Monday, September 13, 2010

500 Days...or One Year, Four Months, and Fifteen Days in a Life

by Conroy

I recently fell in love with the movie (500) Days of Summer [spoiler alert...critical details about this movie follow...]. Like Tom, the film's protagonist, I knew almost immediately that this was a great film. And fortunately, unlike Tom, the movie doesn't have to love me back. The tagline is:

"Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't."

That's it, a short synopsis of so many post-adolescent relationships. The story is Tom's, but it could be anyone's. How many of us have been in meaningful relationships - to us - but not to our partner? It has to be most of us right? We've felt the cruel mix of excitement and uncertainty; hope and doubt; eagerness and indecision. This type of story has been told plenty of times in plenty of forms, but (500) Days rises above whatever genre associations you may be tempted to apply. Writer/director Marc Webb and co-writer Scott Neustadtler enliven the movie with fresh elements that visually express what so many of us have felt when caught in the whirlwind of a powerful romance.

I will not dive into all of the little moments, and all those days, that make up the movie (though I do love the hyper-specificity of the counting days). The particulars are those of Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). They're moments we all recognize, we could substitute our own and the movie would work just as well. There's no great adventure, no wild action, no mystery to solve. Just moments of life. We experience the movie from Tom's perspective, and Summer stays at arm's length. We get to know her, but not well. That makes sense, this is a movie about how Tom saw, remembered, lived those 500 days. He never figured out Summer, never will.

The movie reminded me of another modern masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another movie of failed love, and memory, presented with haunting originality.

I could recommend much, but I want to focus on two aspects of the film that I find particularly effective, the narration (delivered by Richard McGonagle) and a wonderful, original use of the split screen. You can find a few samples of the narration below. The split screen is used more than once, but I am especially fond of a two minute sequence when we see Tom's sanguine expectations for an evening where he hopes to reunite with Summer, and the crushing reality of what actually happens. We see cold truth close out his dream. The sequence is hauntingly underpinned by Regina Spektor's "Hero." A portion of the sequence can be viewed here.

(500) Days of Summer, which starts early in January and ends in late May the following year, is not a perfect movie, but neither is love. It is a great movie, just not a happy love story.

For some examples of the splendid narration in (500) Days of Summer (transcribed from the film), use this link.

We are welcomed to the movie with:
"This is a story of by meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he would never truly be happy until he met 'The One.' This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate. The girl, Summer Finn of Shinnecock, Michigan, did not share this belief. Since the disintegration of her parent's marriage she'd only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair, the second was how easy she could cut it off and feel nothing. Tom meets Summer on January 8. He knows almost immediately that she's who he's been searching for. This is the story of boy meets girl, but you should know up front that this is not a love story."

The magnetism of attractive women (with absurdly specific stats):
"There's only two kinds of people in the world. There's women and there's men. Summer Finn was a woman. Height average, weight average, shoe size slightly above average. For all intents and purposes Summer Finn was just another girl. Except she wasn't. [See the lovely Ms. Deschanel to the right.] To wit, in 1998 Summer quoted a song by the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian in her high school year book: 'color my life with the chaos of trouble.' This spike in the Michigan sales of their album The Boy with the Arab Strap continues to puzzle industry analysts. Summer's employment at the Daily Freeze during her sophomore year coincided with an inexplicable 212% increase in revenue. Every apartment that Summer rented was offered at an average rate of 9.2% below market value. And her round trip commute to work averaged 18.2 double-takes per day. It was a rare quality this 'Summer' effect. Rare and yet something every post adolescent male has encountered at least once in their lives. For Tom Hansen to find it now in a city of 400,000 offices, 91,000 commercial buildings, and 3.8 million people, well that could only be explained by one thing -- fate."

On the moment you fall in love:
"For Tom Hansen this was the night when everything changed. That wall Summer so often hid behind, the wall of distance and space, of casual, that wall was slowly coming down. For here was Tom in her world, a place few had been invited to see with their own eyes. And here was Summer, wanting him there. Him, no one else...[intimate talk between Summer and Tom] he listened, Tom began to realize that these weren't stories routinely told. These were stories one had to earn. He could feel the wall coming down. He wondered if anyone else had made it this far, which is why the next six words changed everything...[Summer says, 'I've never told anyone that before']."

And finally, the prelude to the wonderful split screen rout of reality over expectations:
"Tom walked to her apartment intoxicated by the promise of the evening. He believed that this time, his expectations would align with reality..."

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