The Light is Out: (500) Days of Summer
(500)Days of Summer, is not a love story, at least that’s what we’re told within the first few minutes of the film. It’s not a love story, like All the Real Girls or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind aren’t love stories; they’re about love but reveal the bleaker underside, the heartbreak and uncertainty that inevitably come with commitment.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Tom, and he believes in love. He learned about love from pop music and movies, and he believes that there is someone perfect out there for him. As much as (500) Days of Summer is about Tom’s relationship and eventual break-up with the titular Summer, brought to life by the beautiful Zooey Deschanel, it’s about love stories themselves.
Marc Webb, in his feature film directorial debut, never commits to reality or even a sense of objectivity. The fourth wall is broken frequently, as we are allowed to understand that the events as presented are seen through the eyes of an idealist; and even though Summer herself is presented as the love-cynic, there is that pervading belief that true love exists, and that Summer and Tom are meant for each other. The film relies heavily on this expectation, as a means of driving our empathy for Tom, as well as justifying the non-linear format of the film, which jumps from the highs and lows of their relationship as Tom understands and reflects on them.
Unfortunately, this assumption about the audience leads to some lazy or at least strangely conventional writing at times. Tom’s much younger sister, is often brought in as a catalyst for emotional discoveries on the part of Tom, as she often spells out what he should be re-thinking and re-evaluating, with the keen understanding of an omnipotent force. It’s an obvious and unfortunate voice piece to what is going on and happening, something that was certainly easy but perhaps not as rewarding. There is one catch though, that truly damns her presence, she is no more than 13 years old. I can’t be the only person who is tired of the precocious pre-teen character, and it goes without saying that it doesn’t fit the tone and feel of this film. It frankly just doesn’t make any sense, especially as the film works to subvert conventional genre clichés, and it’s neither funny nor clever. It’s without a doubt the film’s biggest fault, and fortunately, she only appears in a couple of scenes.
Stylistically, (500) Days of Summer takes many risks that pay off. The film continually attempts to alienate the viewer from the emotional state of the characters, reminding us that we are watching a film, and that we are presented the events as Tom understands them; we are seeing the good of the relationship through his rose coloured glasses, and the bad through a lens of disappointment and pain. It even references several times, in name and in stylistic homage, French New Wave films¹, which seems to be a cue in itself, that this film is an essay on love stories themselves.
One particular sequence uses the split screen to great effect, having one side as “reality” and the other as “expectation”. In terms of movie making, neither seems absurd or strange -perhaps a reflection on the habitual nature of the film viewer, how readily we accept perfection and fate in the movies as real. Also how our understanding these stories as reality inevitably crosses over to our own social experiences.
The film doesn’t villainize romantic cinema though, but rather focuses on the viewer/filmmaker relationship. Tom is not the way he is because he watches love stories in the theatres -this is made clear by how he (mis)interprets the final scene in The Graduate as being a happy ending. He is a naturally inclined romantic idealist, as even his parents’ divorce does little to dissuade him. Though his own idealism proves to be his downfall, it is also infectious in the best way possible. His belief in love and fate are not inherently misguided, it’s his lack of vision and objectivity that holds him back. He assumes before he even meets Summer that she is “the one”. It is this aspect of his romanticism that proves to be his downfall, true love may exist, but this was not it for him. Even his belief that things would sort out because they were meant to be contributes to the relationships’ eventual downfall.
(500) Days of Summer does have a happy ending though, despite Tom’s disillusionment with perfect love. He inevitably learns from his mistakes, and in a way, Summer gains a new perspective on the world thanks to their relationship. It seems a cliché, but it is better to have love and lost, then to have never loved at all. Just as we are shaped by the movies we watch and music we listen to, we are obviously marked and moved by the relationships we have. Heartbreak is painful, but it can bring us one step closer to the real thing.
In a genre that thrives on the audience’s desire to “shut off their brain”, Summer dares us to re-evaluate their idea of romance on and off the screen. Considering how many films come out every year that take no risks and rely on tired formulas, (500) Days of Summer is a surprisingly innovative film, and that is a good enough reason to see it this coming weekend.
Edited by: Brian Jewell
1. Other film references include several nods to Ingmar Bergman and other 60s Europeans. The film is a bit heavy on pop cultural references, but they’re well integrated, to the point of being a revealing point of the character. Tom’s fixation on similar interests and tastes that he and Summer share blinds him to some relationship imcompatability. It’s her knowledge of The Smiths that really ignites his infatuation.
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