An attractive young woman sits at a desk in a cozily cluttered office. She sorts through some papers, looking at them with a studious expression. But the camera through which we view her isn’t content to watch her work; slowly, it moves from the desk down to her ever-so-slightly exposed thigh. Her boss, a middle-aged man, glances at her. We don’t know what she’s doing, exactly, but it’s vaguely sexy, yet prim enough to hold our attention without feeling guilty.
There are a handful of moments like these in Golden Exits, the newest film from indie director Alex Ross Perry, which focuses on the loosely connected lives of two Brooklyn households, and centers around archivist Nick (former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) who is working on a project archiving the papers of his recently deceased father-in-law. Nick fits the profile of what is known in the archive world as a lone arranger. “The pursuit of isolation is what initially drew me to archiving,” he says, in a tidy definition of the field. Early on, an archival assistant comes into the picture and — wouldn’t you know it — she’s a pretty 25-year-old girl. (With an appealing Australian accent, too.) If you’ve ever watched a film before, you’ll probably guess that she causes a degree of interpersonal drama, flirting with Nick and an old family friend, and raising the suspicions of Nick’s wife.
Naomi, the assistant, played by Emily Browning, ably conveys a mix of wide-eyed innocence and occasional weirdness. The contrast of her delicacy with the mess codes her as a winsome imp — someone clearly separate from the dryness easily associated with archival work, a profession most people have no familiarity with, but might assume is the province of the serially boring. We’ve seen this type of thinly-drawn character before, even if she’s performing a job not often shown on-screen. Think of her as Manic Pixie Dream Archive Assistant, a spin on the old trope of the pretty, young, quirky woman whose main purpose is to teach the male protagonist something about himself.
The archivist is a close cousin to the librarian; most people couldn’t tell you the difference. Librarianship is often considered a feminine occupation, and statistics from the American Library Association bear out that the field is largely the domain of white women. Most onscreen depictions of librarians do little to challenge the perception. The most famous example of a cinematic librarian is probably in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which we discover that if the protagonist had never been born, his wife, having been tragically unable to find a man, would’ve become – gasp! – a librarian.
The “sexy librarian,” an easy subversion, has long been a part of screen mythology, going back to Dorothy Malone’s seductive, bespectacled rare book girl in The Big Sleep (1946) and continuing with such kitsch representations like Batgirl in the ‘60s Batman TV series. Librarianship can be presented as quirky and oddly fashionable, as in Party Girl (1995), a favorite of many women in the field, featuring the reliably cool Parker Posey as a young woman who becomes a librarian to pay her aunt for bail money after she is — in true ‘90s fashion —arrested for throwing an illegal rave.
The library has been seen on screen many times over, with actresses from Bette Davis (Storm Center, 1956) to Katharine Hepburn (Desk Set, 1957) to Goldie Hawn (Foul Play, 1978) to Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, 1999) taking on the role, in a variety of genres. The library can be a site of tradition or transgression, humor or adventure, and the stacks of books instantly evoke an environment that is familiar to almost all viewers. But, as any library science professor will tell you, librarianship is about more than just books. The archive is the place where papers and other ephemera are stored and organized, and made available for research as needed. Archives are essential to our cultural heritage, and while they’re just as important as libraries, they aren’t seen as often in film, likely because they aren’t usually thought of as public-facing environments.
When archivists are visible, they’re typically part of a greater excitement. Archives figure into films like Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones (the Jedi Archives are visited as as a means of finding information on a planet) and National Treasure (Diane Kruger plays an archivist at the National Archives, where Nicholas Cage attempts to steal the Declaration of Independence). They’re presented as a station on the path to an adventure, because why else would we need to linger on people who spend their time trawling through old stuff?
Golden Exits deserves some credit for being the most archive-centric film in a long time, possibly ever. There have been bookstore salesgirls, art gallery assistants, publishing assistants, and, of course, librarians, but archive assistants are much rarer. Here, the adventure comes from the aura of mystery around Naomi. She describes herself as “transient,” and her motives with men and interest in the archive field are opaque. Naomi swoops into Nick’s life, and suddenly makes archive work look like a perfect piece of precious Brooklyn hipsterdom. The specific material is far less important than the atmosphere of the archive itself, as the archive is a convenient space for establishing sexual tension. It’s small and intimate, and right near Nick’s chicly bohemian apartment. “You like routine,” Naomi observes of Nick at one point. It’s obvious she’s there to shake it up.
All the elements — the nostalgia, the tactility, the inherent subversion of a charming young girl performing an unglamorous job — are ripe for further exploitation by indie auteurs.
Naomi exists in between the stereotypes of young womanhood, but her character never feels developed into something that fully challenges or transcends conventions. She’s hard-working, but flighty; she’s flirty, but mostly chaste. She and Nick maintain a charged working relationship throughout the film, but she doesn’t explicitly seduce him. She shuffles through papers and pouts while holding a magnifying glass. She puts her hair in an updo, with a few strands falling just so, as Nick watches, while sitting at a pleasantly messy desk. Perry shoots on 16mm film, which gives everything the soft, grainy look that can only really come from analog shooting. The archive is also coded as decidedly non-digital: Computers are barely touched, and all the work that Naomi does is tactile, which adds a whiff of sensuality to the proceedings.
Golden Exits does treat the ingénue archive assistant role, which consistently hangs on the edge of self-parody, with a degree of self-awareness. After meeting Naomi, Nick’s sister-in-law, Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker) pointedly asks, “Do women make better archive assistants, I wonder?” (Nick hems and haws, and in his hesitation, ultimately confirms that he thinks they do.) Though Nick and Naomi’s relationship doesn’t surpass flirtation, and Nick’s wife, Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), expects the worst, at least. She and her sister allude to assistants he’s had in the past, and pick up on the teacher/student dynamic right away; they spend all their time together in a small room, after all. Nick, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the foresight to classify Naomi in this way. He’s attracted to her but too set in his repressed ways to call out her obviousness as a plot device.
For all the focus on establishing the archive, we never really get a sense of whether Naomi is good at her job. Near the end, she asks if Nick would be willing to write her a recommendation; he agrees, somewhat begrudgingly. Watching the film, one longs for a more thorough portrait of Naomi, or a more thorough portrait of what precisely is in the archive — or better yet, both. All the elements — the nostalgia, the tactility, the inherent subversion of a charming young girl performing an unglamorous job — are ripe for further exploitation by indie auteurs. Nobody really knows what an archivist does, after all.