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Librarian Angels

We watched The Adjustment Bureau last nigh on DVD. Ordinary. The reality-bending, head-game-y tone was undermined by some flagrant shortcuts, as such films are prone to. I wouldn’t bring it up at all, but for the peculiar experience of watching it through a particular mental lens.

A spoiler alert is in order here. If you haven’t watched The Adjustment Bureau, and if you think you might like to, and especially if you share some of my other interests, skipping this entry like an email from a Somali prince might be in order. Not only will I bring up movie details shortly, but—even worse—I’m going to share that particular lens, which, depending on how much you already know, will either make no sense or qualify as one of those horrible “cannot un-see” experiences. There. I think that’s elliptical enough. So, fair warning: if you don’t want anticipatory spoilers, or if you don’t want retroactive re-tooling of your own viewing, walk away now.

As for the rest of you, more curious than cautious, there is an RPG called In Nomine. Angels and demons fight a secret, supernatural war, with lots of capitalized words, over the fate of humanity, though both sides are heavily factionalized and sub-factionalized, and internal politics can be as great an enemy as the other side, and self-pity is the order of the day for many celestial foot soldiers. (If this sounds familiar, it’s Steve Jacskon Games’ attempt to jump on the enormously successful White Wolf bandwagon.) In Nomine has a robust, engaging mythological structure, well-supported with game supplements—supplements with writing and ideas good enough to be more popular simply for reading than out of an expectation of use in play. I’ve read and re-read a good chunk of this material, and found its content irresistibly re-interpreting the film for me.

Well before the script explicitly uses the word “angel”—when Norris asks whether the cadre of suited reality-benders are angels or something and gets no direct answer, the parallel popped into my head. In Nomine assigns angels to serve archangels, each responsible for some important facet of creation: hope and dreams, animal life, war, children, faith. Yves is the archangel assigned to destiny. All heaven strives directly or indirectly to help humans reach their destiny, their full divine potential, but for Yves and his servitors, it’s a full-time occupation. And Yves’ personality often manifests in libraries: he likes books, maintains a truly universal library as his base of operations in heaven, with hidden, mystical passages to every library in the world.

The guardians of reality, in the movie at least, seem to be headquartered in the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. Libraries, check, and the bureaucrats travel by magically passing from any door to any other door. The faceless supernatural bureaucratic conspiracy has a master plan to maintain…but it’s not a sinister plan like you find in beach-novel thrillers, it’s just a desire to keep everything working smoothly. Servants of destiny, check. The plan comes from a never-seen creator, the “Chairman,” though “Harry Mitchell” calls it just a label, and states that the Chairman is “known by many names.” Distant God, preserving dramatic tension through His absence, check. They take a particular interest in a young congressman, a really nice young senatorial candidate who couldn’t survive in actual politics without divine aid, and a dancer who can transform the whole art of dance—but only if they never meet. Manipulating individuals to meet their destinies, check.

And once you see the parallel, as I said earlier, you can’t un-see it. Elements of the story that aren’t particularly angelic in nature take on an In Nomine cast. The plan goes awry, and the angels have to call in the heavies, uncompromising angels prepared to destroy when necessary: malakim. “John Slattery” gives orders among the angels handling the Norris case, A middle-manager, obviously a Seraph. So when he readily adopts the strategy of just telling the congressman everything instead of trying to distract or misdirect any further, something in me jumped and pointed: “See! See! A seraph!” “Harry” shows the deepest understanding of Norris’s feelings, and at one point softly complains that they, the angels, aren’t supposed to act on emotional involvement, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. He’s an elohite. And elohite who earns dissonance when, eventually, he does act on emotion. The angels threaten Norris with a mind-wipe, but never do it; they offer no violence at all beyond a gentle ether-soaked rag, when truncheons are at hand. Obviously afraid of generating symphonic disturbance! Angels have been manipulating Norris’s life. His mother’s death? “That wasn’t us.” “Just one of those things, then? Chance?” asks Norris. No answer; an accommodating shrug. Oh, yes, if you’ve read In Nomine, you know what that means: minions of Kronos, demon prince of fate, pulled that job, and “Harry” doesn’t want to reveal any more of the secret war than he must. It might upset Dominic.

Reinterpreting The Adjustment Bureau through the lens of In Nomine is so compelling in part because they’re almost entirely compatible. There’s no real contradiction between the two, just additional elements the other doesn’t address. Unfortunately, doing so adds subtext and undertones that have no place in the movie at all. Yet I can’t help mashing the two together. And if you’re familiar with both, then neither can you, any more. You’re welcome.

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