(500) Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, is one of my favorite films of the past couple of years. Released in 2009, and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the film tells the story of a relationship. This is a story of “boy meets girl,” but this is not a “love story”, as the narrator informs the audience at the beginning of the film. The main narrative plot of the film follows Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he meets, courts, falls in love, and eventually has his heart broken by Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Summer is the epitome of the “manic pixie dream girl,” as many critics and observers have pointed out. She loves to play games where she screams obscenities in the park, or pretend that the displays at Ikea are her house. However, despite Summer’s eccentricities, this film is about Tom. It’s his perspective we see this relationship in, as well as the famous “expectations vs. reality” scene, and it is him that the film follows right through the end and the promise of a new beginning with a girl named Autumn. This is very much Tom’s story.
Or is it?
Two people, with a void between them.
I think something that only becomes apparent about (500) Days of Summer one repeat viewings is how much it is about duality. Like the concept of a romantic couple itself, the film is focused on this idea of two. There are many prominent examples of there being two choices, two frames of mind, two perspectives, etc. Like the relationship, this isn’t a story about one person, it is the story about two.
“You’re not the only one who gets a say in this! I do too! And I say we’re a couple, God dammit!”- Tom
In both the general story of the film and the way it is edited and shot, there is noticeable duality to the film, emphasizing the before and after of Tom and Summer’s relationship, their differing opinions on love, and Tom’s fantasy of summer being “the One” contrasted with the reality of their situation.
Two frames, one still: the cinematic nature of emphasizing duality in relationships
The opening credits to the film take place after the audience has been introduced to both the major characters, and have been told by a narrator that this a “boy meets girl” story. While the credits are taking place, the film shows two images on each side of the screen: one of childhood home movies of Tom, the other of childhood home movies of Summer. While this technique is used later in the film (most notably to show Summer and Tom both having restless nights after a heated argument), it is best utilized during the opening credits because it truly emphasizes what I think is one of the main points of the film: relationships happen between two people, and because of that, it means accepting a person’s past, emotional baggage, eccentricities, etc. Seeing the different early lives of these two characters who we already know are going to meet and fall in love helps the idea sink in that the very nature of romantic relationships and attachment is about duality.
These are two fully realized human beings who had entire lives before one another, and are hardly fated to be with one another.
There is another sequence that focuses on utilizing two perspectives at once to show the different paths the characters have gone down. Tom is shown alone on a bus ride on one side of the screen, while Summer gets married (to a man that isn’t Tom) on the other.
When Summer and Tom share a kiss on the bed in Ikea, each of them takes up half the screen. They are together when they kiss, but then are separated as the kiss ends and Summer informs Tom she isn’t “looking for anything serious.” This is cinematic image that helps reinforce the concept that two become one briefly, only to become separate again, which could be a metaphor for the entire structure of the film itself.
The idea of two separate images running on each half of the screen also comes up in the famous “expectation vs. reality” scene which I will talk about later.
Befores and afters: Mirror scenes
The film actually begins at the end of the movie. The first shot is of Tom and Summer on day 488 of Tom’s 500 days of Summer. This mirroring of various events in the movie that takes place further emphasizes the overall dual nature of the film. Most importantly the duality of Tom while he is in a relationship with Summer and Tom after the relationship has ended. Their breakup is actually one of the earliest scenes seen in the film, and does well to emphasize this topsy-turvy nature. The end is at the beginning, but both initially seem separate from one another. The beginning of the relationship seems different from the end because the audience has not discovered how one led to the other. Then, the audience sees day 1 of their relationship immediately after the break-up scene. Once again, this emphasizes the separateness of the beginning and end of their relationship.
The character of Tom has two moments where he talk about Summer, while the same montage containing images of Summer plays. However, one scene takes place before their breakup, and the other one takes place after it. These scenes are mostly identicals. Tom is even talking about the same features on Summer, just in different contexts. Because the only difference is in what Tom is saying, and this serves as a mirror that emphasize the duality of how Tom feels about Summer during their relationship and after their breakup.
I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love this heart-shaped birthmark she has on her neck. I love the way sometimes she licks her lips before she talks. I love the sound of her laugh. I love the way she looks when she’s sleeping.
I hate her crooked teeth. I hate her 1960s haircut. I hate her knobby knees. I hate her cockroach-shaped splotch on her neck. I hate the way she smacks her lips before she talks. I hate the way she sounds when she laughs.
Same images. Different contexts
A great cinematic example of this separation occurs when Tom has completed his fantasy dance sequence to “You Make My Dreams”, he enters the elevator. When the elevator opens again, the film has flashed forward in time to after the break-up, and Tom looks disheveled and haggard.
Contrasted with how he was when entered the elevator...
There are also dueling scenes of Summer growing disinterested in activities she and Tom used to engage in, most notably pretending they live in the display house at the Ikea. The scene opens with Tom trying to engage Summer in playing the fantasy game, only to have her walk away. The film follows that with an immediate cuts to the original situation that inspired him to act like that.
In addition, Tom and Summer’s first conversation on a bench in a public park overlooking Los Angeles mirrors the conversation they have on the same bench at the end of the film (and the one that is seen briefly as the opening shot of the film).
Both endings and beginnings take place on this bench.
Love vs. disbelief in love
This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he'd never truly be happy until the day 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.
This mostly relates to the narrative, but there is a separation and duality between how Tom and Summer view the nature of love, respectively.
Summer: I just don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend. I don’t actually feel comfortable being anyone’s anything… I like being on my own. Relationships are messy, and people’s feelings get hurt…
Tom: What happens if you fall in love?
Summer: Well, you don't believe that, do you?
Tom: It's love. It's not Santa Claus.
Summer: What does that word even mean? I’ve been in relationships, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.A barrier exists between Tom and Summer that will come to define the rest of their relationship. Tom believes in love, Summer doesn’t. Their conversation actually ends not with a compromise on the nature of love, but with Summer stating “agree to disagree”, meaning that there will continue with these dual perspectives rather than compromise. What is separate will remain separate for the time being, and for the rest of the film.
In a cinematic perspective, there are a lot of cuts between Summer and Tom, emphasizing that these are two different people who view the issue of love different. There is a lot of shot-reverse-shot. However, most of the time when the other one is talking, it’s over the shoulder of the person they’re talking to. Here, the duality of their two opinions begin to merge as one is always in the shot as the other one is talking. Because of this, it could be argued that is supposed to symbolize the opinions of the other never being truly separate for their mutual feelings for each other.
Tom is always in the shot as Summer explains her feelings about the nature of love.
Expectation (fantasy) vs. reality
“There’s no such thing as love, it’s fantasy.”- Summer
Ultimately, in both the story and cinematic analysis, I feel as if the most important thing is the duality that exists between fantasy and reality. It is this message that it is important because the film seems to be saying that the fantasy that Summer represents for Tom is better than the reality of realizing they are incompatible.
Earlier in the film, as the narrator introduces the characters, it is said that Tom got his belief in love in part from “a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” The Graduate in this context is supposed to represent fantasy. Later in the movie, Summer and Tom go see The Graduate. It is Summer who has a very visceral reaction to the film, and this triggers their break-up. It could be argued that this represents a transfer of the concepts of fantasy and reality. Tom, who had been living in a fantasy world, comes to realize the problems of reality, while Summer could realize from her viewing of The Graduate that there is no way for reality to emulate the fantasy of what she just saw.
The film has a number of fantasy sequences. Most notable (and my personal favorite) is the now-iconic sequence set to the Hall and Oates’ song “You Make My Dreams”. Tom wakes up after a night of initial sex with Summer to check himself out in the mirror, only to discover the reflection looking back at him is that of Harrison Ford as Han Solo at the end of Star Wars.
The dance sequence itself involves perfect strangers dancing and celebrating Tom’s accomplishment of bedding Summer. A marching band appears, as does an animated blue bird. There is no doubt that this is fantasy, and that it is supposed to represent Tom projecting his happiness by believing that the world celebrates his victory with him. On a cinematic level, the fact that most of the people in the dance are wearing blue emphasizes the dream-like nature of the sequence.
Notice all the blue?
Another fantasy sequence involves a time when Tom and Summer go to the movies, and Tom apparently envisions himself in the film-within-a-film. The sequence seems to have been inspired by the films of Jean-Luc Goddard and Ingmar Bergman, among others. This seems to serve a narrative purpose in that Tom is placing the “fantasy” of his and Summer’s relationship into the context of the “real” movie. The real world is starting to interfere with the fantasy of Tom’s construct of his relationship with Summer. This scene in which the character watches a movie is not unlike The Graduate scene.
However, in another impressive sequence, the film shows us a scene in which Tom goes to a party at Summer’s house he was invited to from the perspectives of “Expectation” and “Reality.” Like the opening credits of the film, the two perspectives are on either side of the screen. While the “Expectation” side shows how Tom wishes the events of the evening would go down (Summer greets him with a kiss, they talk all night, and they appear to get back together), the “Reality” side shows a disinterested Summer engaging with other party guests. The film then merges completely with the “Reality” side to show that Summer has gotten engaged. This merges the cinematic quality of the halved screen with the concept that the reality of situation has killed the fantasy.
There is also an early sequence that seems to blind the two concepts of fantasy and reality together. There is a reporting by the narrator, who should be taken to be omniscient, as to Summer’s history. This includes information about her height, weight, and shoe size. However, then there are diversions about her past, such as the fact that her high school yearbook quote led to a rise in sales of a Belle and Sebastian album in Michigan that “puzzled industry analysts.” Another diversion is when Summer’s job at a local ice cream shop led to, as the audience is told, “a 212% increase in revenue.” Finally, the audience is told Summer averages 18.4 double-takes from men a day. Whether or not these facts and anecdotes are true doesn’t matter, but helps paint Summer as something grounded in the real (the narrator keeps stating how “average” she truly is) but yet able to take on larger-than-life characteristics, which parallels how Tom eventually comes to see her.
Conclusion: Two people, one story
Conclusion: Two people, one story
Not every couple can be Romeo and Juliet...
Summer: You’re happy?
Tom: You’re not?
Summer: All we do is argue.
Tom: That is bullshit!
Summer: This can’t come as a total surprise to you. I mean we've been like Sid and Nancy for months now.
Tom: Summer, Sid stabbed Nancy, seven times with a kitchen knife, I mean we have some disagreements but I hardly think I'm Sid Vicious.
Summer: No, I'm Sid.
Tom: Oh, so I'm Nancy...
Summer: Let's just eat and we'll talk about it later. Mmm, that is good, I'm really glad we did this. I love these pancakes... what?
[Tom gets up and walks away from the table]
Summer: Tom, don't go! You're still my best friend!
Ultimately, what makes (500) Days of Summer unique in comparison to other romantic comedies is that it very much emphasizes the duality that is the essence of falling in, falling out and being in love. It does this in both terms of the narrative structure of the film (the hopping back in forth in time emphasizing separation, the differing views on love, the ideas of fantasy vs. reality, etc. ) and the cinematic way it was filmed. (The framing of shots, the editing, halving the screen and having each side devoted to an individual character, etc.) This is not a film that shies away from the hard parts of falling and being in love. Our society always emphasizes “two becoming one” in terms of romantic relationships, particularly of marriage. What (500) Days of Summer teaches, and emphasizes through its witty screenplay and cunning visuals, is that train of thought seems to compromise the individual identity of someone within a relationship.