Quick Thoughts: “(500) Days of Summer”

I know, I know, I’m almost four years late to the party on this, but I just saw this movie and found it to be so fascinating that I had to put some words to (metaphorical) paper before my thoughts flew out of my head.

The first thought I had was that the narrator of the film is, essentially, correct:  “(500) Days of Summer” is not a love story.  Rather, it is fundamentally a movie about perception and personality, and the way that two people can, through no cooperative fault but simple difference in character, perceive a relationship in two completely different ways.  More specifically, the film pits rationality against impulse, and demonstrates with tact how both of these characteristics can be both virtues and vices, tools of growth and destruction, both.  In this way, the writers of the film achieved their objective to create a film that was both “unsentimental and uncynical,” in that it presents the relationship between Tom and Summer as a sheer conflict between two archetypal lenses of interpretation.

Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, Tom, embodies the characteristic of rationality.  This begins with his name, a common, concrete, distinct name that, while belonging to many other people, discretely identifies a human being.  This theme of concrete-ness, of one’s confidence in the human brain to interpret events and emotions in intelligible ways, is similarly represented in Tom’s training as an architect.  Architects, in constructing buildings, define the shape of the spaces in which people conduct their lives.  Tom believes he can do the same thing in his relationship with Summer.  He sees events they share together as milestones and indicators on a linear path progressing from acquaintanceship to friendship to romance.  He believes that he has the power to visualize the shape of the “space” he and Summer occupy together, and to shape it according to his will.  Tom is a creative person – his imagination constructs wholes from parts, and extrapolates from evidence.  This gives him the power to leverage his feelings for summer to temporarily become the guru of the greeting-card writers, and, more to the point of the film, to construct his relationship with Summer as he desires it to be from the pieces of his experience that are most favorable to that ideal.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the scene where Summer tells Tom her dreams – as the narrator says, when Summer says, “I’ve never told anybody that before,” Tom believes he has crossed a threshold, and gotten past the “wall” he believes Summer has put up in order to maintain the “casual” quality of their relationship.  Later, when Tom is invited to Summer’s rooftop party, his expectations and imagination clash so harshly with reality that Tom no longer has circumstantial evidence from which to formulate the ideal – the truth is simply so brutal that he can no longer use his architectural prowess to design a building to contain it within the boundaries of his ideals.

Summer, on the other hand, represents impulse and irrationality.  Her very name can be both a name and an everyday noun – it is ethereal, semi-real, almost unbelievable. Unlike Tom, whose job at the greeting card company is clearly represented as a settlement in the wake of failure to achieve his ideal career, Summer moves to Los Angeles “mostly out of boredom.”  She has a position as an assistant, dealing with situations as they arise, lacking the sort of self-directed knowledge that lets Tom see the “steps” of a relationship.  Even more subtly, there is not one clear scene that the audience can rationally understand Summer’s symbolism as an analogue for the quality of impulse.  After all, the story is told from Tom’s emotional perspective.  Rather, this conclusion must be inferred precisely from the lack of knowledge the audience has.  Her ethereality becomes a component of her character’s symbolism – absent the knowledge of why she does what she does, the audience can only infer, as Tom does towards the end of the film, that Summer “does what she wants,” beginning with her kissing Tom at the copier and continuing until the very end, when she grabs his hand on the park bench.

The scene where Tom and Summer pantomime a life together in an IKEA demonstrates both the virtue and the vice of each quality: rationality and impulse.  Notice Tom’s initiation of the scene: “Ah, home sweet home.”  He conveys a fundamental desire to settle, to follow the “script,” to find “the one.”  His initial line betrays his nature as a rationalist, goal-oriented, house-with-picket-fence-and-two-point-five-kids and everything.  Summer, on the other hand, adds elements of chaos, uncertainty:  “There’s something wrong with the TV.” She instinctively rejects the model home by pointing out its ultimately illusory nature.  This pattern continues throughout the scene as Summer serves imaginary meals and notes the broken sink, while Tom concretizes a solution to each uncertainty:  the imaginary meal is bald eagle, and it’s okay that the sink is broken because their home has two kitchens.  For a moment, Summer is almost converted, and Tom seems, for just a second, to have convinced her that the dream life, the created, imaginative relationship Tom fantasizes about, is real – then, as they fall on the bed and Summer voices her desire for a “casual” relationship, the illusion is shattered and each character returns to their respective pole. Tom’s rationality and Summer’s impulsivity work together virtuously to create a humorous, harmonious bonding experience, but the structure of the scene also betrays the utter and fundamental differences between the two of them.

The great thing about “(500) Days of Summer,” though is that it presents this dichotomy without overt judgment.  Yes, the narrative is ultimately focused around Tom’s feelings, and we feel terrible for the pain he suffers.  But, he is not a martyr – in his blindness to the numerous red flags that come up along the way, starting with their first kiss, in fact, he was in a sense the architect of his own heartbreak.  Similarly, while Summer’s impulsive behavior often seems nonsensical and even morally reprehensible at times, the film does not condemn her.  Indeed, in the end, it preserves her impulsivity in the timeless annals of Tom’s own mental boxes, in her personal epiphany of love as proof that Tom was “right,” and true love and fate are real things.  The film does not conclude that Summer’s conclusion is the correct one – rather, it hints that this is an impulse just like any other, but it also does not tear her down.

Thus “(500) Days of Summer” is less a story about love than it is about the differences between two kinds of people:  those who are sure (Tom), and those who are unsure (Summer).  Tom’s sureness gives him great fidelity, and an admirable depth of love and passion, but it also blinds him to Summer’s faults, deepens the pain of his heartbreak, and forces him to concoct the illusion of winning the girl back because, for him, it simply must be so, because he is sure. While we know little about Summer’s mind, her impulsivity creates her allure, makes her fun, interesting, surprising – it gives her the courage to kiss Tom, and do what Tom’s temperament of sureness paralyzed him from doing: to initiate the romance.  However, her impulsive nature also creates uncertainty, leads Tom into believing things he shouldn’t, to fall deeper in love than is wise.  Summer isn’t leading him on in the sense that she is “using” him as a tool for personal fulfillment.  More simply, she just doesn’t know what she feels – unlike Tom, who, in the wake of being unsure, takes no action, Summer acts on her emotion from moment to moment.  She may, after all, love Tom – her actions at the end of the movie hint that might be the case.  It is equally likely that she may not.  The point is precisely that just as the audience does not know how Summer truly feels, neither does she.  This is illustrated precisely in the scene where Summer (impulsively) shows up at Tom’s apartment to make up after their first fight:


TOM:  Summer… we don’t have to label what we’re doing.  I  just… I need – 


SUMMER: I know –


TOM:  Consistency.  I need to know you won’t wake up tomorrow and feel a different way.


SUMMER:  I can’t promise you that.  No one can…

This scene is beautiful, and poignant, in that it does not judge either Tom or Summer, but simply represents the fundamental way in that each of them are at different points in their lives, and perceive and interpret the same relationship (and even some of the same emotions) in completely different ways.

The cruel aspect of this dichotomy is that even as this fundamental difference between Summer and Tom creates the schism between them, it also forms the foundation of the joy in their romance, from the improvisation in IKEA to the apology after the bar fight – Tom needs Summer’s impulsivity to overcome the natural pessimism of his temperament, and she needs his concreteness to feel truly, wholly, and steadily loved in a way that defies her own flighty instincts.  Perhaps most importantly, the film suggests that these qualities, of sureness and unsureness, of rationality and impulsivity, are not immutable, and can change – a person is not a complete idea, as Tom seems to believe, nor a sheer abstraction, as Summer’s actions intimate, but something in-between, possessing characteristics that are simultaneously solid and liquid. By the end of the film some measure of inversion has taken place – Summer has settled down, and Tom has begun to doubt his romantic idealism.  The end of the film is ambiguous enough to suggest, however, that neither person has truly abandoned their previous nature.  Why do Summer and Tom fall apart, then, if their respective traits are, in some strange way, complimentary, and if their experience with one another helps them ameliorate the excesses of their characteristics?  What happened?

We don’t know – perhaps Summer is right, in the end here:  “What always happens.  Life.”Image

“Django Unchained”: Artistic Iteration and our shared Racial Conscience

This Tumblr post has come my way via Facebook recently. I understand and am highly sympathetic to the anger the blogger reacts with in this post. As someone who spends a lot of thought-energy contemplating the way that Asian men are emasculated and humiliated in modern media, I totally get it. Finding developed, full-bodied, truly human minority characters is often difficult in film, and when a filmmaker (in this case Tarantino) builds upon media tropes with a racist history in such an ostensibly flagrant way, anger is completely understandable.

However, we must make sure that our anger does not overcome our rational judgment, nor our ability to judge a work of art on its merits, and the way the structure of that art might be messing with our expectations. I saw this film just a couple days ago, and I have to say I don’t agree with some of the factual assertions made about the film in this post.

The first issue to address is the notion that Tarantino has somehow set out making a chronicle of slavery, and the inherent assumption in the article that Tarantino’s choices as a filmmaker construct “Django” as a piece of film meant to have each of its elements interpreted literally.

The first thing to recognize is that as a Tarantino movie, the film is appropriating huge amounts of genre tropes and regurgitating them in unexpected combinations. In “Django”, he’s mixing the spaghetti western with blaxsploitation with Norse mythology. The combination is the kind of parodic and intensely self-aware experience that is typical of Tarantino – his refusal to obey the dicta of a single genre liberates his characters, I think, from the kind of lazy blanket interpretation we’re so used to making in film. Part of the brilliance of his films is the fact that he uses our rich (and often dark) cultural history in order to subvert our expectations and create rich characters that defy the boxes we, with our trained media consciousness, want to put them into. I appreciate and am sympathetic towards the critique that the comical ultraviolence makes a cartoon out of a very real, unambiguous, and sadistic institution. However, I do think there is an alternate interpretation.

One aspect of the film that the Tumblr post does not recognize is its essential nature as a homage to the spaghetti western. As such, the author of the post also fails to recognize the long history of the spaghetti western as a vehicle for trojan-horse social criticism. I could try and write about this on my own, but this article from New York Magazine does a much better job of explaining the genre than I can:

…[D]espite their reputation as a vehicle for cheap thrills and badly dubbed Eastwoodian one-liners, many spaghetti Westerns turned the iconography of the American West inside out and revealed it to be full of lies. Nobody should be surprised that Django Unchained, in its homage to this most subversive of genres, fully adopts its revolutionary spirit and moral outrage.

Go read the article – it lists a huge number of American and Italian-directed Westerns that subversively critiqued the era they were set in, making poignant statements against majority-culture soapboxes of the time. Spaghetti Westerns have spoken against McCarthyism, shown solidarity to Irish Nationalists, and, always, poked holes in the nostalgic libertarian paradise that is the whitewashed vision of the Wild West. As such, when considering “Django Unchained”, its status as, essentially, a spaghetti western with blaxsploitation elements should give the literalist critic pause – Tarantino may be shameless and sadistic in aspects of his filmmaking, but he’s not dumb, and above all he is an acolyte of film as art and a devoted student of its history. As such, it would be unfair, I think, to look at the elements of the film individually and judge the intent of the filmmaker without considering these contextual elements.

In addition, Tarantino’s cameo as an Australian slaver and even Calvin Candie himself can be read as Tarantino’s self-criticism, as his acknowledgement of the charges leveled against him, and his admission, to a certain extent, of sacrificing moral sentiment at the altar of artistic expression. His cameo character is quite literally an ignoramus who profits from the material exploitation of white racism, such as people like Spike Lee have often accused him of being. And the most evil character in the film, the sadistic Candie, has elements of this self-criticism as well – he makes several monologues justifying his racism by having been “surrounded by black faces,” a rather obvious reference to Tarantino’s earlier justifications for, for example, his infamous scene in Pulp Fiction. Whether this self-critique exonerates him in any way is debatable, of course, but it’s worth pointing out that the film is more nuanced than the article gives it credit for.

The article also draws conclusions from what, I think, are factual inaccuracies about the prevalence of black characters and the nature of the relationship between Cristoph Waltz’s character and Jamie Foxx’s.

First is the idea that Django himself barely says anything for “90% of the film.” This is simply factually untrue. The whole first 2/3rds of the film revolves around the friendship between Django and Schultz, and is developed through extensive, long dialogue scenes between the two. The last third of the film focuses on Django himself exclusively, and, well, there’s so much action that there’s barely any dialogue anyway, and when there is Django is the camera’s focus.

Second is the idea that Kerry Washington’s “damsel in distress” character is a “mute and helpless” one. While it is true that the character is not possessed of a particularly progressive feminism, you have to take into context the idea that Django’s whole quest is a paradigm of the Norse myth of Siegfried and Brumhilde. Brunhilde (Washington’s character) is being held captive in a circle of hellfire (the plantation) and guarded by a dragon (Candie), who Siegfried (Django) must pass through and defeat in order to win his bride. And then that classic mythological narrative is spun through the lens of the spaghetti western setting and the “revenge on the man” blaxsploitation theme. Brunhilde is, until Django is reunited with her, presented as a vision and a dream. The reason she doesn’t say hardly anything for most of the movie is because, in the plot, they are literally not in her physical vicinity.

Speaking of which, the post also doesn’t mention Brunhilde as the utter rejection of the usual angry, violently vengeful black female from the blaxsploitation era, which I thought was interesting.

Finally, vis a vis the “comic” violence towards black people and the “lightness” towards the KKK alleged in the film, I think it misses the boat entirely on the substance of the film.

None of the most brutal violence depicted towards slaves in this film is played comedically, at all. It is horrific, meant to be so, and becomes precisely Tarantino’s hallowed revenge motive as almost all of his recent films have. I literally cannot think of a single time in the film where the torture of slaves is played for laughs. Is the violence gratuitous? For some people, certainly. For me, as someone whose cultural history is also glossed over in media in terms of the violence visited upon my ancestors in the railyards, it was in a way refreshing to understand how utterly dehumanizing and sick the institution of slavery was. It is a direct and brutal response to the “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” zip-ee-dee-do-dah characterization of slavery, and it’s tremendously effective. It is decidedly not played for laughs.

The scene with the “KKK” (technically not, since they did not form until after the Civil War), is not a “light” treatment of the lynch mob, but an evisceration of their power – it takes the tool of fear, the white mask, and inverts it as a comic spectacle. He quite literally shows how racism blinds people to rationality and truth by constructing an entire scene full of people complaining how the white hood restricts their ability to “see” properly. To suggest that the lighter tone of the scene somehow props up white supremacy as “not that bad” is baffling. Yes, it is a comic scene, and it is funny precisely because it injects the small problems of organizing large groups into a normally serious context. However, the effect is not to make the mob seem nicer or less vicious, but rather to rob them of their power of fear. It is an antagonistic stance from Tarantino, not a sympathetic one.

Oh, I forgot to talk about DiCaprio’s performance. This point is the weakest of all in the tumblr post. I simply don’t understand how an actor creating an extraordinarily effective performance can be reasonably interpreted as “being a convincing racist,” when that is the character’s entire purpose. By this measure, any actor who plays a believable villain can be accused of secretly harboring the vice and evil their character possesses – this strikes me as rather silly.

Sorry for the length, but I think the film deserves a more nuanced critique than the article suggests. I understand the arguments against it and appreciate them, but generally dismissing the film (with factual inaccuracies, no less) without even considering the nuanced ways in which it attempts to escape the confines of its genres is, I think, intellectually and morally unsatisfying.