Next up, Conan the librarian

Ian Christie talks to Matthew Reisz about the film world's fascination with reading rooms

October 21, 2010

Libraries are places for reading, quiet reflection and perhaps occasionally dozing off. And that is precisely why film directors have often had fun introducing into them rather less academic pursuits, whether terror, sex or violence.

Ian Christie, professor of film and media history at Birkbeck, University of London, has been reflecting on the films where "something erotic erupts in a cloistered situation", where people find "love across the issue desk or through the bookshelves".

He is equally intrigued by thrillers and horror films that focus on "the eeriness of libraries - the idea of arcane, even occult knowledge buried on the shelves, waiting to be unleashed". In this year's annual Charles Holden lecture, to be delivered at London's Senate House on 21 October, he will present the results of his research as "Something Stirring in the Stack? Why Filmmakers Enter the Library."

A pioneering example comes from Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), said Professor Christie, "when the would-be blackmailer is on the run from the police, and dashes into the British Museum, which of course housed the British Library at that time.

"Cyril Ritchard rushes through the Mummy Rooms, and shins down a chain next to a huge mask, which doesn't actually exist in the museum, but is a blow-up of a miniature. Then he rushes around the galleries that used to circle the central Reading Room, before coming out on the roof."

Something even more sinister occurs near the beginning of Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters (1984), continued Professor Christie, in "a wonderfully spine-tingling sequence set in the New York Public Library, complete with gauzy phantoms and flying books". The scene has become so iconic it inspired an "improv" event earlier this year, when a group dressed as the original Ghostbusting team burst into the library.

When it comes to sex, one of Professor Christie's prime examples is Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941). In a version of the Snow White story, seven professors are holed up in a mansion with its own private library working on a universal encyclopedia. One is researching US slang and goes off to interview a burlesque performer called "Sugarpuss" O'Shea. She decides to move in with them and soon teaches them to conga. There's nothing like a showgirl in a library to cause mayhem.

Today, the future of the academic library is in doubt and at least one big-budget film has touched on this improbable theme.

Alejandro Amenábar's Agora was the biggest-grossing Spanish movie of last year, although it was banned in Switzerland for incitement to religious hatred.

In one key plot strand, the 4th-century Greek philosopher Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz, tries to defend the library of Alexandria from Christian assault.

"There aren't many films that take libraries that seriously," reflected Professor Christie, "or invite us to invest emotionally in the fate of a library while mayhem and martyrdom are happening all around."

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