Tag Archives: applicability

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/

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

But What Does It All Mean?

When The Lord of The Rings was first published, there was a lot of talk about its relation to the second World War. It got to the point that in the foreword to a later edition, Tolkien explicitly said that no, it was not in any way an allegory of World War Two. Tolkien wasn’t a huge fan of allegories, to the point where he usually considered them detrimental to the story (and also the biggest flaw of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). Rather, he liked the idea of ‘applicability’; there is a point to it all, but it’s one for the reader to make up.

The Lord of The Rings does have major themes: the smallest can accomplish the biggest, teamwork over competition, war is bad, good wins; but there is no direct reference which gives it more latitude and reach. By opting for applicability, Tolkien gave Rings the leeway to mean more than he could have hoped; letting the book’s audience decide what they think is the most important part. Stories that dispense with an agenda allow more breadth of interpretations.

Like The Last of Us, an absolutely beautiful game. Is it about fatherhood? And if it is, what is it saying about it? Because the logline of protagonist Joel’s arc is inherently non-judgemental (a broken man who lost his daughter twenty years ago will go to extreme lengths to protect his newfound surrogate), it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not Joel is justified in his actions, let alone right. Is he doing what a father should? Or is he a monster playing at actually being someone decent? I love reading commentary on the game and various people’s takeaways. There’s room for discussion that makes the game so great.

Ulysses is another story like this. There’s not much plot, there’s not much in the way of a clear theme neither. The takeaway I got (and wrote a paper on) was that it is a book that lets you live as someone else for the altogether-too-much-time you’ll spend reading it; though everything external mayn’t be resolved, the book itself has the resolution that comes at the end of a day. But that was my takeaway; a friend of mine found more weight with Leopold Bloom’s interactions with women, another just plain hated the book. This space in interpretation is what lets us spend hours loudly discussing fictional characters’ sex lives over pizza and beer.

But being open to interpretation doesn’t mean ambiguous. Though the justification of Joel’s actions and long-term implications of Leopold Bloom’s day are up in the air, the events are clear. There’s no attempt from Neil Druckmann to obscure what Joel’s motivations are, and even though James Joyce makes Ulysses incredibly dense, it is possible to extract clear story details. Having no meaning is different from having many meanings. A story needs substance for it to have applicability. There are far less people who feel that “I Am The Walrus” describes their life than those that feel that way about “Here Comes The Sun.”

At the end of the day, one thing I love about applicability is its freedom. I don’t think stories should preach at you, they should be designed to entertain and let the reader experience and feel something they wouldn’t ordinarily. Firefly will forever be dear to me because it’s about life on a ship and Iron Man 3, way I see it, is a story about identity. Someone else will like (or hate) them for different reasons, and others will find my interpretations deeply flawed. But that’s the beauty of fiction. The story’s there on the page, on the screen, in the panels, prepared by the writer for you to understand in your own way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized