It’s gotta hurt to witness your precious tape library go berserk on you.
The 1983 film Brainstorm was Natalie Wood’s last film, and quite a strange one at that. It’s a hard plot to describe, so I’m going to trust in IMDb to sum it up thusly:
Brilliant researchers Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) have developed a system of recording and playing back actual experiences of people. Once the capability of tapping into “higher brain functions” is added in, and you can literally jump into someone else’s head and play back recordings of what he or she was thinking, feeling, seeing, etc., at the time of the recording, the applications for the project quickly spiral out of control.
The plot reads like virtual reality on acid — an intriguing idea, but it’s like the idea was 20+ years ahead of what visual effects technology could realistically pull off at the time. The movie just feels very ’80s, and therefore, has not aged well. Natalie Wood plays Michael’s estranged wife, Karen, and a product designer for the research company her husband works for. It also doesn’t help that Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken have little chemistry as a couple.
So, where does a librarian fit into all this? Admittedly, not very well. There are 3 characters listed in the credits as follows:
Jimmy Casino as Tape Library Technician
May Raymond Boss as Tape Library Woman
Clay Boss as Tape Library Man
About an hour and 15 minutes into the film, Michael has been banned from the premises and is trying to hack his way into “Project Brainstorm” and the online tape library. Of course, the higher-ups at the research laboratory catch on to this but allow Michael to think he’s getting away with it. They give the Tape Library Technician the go-ahead to load the “Project Brainstorm” tape. They call him “Jimmy,” so I’m making an educated guess that he’s the Tape Library Technician, although he’s dressed more like a security guard in his drab blue uniform (see below). But now that I think about it, he really is more like a guard than anything else. Sigh.
We then get treated to a look at the oh-so-sophisticated tape library and a close-up of the tape rolls that look like extra special Christmas ribbon (see below). Oooh, shiny! I personally get a kick out of all the warning labels haphazardly placed on the tape roll. DANGER. TOXIC. And another label that clearly states to NOT play the tape for a person. So much for the warning.
Toward the very end of the film, Michael and Karen work together to bring down the research facility and manage to cause the tape library to self-destruct (see below). That’s when the Tape Library Woman and Tape Library Man, dressed in white lab coats, get a few seconds on film. Alas, they are too late to save the tapes. Awwwww, so sad.
So the reel librarians in Brainstorm are really more akin to IT technicians, but I’m feeling in a generous mood. It’s gotta hurt to witness your precious tape library go berserk on you. So they join the other Information Providers in the Class IV category. I’m sure they will find some moral support in there. 😉
Brainstorm. Dir. Douglas Trumbull. Perf. Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson. MGM/UA, 1983.
The 2004 film Ella Enchanted, adapted from Gail Carson Levine’s book, is a delightful twist on the Cinderella tale. Winningly goofy, it features a sparkling Anne Hathaway as Ella; a, well, charming Hugh Dancy as Prince Charmont (“Char” to his friends); and a deliciously scheming turn by Cary Elwes as Char’s Uncle Edgar and regent of the kingdom.
The well-known plot hinges on Ella’s gift of obedience bestowed by a fairy godmother, Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox), whom Ella is trying to find in order to release this curse of a blessing. Almost an hour into the film, Char tells Edgar that he needs to take Ella to the Hall of Records, to try and find where her fairy godmother Lucinda is located. The camera than cuts to a young black woman, billed as the Hall of Records Attendant (Merrina Millsapp), slamming down a thick book on a table, releasing a cloud of dust.
The attendant, dressed in modest medieval garb, appears quite disinterested in Ella’s task. “Here’s the latest census. Names are listed first by location then species.” As she walks away, she rattles off a “Good luck” with a dismissive flip of her hand. Although more of an archives clerk than an actual public services librarian — perhaps this explains her lack of customer service? — she serves the basic function of a reel librarian.
Due to the incompetence of Ella’s magical aunt, one of Ella’s sidekicks, Benny (Jimi Mistry), has been accidentally stuck in a book for years. Benny, therefore, is right beside her in the Hall of Records (his book, the one that looks more like a frame, is propped up in the screenshot above). He, too, grimaces at the sight of the massive volume. “Look at the size of that thing!” And as Ella heaves the book open, she sighs, “Lucinda, I hope you’re in here.”
The camera than spirals up, giving us a bird’s eye view of the messy table in the Hall of Records (see above). The reel librarian will certainly be of no help, and this camera trick underscores just how alone Ella is in this seemingly hopeless task.
A few minutes later, after a brief scene full of Edgar’s evil scheming, we return to Ella slumped in a chair in the Hall of Records. “I can’t find anything in any of these books,” she laments, banging her head on the book. “I don’t know where else to look.” Because asking the librarian is obviously not an option!
Finally, Ella spies a clue in the book in which her friend Benny is enspelled — NOT in one of the library books, I might add — and figures out how to find Lucinda. But alas! Edgar comes into the room and blocks her way, sneering, “I hope you’ve found everything to your satisfaction?” Due to the total lack of help or interest from the reel librarian, I would have answered with a definitive NO! But Ella is more polite than I am. 😉 Then Edgar tests Ella’s secret and sends her out in order to kill Char. Fortunately, Edgar doesn’t notice Benny stuck in the book, who has overheard the entire evil plot.
A few minutes later, the archives clerk walks back into the library — sighing at the all the mess, of course — and discovers the book of Ella’s friend (see above). However, Benny can only reveal himself to certain people, so the reel librarian sees only empty pages. Heaving another big sigh, she immediately dumps Benny and his book into the “recycling parchment” bin. Sigh. Thank goodness, Ella’s other sidekicks find Benny in the trash and recycling center outside the castle the next morning. So it’s a relief that the actions — or rather, inactions? — of this disinterested Information Provider did help advance the plot after all.
Ella Enchanted. Dir. Tommy O’Haver. Perf. Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes. Miramax, 2004.
This reel librarian does NOT go gently into that good night.
First things first: No, I have not read the books yet. Second: The trilogy is on my reading list, I promise. And third: I also plan on watching the original Swedish film adaptations starring Noomi Rapace. So this will not be a compare-and-contrast post.
Ok, now that’s all cleared up. The hubby and I caught this 2011 American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on our On Demand listings, and we were definitely in the right mood for this dark tale. The movie is tense and visually stunning — David Fincher films are never anything less than well done — and I found Rooney Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander riveting. I simply couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was onscreen (and considering the allure of Daniel Craig and his covetous wardrobe, that’s saying something). The only thing that really irritated me about the film (other than a few plot holes, or rather, leaps, that I’m sure are better explained in the book) was Daniel Craig’s tendency to hang his glasses down from his ears. NO ONE does that. Seriously. I should start another blog on the misuse and abuse of spectacles in film.
Anyway… Imagine my pleasure at discovering a reel librarian! Of course, Lisbeth would make a kick-ass librarian if she set her mind to it, but let’s be thankful she makes for a kick-ass investigator instead. She does plenty of research (on Google and Wikipedia) along with a generous amount of computer hacking. But while searching online for similar cases of past murders, she does employ the classic research techniques of Boolean operators and keywords in the midst of her search strings and queries (see below). ♥
So a little after an hour and a half into the film, Mikael and Lisbeth get permission to use the Vanger Industry’s corporate records, and Lisbeth gets right to work in the archives. This REALLY disgruntles the archivist librarian, who wastes no time casting dirty looks and tight-lipped smiles in Lisbeth’s direction. Although never referred to by name in the film, I did my own research and found the archivist listed in the credits as Lindgren, played by Anne-Li Norberg.
Lindgren has short, slicked-down hair, and dark, conservative wardrobe consisting of a greyish buttoned-up shirt, long cardigan, black skirt, black tights, and flat shoes (so sensible!). I almost wished for glasses hanging off a lanyard, just to complete the stereotypical image of the Spinster Librarian (see below).
In the archivist’s spacious office, we spy a computer — which looks positively ancient and old-fashioned when contrasted with Lisbeth’s Mac, as does Lindgren herself when contrasted with Lisbeth, hmmm — plus a typewriter, stacked files, and boxes of notecards.
Lindgren: Are you finished?
Lisbeth: I need to know where all factories, offices and projects were from 1949 to 1966.
Lindgren: You already have everything.
Lisbeth: No, I don’t. Nothing on subsidiary corporations, partnerships, or suppliers.
Lindgren: Then you’ll have to do without.
Lisbeth: Mr. Frode said I have access to whatever I need. This is what I need.
Lindgren: He said you have access to THIS floor.
Lisbeth: Call him.
Yeah, you know Lindgren’s repeating some choice words in her head after that exchange! The next frame highlights another tight-lipped expression on her face. And score one for accuracy, we also get treated to a shot of her pulling on white cotton gloves in preparation for handling archives.
Next, the archivist’s shown on a ladder, with Lisbeth studiously ignoring gestures to help out with the heavy volumes. After all, we wouldn’t want to be deprived of Lindgren pushing the cart full of heavy books (see above). How else would we know she’s a reel librarian? 😉
At an hour and forty-five minutes, this reel librarian has had enough, with the announcement, “We’re closing.” Lisbeth doesn’t even look up, and Lindgren is forced to admit that she’s not authorized to stay late. Lisbeth’s response? “I am. And I need access to everything, including anything that’s locked. Call Frode.”
So the long-suffering Lindgren locks up, sighs, drops her keys on the table behind Lisbeth, and tries to salvage one last shred of authority by stating, “Leave the keys with the guard.”
But this reel librarian does NOT go gently into that good night. We hear later from Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård), the head of Vanger Industries, that he had heard from their archives manager, who was “very perturbed with this girl Lisbeth.” And she wasn’t even subjected to witnessing Lisbeth’s eating and drinking coffee (from a cup with no lid, no less!) while walking through the stacks.
What Lisbeth finds in those archives does not actually advance the plot all that much in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as Mikael also comes to the same conclusion regarding the killer’s identity, albeit from a different route. But as one reviewer, Volkman, points out, “Fincher may be overrated as a director, but he can sure build suspense and dread. Witness the fine job he does near the end of the film with Lisbeth combing through the archives of the Vangers’ company. Not every director can wring tension from such an innocuous setting.” Although personally rolling my eyes at the phrase ‘innocuous setting,’ the point is well-made.
So there you have it. A typical Spinster Librarian with a sliver of Information Provider (she helps establish the archives setting, and she does retrieve the archival volumes, albeit most unwillingly), similar in the vein of Eily Malyon in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Lindgren gets enough screen time — and enough “looks could kill” close-ups (see above) — to join the Class III category of reel librarian portrayals.
One last note: About an hour into the film, reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) visits the local newspaper office, Destads Kuriren (Destads Courier, according to Google Translate), and peruses photo archives in a back office with the help of a woman (Sandra Andreis). I’m not, however, including this woman as a reel librarian, because (a) the local newspaper office is probably too small to staff an actual archivist, and (b), this role is billed as Photo Editor.
Is it wrong that I smiled at comparing a library to a lion’s den?
In an earlier post, I had highlighted some librarian films about to be released, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and mused that “it might be fun to do some posts about my first impressions in the theater, and follow up with more in-depth analysis later on.” So here we are, with my first impressions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel and remake of the 1979 British miniseries.
Note: I have not yet seen the 1979 miniseries, starring Alec Guinness, but I have it on order through my local public library.
I was super psyched to watch this film. It had entered my radar by way of Colin Higgins’s Libraries at the Movies blog, and I strongly suggest reading his reviews of the miniseries and recent adaptation. The trailers looked AWESOME and there was something hypnotic about the way Gary Oldman’s voice said the title, like a spine-tingling nursery rhyme (see below). And I do love spy thrillers, especially British ones, and especially especially ones that make you think.
What I liked:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came this close to living up to my expectations. First off, Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the aging agent forced out of MI6 but called back in to investigate a mole, is fascinating to watch even when he doesn’t appear to be doing anything onscreen.
And the director, Tomas Alfredson, is clearly talented at setting a mood — which was also evident in his Swedish child-vampire film Let the Right One In (remade in the U.S. as Let Me In). The film also features the excellent acting of Benedict Cumberbatch (he of Sherlock fame) as fellow agent Peter Guillam — and frankly, it’s always fun to write or say Cumberbatch’s name out loud.
What I didn’t like:
However, I always felt like I was rushing to understand what was going on. And I kept getting names and faces confused. I’m looking forward to watching the miniseries, where there is scope to understand all the characters and what’s really at stake. Because at the end of this film, at the reveal of the all-important MacGuffin, I was left with a niggling “So what?” question of doubt.
Library/archives setting and scenes:
And so what of the library and librarians? A shot of the library was included in the trailer, where you get a fleeting impression of multiple levels of bookshelves and lots of iron banisters. I remember liking how near the beginning of the film, the camera followed a woman’s hands placing a large book in a kind of dumbwaiter and then up the pulley into a level far above. In that first shot, with the closeup of the hands, you could spy rows of bookshelves behind her. I thought this was an effective way of using the library as an establishing shot of tone and location.
Later — about 2/3 through the film? — Smiley sends Guillam into “the lion’s den” to retrieve a smaller MacGuffin, some vital records that proved something or other.
Is it wrong that I smiled at comparing a library to a lion’s den?
And we meet two reel librarians, a man and a woman. Or at least I think there were two librarians. The man had more screen time and more lines, I think, but I remember the woman. Probably because I noticed that she was the same actress, Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, the scheming middle sister on Downton Abbey. Wearing a dark red turtleneck that contrasted with her red hair, she acted a bit nervous and breathy, like her character really fancied Guillam and wanted to impress him. And, of course, he probably knows that she fancies him but has no interest in her whatsoever. ANYWAY.
So armed with some complicated directions provided by the female librarian, off Guillam goes into the library archives. With NO supervision or guidance, I might add. I couldn’t help thinking how lax this was for a top-secret organization to send people off, alone, in the closed stacks. There’s a reason behind closed stacks, folks. Closed stacks are usually reserved for archives or other important records — you know, like for records used in an organization involving spies and super-secret info, perhaps? — and librarians get the items and therefore maintain order and organization and privacy. But whatever. Of course it was necessary for Guillam to be alone in the library stacks. He needed to be in order to succeed at swiping the records he needed and the plot to move forward. Chalk it up to suspension of disbelief.
Overall, I enjoyed the film — a solid B+ for me. And I look forward to watching Alec Guinness’s interpretation of George Smiley’s inscrutability in the 1979 British miniseries. Stay tuned…
“MacGuffin” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
Yes, it’s obvious by now that Desk Set (1957) ranks as one of my favorite librarian films (see here, here, here and here), with some of my favorite reel librarian characters ever. Of course, I would say my bias is justified by the excellence of the film itself, but that’s up for you to decide.
I’ve seen the film many times, but until now, I had never read the play it’s based on, The Desk Set, written by William Marchant. It premiered on Broadway in October 1955 and ran for 297 performances, through July 1956. So I found out our library consortium had a copy of the play — because I looked it up. 😉
It’s a delightful play! It’s significant to note how many lines and scenes from the play were directly transferred onscreen — including all of the reference questions. Perhaps because the screenwriters didn’t want to do any extra research?!
Intrigued, I set out to compare the play and film. Below are my (totally unscientific) findings.
Setting & structure:
3 acts: Introduction to characters and interview of Miss Watson (Act I); the Christmas party (Act II); and the installation of Emmarac (Act III)
1 locale: The reference department library of a large broadcasting company
Richard Sumner, efficiency expert (and nephew of Mr. Azae, the head of the station); Abe Cutler, executive at company, referred to as Bunny’s boss (Act I, p. 17)
The same basic cast of characters, but Sadel Meyer is changed to Sylvia Blair, and Abe Cutler becomes Mike Cutler
There is no mention of Richard Sumner being related to the company president (because Spencer Tracy was older in real life?)
Fun fact: Bunny’s full name, Bonita, is mentioned in the play (Act III, p. 77). Is it strange that I breathed a sigh of relief that “Bunny” is a nickname?
Shirley Booth originated the role on Broadway
The discussion of her education and training comes at the beginning of the personal interview (see below) — a rare inclusion, however brief, of librarian education. Both versions mention a library course at Columbia University.
Richard: And what was your training for this kind of work? Bunny: Just a library course at Columbia University. (Act I, p. 30)
In Act III, Bunny mentions, “Oh, my diploma–good old Columbia” as she’s clearing up her office (p. 67)
Richard: Tell me, Miss Watson, what training have you had for your job? Bunny: Well, a college education, and after that, a library course at Columbia. I was going to take a PhD but I ran out of money.
There are several framed documents visible in Bunny’s office, but no specific mention of a diploma — but a master’s degree or certification is implied through her earlier statement of wanting to go on to a PhD
This is an important scene, a battles of the sexes in miniature, in which Richard Sumner asks Bunny Watson a series of questions. He’s basically sizing her up and gauging her intelligence. The scene ends very differently in the play, which surprised me.
This scene occurs at the end of Act I and takes place in Bunny’s office.
At the end of the interview, this is Richard’s not-so-complimentary reaction: “I never had anybody quite like you before. We have an extreme classification I’ve never used, but it has to be applied to you. … FREAK!” (p. 34)
About a half hour in, this scene takes place atop the rooftop of the building, in the cold (adding to the humor)
Said with admiration and genuine warmth, Richard compares her to a “rare tropical fish”
The electronic brain:
The room-sized computer in the play and film was based on the real-life ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first general-purpose electronic computer. It was described as a “giant brain” with a slogan of “Making machines do more, so that man can do less”
Spelled as Emmarac (Electro-Magnetic Memory And Research Arithmetical Calculator)
Richard proudly states, “We figure it will save us in this department alone 6,240 man hours a year” (End of Act II, p. 55, repeated in Act III, p. 61)
Richard gives the machine a nickname, “Emmy”
Bunny stops the noise from Emmarac with a hairpin, annoying Richard (Act III, p. 72-73)
Everything I’ve found referring to the machine in the film spells it EMARAC (also capitalizing it to make it clear it’s an acronym), eliminating one of the M’s
The same line, “We figure it will save us… 6,240 man hours a year,” is used but spoken by Miss Warriner (see below)
Several nicknames spoken by multiple characters: “Emily EMARAC” (Bunny); “Miss M” and “Miss Emmy” (Miss Warriner); and “Emmy” (Richard Sumner and Bunny)
Richard fixes the machine with Bunny’s hairpin
The computer’s dutiful servant shows up at the end of the Christmas party in both versions, introduced as an electronics expert (but she’s portrayed as a fairly ridiculous and histrionic character).
In the beginning of Act III, she’s described as “not yet thirty… but a certain demeanor suggests that permanent spinsterhood is most certainly to be hers” (p. 60). So the spinster in this work is the techie, NOT the librarian! Interesting…
Pretty much as described in the play
Librarians vs. computers:
Even though the “electronic brain” takes up a huge space in both the play and the film (visually dating both works), the essential conflict in the film — pitting humans against technology — remains. And it seems an endless debate in the library world: are libraries and librarians so easily replaced by computers and online sources? One of the (many) things I love about Desk Set is that the conclusion (you need both!) is STILL relevant today, and just as true.
Richard sums up Emmarac’s purpose: “It was not meant to replace you. It was never intended to take over. It was installed to free your time for research” (Act III, p. 75)
Richard adds a bit more: “EMARAC is not going to take over. It was never intended to take over. It was never intended to replace you. It’s here merely to free your time for research. It’s just here to help you.”
I was quite surprised that the endings are different! I personally find the film’s ending much more satisfying — a romance between acknowledged equals.
Ends with Abe proposing over a dictaphone message and Bunny smiling as she replays the message
Abe headed to West Coast, and Bunny and Richard headed for romance. It IS a Hepburn & Tracy film, after all.
Desk Set. Dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
Marchant, William. The Desk Set: A Comedy in Three Acts. 1955.