There are few movies that make libraries “sexy” (or even use libraries at all for that matter). Certainly not The Pagemaster. Maybe Funny Face. But with Navot Papushado’s latest film, Gunpowder Milkshake, the cachet of the library might just get a brief defibrillation (because Ghostbusters and The Day After Tomorrow certainly did not make the library look inviting, nor did Sex and the City: The Movie with Carrie and her dramatic “left at the altar” debacle). Though, to be fair, Atonement offered plenty of literal sex to bring one’s attention to the books that Keira Knightley was being banged against. There’s also Beauty and the Beast, yet that’s rather chaste and sort of tainted by the fact that Belle is being held captive by a hybrid human-animal psychopath (though that doesn’t stop Diane in BoJack Horseman from wanting a “Belle room” a.k.a. the library Belle had access to for herself). As for The Breakfast Club, the ultimate “library movie” (occasionally superseded by Party Girl), the only “sensuality” that transpired was outside the confines of the open, book-filled space (if you don’t count Bender staring at Claire’s crotch). To this point, as any writer knows, location is everything. Even though no writer could have predicted just how meaningless the concept of “setting” would be in the post-2020 era, as everywhere you go there’s a boot waiting to come down on your neck with restrictions. But maybe that’s why it’s more important than ever to transport people to a different place through the page (whether that’s a screenplay that becomes a movie or an “old school” manuscript that becomes an unread novel).
All of this is to say that we’ve been long overdue for a film that pays heavy homage to the majesty and sexiness of the library (even if you now have to wear a mask inside of it and feel paranoid about touching the pages someone else has on account of fomites). Enter Gunpowder Milkshake. Our buildup to the importance of the library starts early on when lead character Sam’s (Karen Gillan) mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), shows up to the diner—a key background for the scenes in this film as well—to tell her she has to go away for a while. Still an adolescent, Sam doesn’t understand why Scarlet can’t take her along or why everything about her sudden departure has to be shrouded in secrecy. She pleads, “I’ll stay in the library with Anna May and the others.” She would prefer this over being saddled with Nathan (Paul Giamatti), the leader of The Firm (a symbolic of patriarchy organization that seems to control everything that goes on in the city). Anna May (Angela Bassett, forever looking the same)—yes, it sounds like “anime”—happens to be the second-in-command ringleader of their sisterhood of assassins (taking on the role of full-stop ringleader when Scarlet disappears). The crew also consists of Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Madeleine (Carla Gugino); both help Anna May in packing each highly specific book title with the “perfect fit” (literally and metaphorically) gun.
We’re introduced to this atypical method of concealment within the first five minutes of the movie, at which time Scarlet, exhibiting signs of the “scuffle” she just endured via the blood on her hands, asks her daughter, “Did you bring it?” Sam barely tries not to roll her eyes as she passes Scarlet a hefty copy of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. A novel that’s apropos in many ways not just because it’s about a quartet of women with a strong matriarch—so technically, a quintet (in Gunpowder Milkshake that number of five women will be relevant at the end), but because it pertains to the irrevocable bond of sisterhood. And how that bond can triumph over just about anything. “The Firm” included. Thus, as Sam slides the book across the table, Scarlet notes, “Anna May sure can pick them.” She opens the cover to reveal the compact little gun inside. Sam adds, “It’s loaded.” Then Scarlet delivers the most loathsome accolade in the English language, “Good girl.”
Spending most of her youth among the gun-concealed stacks, Sam feels as though she’s going home again fifteen years later when she’s instructed by Nathan to “get rid of those Stone Age firearms” she has so that they can’t be linked back to a bloodbath she didn’t originally intend to cause.
Madeleine can tell there’s something familiar about her, and invites her into the back room, Sam carrying her giant yellow “I ‘Heart’ Kittens” duffel bag filled with the guns she wants to exchange for new “books.” Anna May is appalled that Madeleine would allow a new “reader” into this part of the library without consulting her first, but it’s soon revealed that Sam is the Sam they practically helped raise. So it is that Anna May gets the checkout process started by declaring, “You’ll need a Jane Austen” (Pride and Prejudice). Madeleine chimes in, “A Charlotte Brontë” (Jane Eyre). Florence suggests, “And a Virginia Woolf” (A Room of One’s Own). Madeleine concludes, “Oh, and an Agatha Christie—for reading.” It seems no coincidence that all of these titles are written by women, for a primary angle of Gunpowder Milkshake is one that tries its best to promote “feminism”… in a Quentin Tarantino sort of way. There’s also the fact that all of the aforementioned female authors (including Louisa May Alcott at the beginning) were extremely independent and ahead of their time in understanding what Little Women taught to the masses about the importance of a woman’s own personal pursuits to her happiness as much as anything else. The symbolic nature of these authors obviously suits the characters’ own issues within this narrative, as each struggles to balance a personal life with a professional one.
Later, Scarlet even presents Sam with a copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves (along with Awaken the Giant Within and, somewhat sarcastically, How to Win Friends and Influence People). One of the seminal psychology texts of the past thirty years, with the subtitle: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. And who’s “wild” if not a hitwoman (no matter how “in control” the job requires her to be)?
The longest sequence in Gunpowder Milkshake is the big library standoff, during which Janis Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart” plays through the headphones of the child being told to cover her ears and eyes through the carnage. Janis wailing, “I’m gonna show you baby that a woman can be tough” feels like an ironic statement in a library, and yet it’s all too fitting when considering that not only is a girl a gun, but so is a book (particularly one written by a woman) with its power to take down empires (even if now, reading is done more often via screens than pages).
So move over, Ludacris—“What’s Your Fantasy?” isn’t the only thing that has brought sex appeal back to the library (though “How ‘bout in the library on top of the books?/But you can’t be too loud” remains an immortal lyric that probably should have been played during that Atonement scene). Gunpowder Milkshake would also like to throw its hat in with the violence and venom that has shot it to the top of the list of “library and literature”-oriented movies.