behavior, we do get treated to a glimpse of Lynn’s specialty license plate, which reads… wait for it…
Isn’t that the best?!!!
However, when Jake finally musters up the courage to talk to Lynn on what he assumes is her home turf, he finds out… she’s at her fiance’s apartment, and they’re in the middle of a dinner party.
Jake then makes small talk with the guests, and we get to find out more about their backstory and relationship, including that:
Jake “wanted to discuss a couple of books with Lynn.”
Lynn reveals that Jake “was one of the best in baseball before he had problems with his knees.”
Jake wants to eventually move to Hawaii and “have a couple of kids who grow up to be Olympic champions,” particularly in “swimming, the 200-meter individual medley.”
Lynn was an “alternate on the ’80 Olympic team” in the 200-meter individual medley.
This informative scene lasts 6 minutes.
Going beyond third base with a reel librarian
By this time, we’re rooting for Jake and Lynn to get back together… and the movie does not disappoint! At 1 hour into the film, Jake spies Lynn at a baseball game… and you probably guessed it… follows her back home. Again, I do NOT support this kind of stalking behavior, but we do get to see this reel librarian’s apartment! Admittedly, it’s in a state of packing, as Lynn reveals she’s getting married soon. They have an in-depth conversation, going back over old wounds and feelings — including more instances of Jake’s cheating.
Although they have hurt each other in the past, their chemistry is undeniable, and they find themselves back in each other’s arms. (I laughed out loud when Lynn admits “We were always good at this,” as they head off to her bedroom. A reel librarian who enjoys sex… AMAZING!)
I also enjoyed that Lynn’s preferred foreplay involves BOOKS. Behold:
Jake: I guess this is our last hurrah, then.
Lynn: Yeah, I guess so. Hey, did you ever read Moby Dick?
Jake: Cover to cover, babe. When’s the wedding?
Lynn: You know, you could have read Plot Outlines of 101 Great Novels.
Lynn: At any library. [They kiss.] Who saved Ishmael at the end?
Jake: Huh? Uh, nobody… It was Queequoc’s, Queequeg’s coffin.
We also get to see Lynn’s bedroom set (flowery, pastel, and wicker), as Jake wakes up the next morning alone in her bed. This sexy scene lasts a total of 5 minutes.
Librarian’s note: Y’all knew that I was going to look up the very specific book title she mentioned in this scene, Plot Outlines of 101 Great Novels, right?! This is the work she says would be available in any library, except… there is no work with that exact title in WorldCat (an online card catalog of library collections around the world). There are some reference works with similar titles, including Plot Outlines of 100 Famous Novels, published by Barnes & Noble. My guess, however, is that the writers were thinking of a reference series like Masterplots, published by Salem Press for over 60 years, which IS a very well-known reference book series that summarizes the plots of significant works of literature and films. You’re welcome for this aside. 😉
Home run with a reel librarian
As the Cleveland Indians chase a pennant, we finish the film with a nail-biting game against their longtime nemesis, the New York Yankees. After an amazing game — no matter how many times I watch this film, I’m still at the edge of my seat rooting for the ragtag Cleveland team to win! — Jake spies Lynn in the stands.
She raises up her left hand, to show that she wears no wedding ring. They kiss, and Jake carries her to the field to celebrate with the rest of his teammates. I love that a reel librarian is featured in the final shot of this classic baseball comedy! Home run for the Cleveland Indians AND the reel librarian!
An unconventional reel librarian portrayal
Lynn in Major League (1989) is the only example I’ve been able to find so far of a reel librarian who is also an athlete. Although winding up with 6th billing, she makes a big impact on the overall motivations and (off-field) actions of the characters. Essentially, Rene Russo plays the main romantic lead in the film, and, like I mentioned above, Lynn also gets to be in the film’s final shot, as Jake includes her in the team’s celebration on the field.
Therefore, I have classified Lynn Wells in the Class II category of reel librarian films, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.
Lynn Wells is also an atypical portrayal of a librarian and doesn’t fall easily into established character types. Hallmarks of atypical portrayals include:
portrayals go beyond stereotypical constraints
satisfied in their chosen profession
modern clothing and fashion sense
well-rounded characters with scenes and backstory that reveal their homes, personal spaces, and personal history
We get to witness all those points in Rene Russo’s turn as special collections librarian Lynn Wells, and I have always personally enjoyed this reel librarian character and portrayal. She’s smart, sassy, and proud of both her past life as an athlete as well as her current life as a professional librarian. A winning combo!
Can’t get enough of this memorable reel librarian? Although this is the first in-depth analysis post for Major League (1989), I have spotlighted this film in prior posts, including:
Librarians should get hazard pay for the very real dangers that come with the job.
The sure-to-be-a-smash-hit 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.
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?
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.
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?!”
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
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.
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!
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
Wong then declares, “No one sets foot in this sanctum. No one.“
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.)
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.”
“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.
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.
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!
Doctor Strange. Dir. Scott Derrickson. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2016.
As the new version of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella as the title character, opened to scathing reviews this past week, I noticed a trend of reviewers referencing the 1999 version of the film, and several critics urging people to just go and rewatch the 1999 version of The Mummy instead of watching the new version. As the 1999 version also happens to star a reel librarian in a lead role (Rachel Weisz as Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan, a librarian and Egyptologist), I thought it a perfect opportunity to follow their advice!
Snippets from current reviews of the new version of The Mummy which reference the 1999 version:
“But alas, The Mummy turns out to be a drab, nonsensical affair that squanders its potential for humor, atmosphere, and sweep — qualities that the much-maligned, Fraser-starring 1999 Mummy had in droves.” (from The Village Voice)
“No one over the age of 10 ever confused them [Universal’s film archive of monsters] with good movies, but the “Mummy” franchise that kicked off in 1999 had a joyously sinister and farfetched eye-candy pizzazz.” (from Variety)
“[I]f you want to watch a fun Mummy movie this weekend, the newest option isn’t your safest bet.” (from Rotten Tomatoes)
And finally, the review from Vox, which sums up its review of the new version with this takeaway:
“The Mummy is playing nationwide. You would be better off watching the 1999 version, and I don’t even like that movie.“
But I do!
I still find The Mummy (1999) a fun adventure film, tongue firmly in cheek, and winking at its own spectacle; I agree with IndieWire, which called it “enduringly delightful.” I must admit two biases up front: (1) I have always been a fan of genre films that commit unabashedly to their genres, like the 1999 version does (not so much the sequels), and (2) I love films with meaty reel librarian roles. Because OF COURSE. Especially reel librarians who kick ass onscreen and win at camel races. 😉
Oh, and SPOILERS.
If you need a reminder of the plot, here’s a trailer for the 1999 version:
In this adventure, Egyptian priest Imhotep is accidentally brought back to life. Egyptology librarian Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), her brother (John Hannah), and an American soldier (Brendan Fraser) join forces to stop Imhotep.
Here’s a look at my original notes from when I first analyzed the film (and yes, I initially misspelled Rachel Weisz’s name in those notes, mea culpa):
I could go in many different directions in analyzing this film, but I’m going to stay in the direction these early notes took me: focusing on Evie’s reel librarian role and how that role evolved. Even in this one snapshot from my notes, you can see my scrawled notes describing her character and how Evie’s character evolves on screen:
“quiet at first but becomes forceful by end”
“wants to move up”
Evie is one of the lead characters of the film, and her character arc fulfills the role of Liberated Librarians. Let’s check off the hallmarks of a Liberated Librarian that connect and describe Evie’s character and role in the film:
A naïve, inexperienced woman who discovers herself—and what she’s capable of—in face of an adventure/disaster
Her “liberation” is intertwined with the major plot — the discoveries of the “Book of the Dead” and the “Book of Amun-Ra” mirror her own self-discovery
Young in age
Clothing more conservative and buttoned-up at first
Undergoes a change of appearance, dressing more feminine and more exotic (and her hair comes down from its bun!)
The scene in which we meet Evie comes early in the film, after the introduction that sets up Imhotep’s backstory. The library scene takes place in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt, and Evie is on a tall ladder and shelving books. While trying to take a shortcut to shelve a wayward title, she accidentally topples all the bookcases in the library. (One of the lessons learned in this film? Don’t take shortcuts while shelving books!) Also, during the commentary of this scene on the DVD, director Stephen Sommers reveals that they got this scene in one take!
As director Sommers also states on the DVD commentary:
“We learn everything we need to know about Evie and her backstory without it seeming like lame exposition.”
From her light sparring with the museum director, as seen in the clip above, we also learn this crucial characteristic at the heart of this reel librarian character: She stands up for herself when others directly challenge her. However else she changes, and her story arc evolves, this remains true. She also knows her own intelligence, and that her intelligence is an asset.
“I am proud of what I am. I am a librarian.”
One of the major ways that Evie’s character breaks from the Liberated Librarian character type is that unlike most Liberated Librarians, Evie is committed to and proud of her profession.
This is most apparent in the (in)famous scene around the campfire in which Evie is inebriated, as seen in the clip below. (I also highlighted this scene and quote in a previous Quotable Librarian post.)
“Look, I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure seeker, or a gun fighter… But I am proud of what I am. I… am a librarian!”
However much I love this rallying cry — “I am a librarian!” — I do think she undersells herself in this moment. She has already proven onscreen that she is indeed an explorer and an adventurer, and she shot a gun in a skirmish just minutes before this campfire scene. It is true, however, that it is her brother (played by the cheeky John Hannah) who is the treasure seeker.
The power of reading:
Evie also underestimates the power of reading. And from a librarian, too — for shame! But it sets the rest of the movie in motion, and serves as another way to highlight how she evolves over the course of the film.
In another campfire scene, after she has discovered the “Book of the Dead,” she figures out how to open the book and starts to read from it.
“It’s just a book. No harm ever came from reading a book.”
Yeah… except by doing so, she conjures up the mummy. (Next time, maybe try reading silently first.) The other Egyptologist, played by veteran Australian actor Jonathan Hyde, knows the danger, but he is too late in shouting, “No! You must not read from the book!“
In a word, “Oops.”
This is a cautionary tale enveloped within an adventure story. Reading = Power.
Reel librarian hero:
The hero in the story who got all the attention at the time was Brendan Fraser as American soldier Rick O’Connell. But the real hero in this story, in my opinion, is Evie.
Here’s evidence from the film to back that up:
Evie saves Rick from hanging in an Egyptian prison by negotiating his release — and setting the plot in motion to find Hamunaptra, the city of the dead
She saves Rick’s life again on the boat, by pulling him aside from a spray of bullets (this is a clever bit, as she sees the pattern of gunshots along the wall and anticipates that Rick is in the way — demonstrating that she’s not just book smart!)
She beats Rick at camel racing
She figures out the solution to reverse the curse is to find the Book of Amun-Ra AND figures out where the Book of Amun-Ra is buried
Evie sacrifices herself to Imhotep in order to save her friends
She helps her brother translate the Book of Amun-Ra while SHE HERSELF is fighting off a mummy — thinking in action!
She helps make Imhotep mortal so that Rick can finish him off
Evie is the one who (accidentally) conjured the curse, so following standard hero-story arcs, she therefore has to be the one to figure out how to solve it. And she does. She comes through stronger in the end, further highlighting her intelligence and resilience.
However, Evie is never called a hero in this story by others. Instead, there are a variety of phrases and terms, often unflattering, that other characters use to describe Evie, including:
“Compared to you, the other plagues were a joy”
“damsel in distress”
“not a total loss”
But instead of dwelling on those less-than-flattering descriptions, let’s instead focus on appreciating Evie and the actress who first brought her to life in The Mummy (1999):
When King Tutankhamen’s tomb was found on November 4, 1922, the person in charge was George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Along with him was his daughter, Lady Evelyn Carnarvon. Rachel Weisz’s character is named Evelyn Carnahan. Originally, her character was meant to be Evelyn Carnarvon. She and her brother were to be the children of the “cursed” Lord Carnarvon. The only evidence of this left in the film is in the line where Evelyn tells O’Connell that her father was a “very, very famous explorer”. The Mummy novelization goes into a bit more detail on her back story.
Amazing! Here’s a picture of Lady Evelyn Carnarvon with her father at King Tut’s tomb in 1922:
You can see more pics and read more about the real-life inspiration for Evie’s character here on this site.