(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) November 7, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Music.
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Directed by Marc Webb
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Chloë Moretz
If I were to write this in the third person, I might not make it till the next paragraph. For a film like (500) Days of Summer I don’t think such distance in description is necessary. Prior to the film the last time I felt the need to talk with a lot of people to know what they think (or what’s wrong with me, friends?) is Slumdog Millionaire. It’s not like any other talk; it’s talk with laps of shouting and arguing, almost with a hint of endlessness. Thankfully, with one’s inability to articulate, which comes in the most appropriate of circumstances, the conversations had to end. I lean on emotional writing with regard to these things. Such expression of thoughts can be helpful to accept that the difference of opinion is healthy. But I am pretty sure that no amount of writing—and no power of persuasion in writing—can dissuade you from loving the film. Since we mostly relate to it emotionally, here’s what my wires have told me.
(500) Days of Summer may all boil down to J. D. Salinger. Tom and Summer love “Bananafish.” Whatever Tom is referring to when he said that, it brings to mind Salinger’s famous short story. To make matters weirdly incidental, the name of the actor who plays Summer alludes to one of the writer’s characters, Zooey Glass. But I’m not hitting on those. What I want to introduce for discussion is one of Salinger’s under-published stories, “The Heart of a Broken Story.” It ends with these words:
And that’s why I never wrote a boy-meets-girl story for Collier’s. In a boy-meets-girl story the boy should always meet the girl.
The boy should always meet the girl. Of course. It wouldn’t be a boy-meets-girl story if the boy doesn’t meet the girl, right? In Salinger’s story, the boy never actually meets the girl. The bulk of it tells what may have happened if they meet, narrated humorously in the writer’s wickedly deadpan voice. Salinger is said to be poking fun at the trend of short stories getting published in American magazines that time, thus his mention of Collier’s, and “The Heart of a Broken Story” makes it clear that one can get out of the box to write a meaningful yet entertaining play on the subject. With these opening lines how can that be disproved:
Every day Justin Horgenschlag, thirty-dollar-a-week printer’s assistant, saw at close quarters approximately sixty women whom he had never seen before. Thus in the few years he had lived in New York, Horgenschlag had seen at close quarters about 75,120 different women. Of these 75,120 women, roughly 25,000 were under thirty years of age and over fifteen years of age. Of the 25,000 only 5,000 weighed between one hundred five and one hundred twenty-five pounds. Of these 5,000 only 1,000 were not ugly. Only 500 were reasonably attractive; only 100 of these were quite attractive; only 25 could have inspired a long, slow whistle. And with only 1 did Horgenschlag fall in love at first sight.
That’s how it has always been. There is the observer; and there is the one being observed. The case of (500) Days of Summer is not the boy-meets-girl but the boy-meets-girls. It is the boy who makes the move, the boy who wants to meet the girl, and the boy who ends up alone but hopeful. But that’s clearly a matter of formula. The film follows that crazy old pattern of short stories that Salinger is making fun of, only in a different place and time, different films and music to allude to, and different ways to express acceptance or rejection. But as I mentioned, it is the boy-meets-girls.
In this context, the boy may actually represent all the boys in the world. Well, to make it specific, the boy may all be the boys who relate to the film (not gender-based, of course), all the boys who believe in true love, and all the boys who believe in happily ever after. In short, all the boys who believe. But in this subgenre of love stories, the girls are not similar to them in terms of what they want and who they want to be with. They are presented as vague, confusing, indecisive, fickle, and cruel beings who leave the boys in trauma. They are mostly beautiful—as what most of the popular boy-meets-girl films show, and as what most descriptions of fictionists want us to believe—because that’s what attracted them to the boys in the first place. Their beauty is not just physical though; they also possess a certain difference, a certain quality that makes their slightest movement like an elaborate sensual dance in the boys’ eyes, their spoken words like music to their ears. The boy pursues them. With the low-profile personality he possesses, unlike the jocks in school or the boy-next-door type that the girls swoon over, the boy uses his charm. The girls never show any hint that they don’t like to be pursued. And the boy and the girl, the first to be pursued, start to have a relationship.
In Tom’s case, the charm is music. The narrator tells us that Tom “grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met the one,” a belief which stems from his “early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of The Graduate.” He believes his affection for Summer was confirmed when she expressed her admiration for The Smiths. He wears Joy Division shirts. He sings Pixies in a bar. He dances in the street accompanied by a Hall and Oates song. Music, in (500) Days of Summer, is like the air that keeps resuscitating it. To stay on track, it plays music. To not lose us, it plays another cool song. When Tom decides to move on, it plays The Temper Trap again. Its constant allusion and incessant borrowing calls for the pastiche police—the hodgepodge lessening the otherwise meaningful use of music, and making it flat and disappointing upon recognition.
Expectations and reality work here. I expect that the music will hold water—considering my professed love not only for sad British music but also for sad music in general—but in reality it is just there to be played. Like when I was in college and I was making short films, I wanted to have that “La, la, la, la, la / La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la” hook in the refrain of Blur’s “For Tomorrow” to be included in my work because I thought it’s cool to have it there. And no one, conceited me thinking, would recognize it. I was looking forward that someone would ask me where’d I get the song, and they would think, “Oh, that guy, he listens to cool music,” and that would make me feel good. But that didn’t happen. I had more problems in writing the script than putting some good pop music in my film. Anyway, I wouldn’t dare accuse (500) Days of Summer of using songs just to make it look cool, but when I realize numerous times while watching how just a mere reference can unmake a beautiful story, and how a music played is different from a music usefully contributing to the film, I have to concede disfavor.
(*On second thought, hopping from one film to another, even if you remove all the songs in Pretty in Pink and leave only the Ottis Redding lip-synch number of Duckie or OMD’s “If You Leave” in the prom night ending, it would still be the most memorable love story of its generation. But not the same will happen to High Fidelity; you remove the music, and it’s butterfly effect.)
(**Also, take this obese word and you’d be surprised by its four-letter root word: OVERINTERTEXTUALITY. That’s the thought that crossed my mind, and it’s not yet in the Google search engine dictionary. (500) Days of Summer balloons the Text into a fat, fat idea. There is no disrespect in terms of music use—it’s sweet and pleasing—because there is nothing to say about it at all. And that’s I—I—first person, my opinion, so keep the gun in the holster, please.)
Tom and Summer break up after seeing The Graduate, the film whose ending he was said to misinterpret. He believes that love is like that, finding the right one and ending happily together. But where is the misinterpretation in that? Nichols has made it certain to be uncertain. It is us who interpret the fading smile, the uncomfortable look on the lovers’ faces, and the Simon and Garfunkel music as the bus drives away. Summer cries while watching that scene. Unlike Tom, she knows all along the sad reality ahead of her, the blank truth of love. That’s why she says to him, “There’s no such thing as love. It’s fantasy.” She lives in that state of reason, of pragmatism. Like Anna Karina in My Life To Live watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, she cries for reasons that the film has provoked in her, but she can’t tell what. She crumbles when that happens.
Going back to our Salinger reference, I am just saying that in the interest of this type of movies, the ratio is one to infinity. One boy is to infinite number of girls. That’s why it should be boy-meets-girls. The boy always needs to meet a new girl when the previous one dumped him. And the girl who dumps the boy, what happens to her? We don’t know. We don’t really know. Not that we wanted to know, but the film is not curious about her, so we are just as limited as the film itself. There is a conscious effort to make Summer appear mysterious—distant in such a way that knowing her more will gravely affect her image—because after all, as always mentioned in reviews, Summer is not just a person but a phase in a boy’s life, part of his growing up, of his maturity. It is the boy’s life that is regarded more importantly, his feelings, and his moving on. Girls are just around, waiting to be pursued.
Now, to put an end to these thoughts, I am calling the attention of hipsters. A friend, whose generation is slightly behind mine (and by slightly, I mean that as a kind friend), called me a hipster for not liking it, and told me that otherwise, I’m just pretending to be one because I can’t be cool all the time. Damn, those S Club 7 and LFO songs he saw in my iPod gave me away. But then again, there is confusion as we deal with definition of terms. According to Wikipedia:
Hipster is a slang term that first appeared in the 1940s, and was revived in the 1990s and 2000s often to describe types of young, recently-settled urban middle class adults and older teenagers with interests in non-mainstream fashion and culture, particularly alternative music, independent rock, independent film, magazines such as Vice and Clash, and websites like Pitchfork Media. In some contexts, hipsters are also referred to as scenesters.
Hipster has been used in sometimes contradictory ways, making it difficult to precisely define “hipster culture” because it is a “mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior[s].” One commentator argues that “hipsterism fetishizes the authentic” elements of all of the “fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge,” and draws on the “cultural stores of every unmelted ethnicity” and “gay style”, and “regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity” and a sense of irony.
Hipster, for sure, operates based on what is perceived as non-mainstream. It is meant to avoid the choices of the status quo. But since times are always changing, what qualify as hipster qualities also change, not to mention its slippery meaning, which varies depending on the place and the people who define the said culture. Essentially, there is the usual labeling and hierarchy—sub-hipster, sub-sub-hipster, pseudo-hipster, semi-hipster, punk-hipster, metal-hipster, rock-hipster, etc.—and there goes the perils of counterculture. There is always contradiction, and there is always ignoring the said contradiction. Summer doesn’t believe in love—that’s cool. But Summer got married in the end—that’s still cool. Perception changes, that’s hipster culture. As long as you are alienated, you are hip.
For a moment, I felt that my dislike for (500) Days of Summer is brought about by my backward mindset—that I was too old to appreciate it, that my love for lyrical movies will never be matched, and that I am just that: backward. I am thinking, if (500) Days of Summer is told chronologically, would I find it effective? If Summer’s character is explored, would I still be looking at Zooey Deschanel as the wife of Ben Gibbard singing “Sentimental Heart”? If I hadn’t known The Smiths and Pixies before seeing it, would I download their songs right when I get home and share with my friends how cool they are? And finally, if I were a believer of love as much as Tom is, would it strike me as heart-tugging the way it ends with such hope of finding an Autumn after Summer? But if all these ifs happen, would it still be the coolest film of the year?