Tag Archives: (500) Days of Summer

But For Different Reasons

I first saw (500) Days of Summer when I was eighteen. Fresh outta high school, I was one of five people in the theater. I loved it, and would go on to watch it in theaters two more times when I moved to Singapore a month later, and then again when I bought it on BluRay. I loved it for its emotional honesty, for the way the film depicted Tom’s thought process on screen. But like Tom’s own relationship with The Graduate, my own love of (500) Days of Summer was based on a bit of a misreading.

See, I, for a variety of reasons, identified with Tom more than I should have. I thought Summer in the wrong and pitied him for pursuing a woman who didn’t feel the same way as him. I have a totally different read on the movie now, seven years later, but let’s stay here for a moment.

I misread the movie (because the wonderful thing about fiction is its give and take), and I liked it a lot. But the reasons I liked it were, in my ways, a little off. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, just that what I brought to it and wanted from it (Tom and Summer should be together!), meant that what I got out of it was filtered through it (at least the devastation from Summer prompted Tom to get his crap together, and hey, there’s Autumn!). Thus my own catharsis through it is, well, different from how it works now.

Now, seven years later and hopefully a modicum wiser, I still love the movie. But, as you may have guessed from what I’ve already said, for very different reasons. Tom seems now less a hopeless romantic and more a selfish git who fancies himself one. He’s made sympathetic through the film’s storytelling, but Tom really isn’t a great guy. The takeaway from the film is instead a cautionary tale about expecting some sweeping love story to solve all your problems (it’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl).

So yeah. I still love the movie, albeit for a few different reasons. Which is really a testament to the film itself, that it’s able to make a sympathetic character out of someone as glaringly flawed as Tom; enough that a glowing positive interpretation of him is honestly quite valid.

You’re just missing the point.

Now, the point of any piece of fiction can be argued ad nauseam, and (500) Days of Summer itself remains open to a variety of opinions as to what is its point exactly, but to stop an understanding of the film at it being ‘just’ a love story with a downbeat ending. There’s more to it than that, and an arguably more complete catharsis can be found when you realize that it’s Tom’s willingness to fix himself and find happiness outside of a relationship that helps him get his life back on track. Or is it — since the button with Autumn casts Tom’s development into a measure of question.

I find that this is something true of a lot of stories. Pacific Rim is plenty enjoyable for getting to watch giant robots and giant monsters beat the crap outta each other, but its commentary takes it to another layer, just like how Godzilla is all the more enriching in light of the stances it takes on nuclear weapons or the environment (depending on if it’s the original Gojira or Gareth Edwards’ recent outing). There aren’t really ‘wrong’ ways of loving a story,* there are just different reasons for it. I figure part of really appreciating fiction is being willing to let your understanding and appreciation of a story evolve. Who knows, it may get even better.

*For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring flat-out misinterpretations like a white-supremacist/Aryan interpretation of The Lord of The Rings, something Tolkien himself decried. There’s a certain amount of latitude to finding meaning, but there’s also a point where sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe that’s another rant for another day/

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But What About The Men???

I write a lot about women in fiction on this blog, to the point where I’ve had friends term it a feminist blog. But if you’ve ever wondered “jeez, Josh, you keep talking about women this and feminism that, what about the men!?”, well, this rant essay is for you.

One of the many things I like about (500) Days of Summer, is Tom. Not that he’s a particularly great guy or anything like that, but that with Tom we have a male protagonist who is allowed to be emotionally vulnerable. Misguided as he is, he’s afforded the latitude to be ecstatic and heartbroken with everything in the middle bearing shades of another. Put colloquially, Tom gets to feel the feels, and the movie doesn’t punish him for it.

See, fiction typically doesn’t give male characters emotional breadth. Think of just about any other romcom; sure, Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey get sad and have their epiphanies, but do the films explore those feelings to the extent that (500) Days of Summer does?

There’s a tendency in fiction (and it’s a tendency reflected from reality) for being emotional to be seen as feminine, and thus unsightly in a male character. There’s a a reason “man-up” is said to guys who are scared or weepy, and not when someone’s winning. After all, we all know real men don’t cry. There are of course the occasions for manly tears: sacrifice, like the titular soldier crying over what others sacrificed for him at the end of Saving Private Ryan; brotherhood, like Channing Tatum crying at his partner’s funeral in End of Watch; or good old dead loved ones, like Maximus’ breakdown in Gladiator. These are the moments when manly men, pushed over by grief and patriotic duty, cry manly tears. But heartbreak over a breakup? That usually gets us a scene like in That 70s Show, with Eric Foreman lying in bed after breaking up with Donna, his sorrow played for laughs. It’s funny because Eric’s not the manliest of men and here he is trying to enact a form of masculine sadness but is really just pathetic.

Compare that portrayal to (500) Days of Summer when we’re allowed to wallow with Tom while he deals with his breakup. We see the repeated dullness of Tom’s life and how life seems to have lost meaning. There are still some great gags, but we’re laughing with Tom out of commiseration, rather than laughing at him as we do Eric. The film’s commitment to exploring Tom’s feelings, oft accentuated by its stylized editing and use of voice over, means that we are firmly with him here. It’s not ‘manly’ – and it doesn’t have to be – but he’s far from pathetic.

It’s important here to clarify that unmanly tears do not mean emotional breadth. Cooper in Interstellar breaks down and weeps while going through the archived messages from his daughter, but it doesn’t affect him as a character. Cooper’s still gonna do what Cooper is gonna do: space stuff. Interstellar never explores his emotional state, he remains a stalwart explorer.

I cite as many examples as I can because it’s so prevalent else-wise. This is one of those things where the exception proves the rule.  Scott Pilgrim is such an offbeat romantic lead, what without his conviction and confidence and all that. Instead Scott Pilgrim vs The World devotes much of its runtime to dealing with Scott’s issues and baggage, affirming that those are important things, even if you’re a guy. But Scott Pilgrim is in many ways a deconstruction, as is (500) Days of Summer. These movies take the romantic comedy and play with it, in the process giving us male characters who are allowed to feel the feels. Starting to see how atypical this is?

Men, of course, feel (Duh). But it goes against typical societal norms to explore or display those feelings, especially if they’re really feel-y. Why? Cuz gender roles and the patriarchy cut both ways. The same force that prescribes women to be passive supporters also insists that men be unfeeling bastions. Aaaand yep, here’s my twist: this is actually another rant essay on feminism. The same criticism that asks “Hey, why can’t we let a woman be the everyman?” is the same one that says “Hey, why do men always have to be unfeeling?”. So yeah, let’s see more Tom Hansens in fiction, though preferably ones who are less awful humans. And that’s what’s about the men.

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Meaning Upon Meaning

Every movie monster in the book has some sort of sociocultural commentary associated with it. Zombies are the embodiment of a fear of conformist consumer culture, vampires are the elite rich who drain the life of the poor, werewolves are your neighbor’s double life, Godzilla is nuclear terror made real. A lot of fun can be found in figuring out what these all mean. Is Zombieland about the isolation that comes as a result of being the only people special in a world of copies? Or is it a celebration of life in a post-consumer society?

That’s one thing I love about fiction is that there are as many meanings of it as there are people watching. You see this particularly science fiction and fantasy which, by virtue, often deal with some embodiment of the unknown/other, and thus can really explore the parable-ness of stories. But like I said, meanings. I see The Force Awakens as a story about identity and finding belonging (which makes it different from the original Star Wars despite hitting many of the same plot beats), Firefly is a story fundamentally about family, and Iron Man 2  is about embracing mortality. You could disagree and you’re more than welcome to because, again, the joy of fiction.

A good story has enough substance that you can watch/read/hear/play it multiple times and get different things from it over time. While discussing children’s books, CS Lewis wrote in Of Other Worlds: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty(…).” It’s how you can enjoy Prisoner of Azkaban as a kid for its magic and scary monsters, then years later love it for its wonderful take on depression; or how Justice League remains intriguing if you’re twelve or twenty-five.

(500) Days of Summer is perfectly enjoyable as a romcom where the male character is afforded the same amount of emotional intimacy and depth the female lead usually gets. Then you can also read it as a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that was alive and well in 2009. Or as an exploration of how being selfish and only looking for what you want dooms a relationship. Are any of those wrong? Not necessarily (though if you see Tom or Summer as being an ideal, dreamy, romantic partner… you’re misreading it). Do any of those interpretations discount the other? Unless you’re googley over Tom or Summer, again, no. If I watch this movie again in five years will I find something new (and maybe stop using rhetorical questions)? Yeah, probably. I still love (500) Days of Summer, as much (or more) than I did when I first saw it seven(!) years ago, but the reasons I love it now are really different from when I watched it then.

I mentioned briefly that there could be a wrong reading (Tom and Summer are deeply flawed, deeply selfish characters, not dream lovers), which is true in a way. The LEGO Movie is the hero’s journey retold with LEGO bricks. But is it also anti-capitalism with its overthrow/redemption of an evil businessman? I’d argue not, because, really? But wrong doesn’t necessarily mean invalid, and if you read Tom as being a dream guy even though the writers have outright said he’s not meant to be one, fine, more power to you, you’re still wrong.

Stories are fluid and for a lot, the authors are decidedly dead. So it doesn’t really matter so much what the exact intention was exactly, so much as you connected. This doesn’t mean you can go around saying Gojira isn’t about the Japanese terror of nuclear weapons (because look at the context and everything), but it does allow for a range of interpretations of that. I know the The Force Awakens has belonging as a theme, because Maz mentions it to Rey, but the importance I place on it is all, well, me.

And at the end of the story, that’s the important bit.

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A Manic Pixie Dream Problem

You know the story. Boy’s stuck in the doldrums of life. Girl shows up. Is quirky. Her quirkiness brings boy out of the normal world. They fall in love. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done her job. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term to describe a female character archetype whose purpose is to bring a male character into a more interesting existence. Also they usually fall in love.

But this is a little broad. Is Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then? For starters she’s Emmet’s love interest, should he be able win her away from Batman. Then her arrival brings Emmet out of normalcy into a life of adventure and she supports his transformation into the Chosen One. And she’s very different from anyone Emmet’s met, with her DJ-esque name, dyed hair, and rebellious nature. She seems to fit it to a T.

Thing is, Wyldstyle doesn’t only exist for Emmet. She has her own goal and arc. Wyldstyle wants to save the world, that Emmet is the Chosen one is more disappointment than cause for celebration. Over the course of the movie she learns to be vulnerable and to believe in herself.

Ramona, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World; however, is. Though a well-rounded character, her purpose in the plot is to be Scott’s prize and the catalyst for him to self-actualize (that is, realize that self-respect is necessary for love). Yes, she has baggage, but the movie doesn’t afford any runtime to developing it. And yes, she’s quirky: dyed hair, infinitely cooler than Scott, and is from New York. She’s that dream-girl who comes along and makes and makes the male character’s life better.

But Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, isn’t. Though Summer is someone a lot of people jump to when they think of this term (seeing as she’s quirky-ish and portrayed by Zooey Deschannel). The film, on the other hand, takes apart the notion of the dream girl. Tom expects Summer to ‘fix’ him and make his life better, but she doesn’t fit into who he expects her to be. Most notably, it’s only after they break up that Tom gets life together and gets out of his rut. Essentially, the movie breaks down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, saying that someone else isn’t going to save you, you have to do it yourself.

I realize I’m using a lot of non-examples as a way of defining the term, but I owe that to my own unfamiliarity with a lot of the movies usually associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So why even talk about it?

In the years since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has distanced himself from it. Way he saw it, the term had almost lost reason; it’d become a trope unto itself rather than a symptom of problematic portrayals of women. It became easy to just say that a character was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than it fostering discussion.

Because the term isn’t a way to demean women or to pigeonhole them, rather it should make writers and viewers conscious of women existing solely in relation to men. Though archetypes can be good, sometimes, like damsels in distress, they not only become emblematic of lazy writing, but also perpetuates a less-than-healthy view of reality (especially given how prevalent this one can be). That’s why I love using (500) Days of Summer as an example here, since though Summer very much fits the archetype, the film shows the consequences of the mindset.

In any case, it’s time to write better characters. Give a character depth, depth beyond “being quirky,” and give her life.

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The Reels Are Alive With The Sound Of Diegetic Music

Here’s a word that no one uses unless they want to sound smarter than you: diegesis, that is the type of story that’s told by a narrator. Which means what, exactly? Well, in The Princess Bride the Grandfather is performing an act of diegesis when he tells the Grandson the story. The interactions he has with the Grandson are thus non-diegetic. Of course, it’s all a narrative being told to us, the audience, by the filmmakers in turn carrying out diegesis. In film criticism it gets a little more specific, referring to what happens in the film in and of itself.

Anyway.

Diegetic music is when music is played in the narrative itself. The band playing when Han and Obi Wan walk into the cantina in Star Wars is an example of diegetic music. The characters hear it, and so do we. As a bonus it adds texture to the world. It helps that it’s iconic enough that you’ve probably got it going in your head now.

It doesn’t have to be that big, though. (500) Days of Summer uses diegetic music as plot points; it’s Tom listening to The Smiths that helps strike up a conversation with Summer. No, it’s not a grand epic sequence (compare the Fairy Godmother singing “Holding Out For a Hero” during the climax of Shrek 2), but it serves the plot’s development and also provides an important touchstone of Tom and Summer’s relationship. We, the audience, are allowed to share in what brings Tom and Summer together. The film is not just telling us but showing us too, making the whole thing more immersive and more intimate.

And now I’m going to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy.

Diegetic music plays a huge role in Guardians, but not in the way it does in Star Wars. We’re not treated to a band playing local alien music as one would expect from a piece of fantastic science fiction. Instead, well, it’s pop music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As in Earth’s ‘60s and ‘70s. And it makes perfect sense.

Peter Quill, the protagonist of the film, was taken from earth in ’88, his only belongings what he had in his backpack, the most important of which is a mixtape of songs his mom made him before she passed away. It’s very much Quill’s only physical and emotional tie to Earth as he gallivants around the galaxy under the name of Star-Lord. There’s a good reason for the parachronistic anatopism that is his music. Furthermore, the placement of some of these songs is often key. Hearing a prison guard manhandle his Walkman and listen to “Hooked One a Feeling” provokes him into a fight, for example. The songs are personal for Quill.
They can be personal for the audience too. Guardians of the Galaxy is outlandish on a Star Wars level, which is odd for any movie, let alone one that shares its world with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Having Star-Lord listen to “Come And Get Your Love” while exploring a ruin on Morag immediately clues the audience in that, yes, we’re still in the same world of the 1988-set prologue.Having the characters listen to it also gives us a connection to them. Look at the spectators stomping and chanting “We Will Rock You” during the opening joust of A Knight’s Tale. Like inGuardians, it gives the audience something in common with the characters. We’re all listening to the same music.

Diegetic music can be used to great effect. Film critics love to cite the infamous patricidal mambo from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind as a prime example, but I’m gonna throw in Guardians of the Galaxy too. Diegetic music done right can do wonders to a film, be it through adding texture, granting intimacy to the audience, or serving as a character’s emotional touchstone. That and it’s pure fun to see Star Lord fly through space to “The Piña Colada Song.”

And yes, a lot of the music in The Sound of Music is diegetic, what with it being a musical and all.

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Playing With Expectations

In celebration of the wonder of Netflix, I decided to watch Drinking Buddies the other night. The premise is nothing new, Luke and Kate are coworkers with incredible chemistry who are, unfortunately, in relationships with other people.

What makes the movie such a joy is how the film plays with this idea. All the building blocks are in place, but the plot dances around them and subverts them. The scene where the Luke and Kate would/should kiss and fall in love is there. However, well, they don’t. Not then, and though the sexual tension is brimming between them, it never happens throughout the plot. Instead, the film looks at Luke’s relationship with his fiancée and Kate with her boyfriend while exploring the nature of Luke and Kate’s relationship. It’s been classified as a romantic comedy of sorts, but it disregards elements of the genre at will. Drinking Buddies teases the idea of a romance, but ultimately tells a story about, well, drinking buddies.

For someone who consumes as much media as I do it’s always fun to see a story that does something different (in a meaningful way, as opposed to just adding lesbians). Pacific Rim hit every beat the usual blockbuster does, but did so while running its own commentary on the world as it is. But I’ve written extensively on that movie (and will continue to do so), let’s look at another movie.

Like (500) Days of Summer (so much for something new). Like Drinking Buddies, it’s been billed as a rom-com and it, for all intents and purposes, at first seems to shape up to be one. One of the earliest scenes is of Tom and Summer sitting on a bench holding hands, a ring on her finger. We’re told this takes place on day 488, so we know it’s near the end. As an audience, we expect Tom and her to end up together, even as we see their relationship fall apart.

Many of the tropes of the romantic comedy are in full effect, yet they’re used almost ironically. Tom’s happy walk after getting together with Summer concludes with a flash-forward to his dejection after they break up. The whole idea of Meeting The One is taken brutally apart. But then, the narrator did say it was a story of boy meets girl, but not a love story. It plays with what we’d expect from the sort of movie it is, ultimately giving us something very different. And y’know what? It works.

Similarly, one would expect Scott Pilgrim vs The World would be a relatively straightforward movie: Scott fights Ramona’s seven evil exes in order to be with her. Basically an action movie’s formula mixed with a romantic comedy. Easy.

Only, this is Edgar Wright; it’s never that simple. As I said a couple weeks ago, the movie offers an interesting look at what’s vital in relationships. This isn’t what you, heck, this wasn’t what I expected at all when I first saw the movie. The movie seemed simple enough going in, but proved itself able to supersede both genres to create something new. Edgar Wright gave us an honest look at relationships through a comedic, video game-y, action-y lens. It did something different.

Back to Drinking Buddies, a movie unlike much else you’ll see; it’s slow, the dialogue is improvised, and not much happens. It’s a slice of life. I saw it based on a poster I’d seen a few months ago outside an independent cinema (and hey, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick) and while watching expected it to go the rom-com route. But it didn’t, and it didn’t in a way that made for an interesting story. And for that, it succeeds.

 

Writer’s note: The discrepancy that I harbor an intense dislike for Blue Is the Warmest Color yet really liked Drinking Buddies is not lost on me. Especially given the critical/audience dissonance on the former (that is, audiences didn’t like Drinking Buddies as much as critics did). Chalk this one up to personal taste.

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