Introduction

            (500) Days of Summer premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and has gone on to earn critical acclaim and numerous accolades, including two awards for best screenplay and two Golden Globe nominations. The romantic comedy follows the relationship between Tom and Summer, young lovers who meet at work where Tom writes greeting cards. As the narrator points out as the movie opens, “This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story” (500 Days of Summer). Instead, the film follows a coming-of-age pattern with the protagonist having a better understanding of and stronger foundation for future love with his soul mate.

The movie follows the ups and downs of Tom and Summer’s relationship, showing events anachronously. The narrator plays a key role in indicating the stage of the relationship and Tom’s condition therein. As a heterodiegetic narrator, the voice coincides with Tom’s point of view. The male perspective here characterizes Summer as the idealized perfect woman, a figure he must ultimately release to find “the one” for him. Tom experiences “The Summer Effect,” where his romantic endeavor takes him down a path of discovery, and ultimately affirmation, of his beliefs about soul mates. His quest reflects the American culture’s desire to find true romance, despite knowledge of the potential pain involved in this journey. A narrative reconstruction of (500) Days of Summer, emphasizing characterization through a close examination of Summer, Tom’s romance with her, and the quest for love depicted in the film and the role of the narrator and other narrative cues, highlights the film’s focus that not all romances are love stories but that the journey toward the soul mate continues, always prevailing over the struggles involved.

Literature Review

            Characterization involves depicting ideals and standards encountered in the culture. This includes perspectives on love. Particularly romance films revolve around the quest for love, one that resembles a fairy tale. These storylines reflect the culture’s emphasis on finding “the one.”

In their Sociological Perspectives article “The End of Romance: The Demystification of Love in the Postmodern Age,” James J. Dowd and Nicole R. Palotta examine American society’s evolving perceptions of love, particularly as movies have reflected those sentiments over the course of film history. People today still hope to get married and have a family. That desire fuels individuals as they strive to move forward in their lives. While certain characteristics have changed over the years, the core emphasis to find a soul mate still resonates.

This article also describes obstacles to love that appear on the screen. A newer obstacle used in modern film includes circumstances. They use Annie Hall as an example, a movie to which some compare (500) Days of Summer. Other recent examples used throughout the article include When Harry Met Sally, The Horse Whisperer, and Message in a Bottle. They use these examples to look at circumstances as obstacles as well as other romantic ideals represented on the screen.

As examined by the scholars writing “Demystification,” lovers seen on the screen reflect the admirable traits of romance and of ideal partners. These themes include the individuals’ self-discovery and quest for their soul mates. Characters uphold admirable qualities; the way in which they search and the traits they exhibit reflect those that audiences desire for themselves. Lauren Berlant closely examines love, in terms of femininity especially. Her study takes an in-depth look at culture’s view at love. This includes the fantasy of it and the role of women in culture.

The ideology of love, as indicated in this book and article, involves pursuing love despite the pain it can bring, as all people and characters know. Attaining the ultimate goal of romance with a soul mate encourages individuals to take the risk. The hope of love keeps them moving forward, not just toward a partner but toward personal goals as well. Berlant describes how “memory is the enemy of love,” describing this paradox. In her discussion, she points out how individuals must both put the memory of pain and struggle involved with relationships behind them as they step forward to the memorialized aspects associated with love.

Jahn examines narrators and their role in the progression of films. He looks at the types and how and what information they reveal. A heterodiegetic narrator relates information from outside the setting. Characters on the screen do not interact with this person. The voice takes on the role of progressing the sequence of events. It reveals the greater context of the events. The timing of the narrator’s interjections can indicate phases of the character’s journey or hint at the significance of events as they unfold. Other cues like time and locations written on the screen also signify setting. The narrative structure of events also plays into the flow of the narrative. Porter, et al. describe elements of narrative structure, which include the crucial kernels that progress the story. The stages include stasis, disruption, conflict, climax, resolution, and denouement.

Analysis

Characterization

After Tom’s first sighting of Summer, the narrator interjects to describe her and the “Summer Effect.” The story starts with an outright description of Summer as the ideal woman. A black and white flashback coincides with the narrator sharing the perception of Summer, particularly her effect on men. She has the ideal height and build; the picture pauses as it shows her features like “average” height at 5’2 and “slightly above average shoe size” at 8 (500 Days of Summer). It continues to describe how she had an effect on record and ice-cream sales by mentioning songs and working at the ice-cream shop. The narrator also shares that her trips to and from work garnered her a significant number of double takes (500 Days of Summer). Clearly, she possesses traits desired by the typical male; she draws a lot of attention.

Yet as the film points out at the beginning, Tom merely experiences the Summer Effect. He thinks he has found the perfect woman. A quote from the director in Eva Wiseman’s Guardian article says that people involved in the film had gone through difficult breakups in their younger years. He points out how it was “By perfect girls. But of course there’s no such thing. In Tom’s eyes, Summer is perfection, but perfection has no depth. Summer’s not a girl; she’s a phase.” Tom hopes to find his soul mate in Summer, and he follows his belief as he gives the romance a shot, developing his relationship with Summer as much as he can.

Summer’s initial description sets the tone for the ideal woman and quest for “the one” theme. As the narrator points out, “Tom almost immediately knows that she is the one he’s been searching for” (500 Days of Summer). The movie follows his love for Summer as he hopes she falls in love with him. Tom’s belief in soul mates coincides with those found in culture. Dowd and Palotta’s “The End of Romance Article” describes how this ties into stories: “The movies, in other words, serve as a cultural resource, a repository of both older and contemporary estimations of the rules of romance. It is through movies, and other cultural products, that the ethical boundaries of everyday life are constructed, revised, and maintained” (554). They also note how people in the current society would look for a compatible partner rather realistically, they would still refer to a spouse as a soul mate “yet also understand that he or she is almost certainly not the only one who might be so described” (553). Tom adjusts his perspective of soul mate to be closer to that of this description by the end of the movie. Most importantly, though, he still steps forward in his search for “the one.”

After Tom and Summer start spending more time together, developing a romance, the narrator interjects again. He affirms the progression of the relationship when he describes, “For Tom Hansen, this was the night where everything changed. That wall Summer so often hid behind, that wall of distance, space, 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 here, him, no one else” (500 Days of Summer). The narrator confirms that Tom could feel the wall coming down. This section of the movie particularly exemplifies qualities to follow in terms of venturing into love.

Lauren Berlant presents the paradox that memory is the enemy of love. As she describes her view on culture’s approach to love and the amnesia it requires, she explains how that adjustment plays into people’s romantic actions, particularly in terms of recognizing the fantasized version of love that presents a utopian romance. To this, she writes, “The individual bears the burden of adjusting to bad theory. The ideology of normal love can only survive when the relation between the utopian and the practical contexts for loving is a relation of amnesia and displacement” (Berlant, 179). Tom presses forward with his interest in Summer despite his prior knowledge of the potential heartbreak involved in relationships. As indicated during the beginning scene where his friends and brothers support him immediately after Summer calls off the relationship, Tom has endured breakups previously (500 Days of Summer). Yet he clearly holds love in high esteem and remains optimistic about finding it.

The narrator describes Tom’s notion in finding “the one” at the onset of the film. He indicates that Tom has searched his whole life for his soul mate (500 Days of Summer). During the first night Tom and Summer hang out together, when they go with their work crew to karaoke night at a bar, they have a discussion on their views of love. In this, Summer asserts that she doesn’t believe in it because it doesn’t exist. As she states, “It’s fantasy” (500 Days of Summer). Tom, however, maintains his optimistic view. He view extends beyond the messiness of relationships that Summer avoids. He recognizes that the positive aspects of the romance outweigh the bad ones. His view reflects Berlant’s description: “When people enter into love’s contract with the promise of recognition and reciprocity, they hope memory will be shaped by it, minimizing the evidence of failure, violence, ambivalence, and social hierarchy that would otherwise make love a most anxious desire for an end to anxiety” (Berlant, 179).

However, he continues to struggle with accepting the practical side Berlant points out that must balance with the utopian view. This balance reflects the adjusted view of love in recent days described by Dowd and Pallotta. They point out how people look for compatibility in multiple areas, but also that “we might describe our lover as our soulmate yet also understand that he or she is almost certainly not the only one who might so be described” (Dowd & Pallotta 553). Tom maintains his idealized image of Summer as the perfect woman. Even his sister points out how “just because she likes all the same crap as you do doesn’t make her your soul mate” as he lists off their similar interests (500 Days of Summer).

By the time a narration interjects again, Tom and Summer have broken up. This time though, an image of Tom sets the tone. Tom goes to the movies alone, and the protagonist in the film resembles him in looks and situation. The film depicts a sad, broken man, whom the narrator describes in another language. The initial subtitles read: “He is broken. More than broken, he is alone. Now his only friend is grief” (500 Days of Summer). When Tom and Summer appear on the screen, they take turns saying, “suffering,” as the subtitles read, “Suffering. Endless suffering” (500 Days of Summer). At this point they cannot look at each other. That reflects their real life situation where they have separated and need the distance to cope with the situation. This goes back to Berlant’s paradox with memory and love. He finds himself in the middle of the pains people must overcome to willingly delve into love. Tom gets beat in the chess match, indicating a hit in his love journey. Yet as Berlant points out, the memorialized associations with love win out over the pain. Tom will continue moving forward to find his soul mate. Tom’s grieving process reflects culture’s knowledge that delving into romantic possibilities includes risk of pain.

The narrator describes another key concept when he interjects for the fourth time. He explains Tom’s hopes that for once his expectations will match with reality as he reunites with Summer after bumping into her at a wedding for a mutual work friend. This especially coincides with the acknowledgement of reality as set forth by Berlant and Dowd and Palotta. In efforts to describe the complex practical side of finding a mate Dowd and Palotta write, “We think of love, in other words, as a significant undertaking, an investment in our future well-being, that must be approached carefully and rationally. Few adults today take seriously the notion that we each have a perfect match, someone in the world who would complete us as a missing piece does a puzzle” (553). Tom finally accepts that Summer will not fulfill this role for him when he sees her engagement ring and leaves her party. This final reality check helps him move forward after the last of his grief, opening himself back up for new possible potential women. He moves to a place where he knows the struggles involved with the quest for love but that it is worth the risk.

The final narration happens at the movie’s close, and it emphasizes the unending hope in the quest for “the one.” The narrator makes it sound as if Tom’s lesson would involve him deciding that his belief that “the one” for him exists actually proved false. He says, “Tom had finally learned there were no miracles. There was no such thing as fate. Nothing was meant to be,” but then asserts his core belief as he continues, “He was pretty sure” (500 Days of Summer). His hope stays steadfast, and he returns to ask the woman out. Her statement that he must not have been looking sunk in as he initially walked away, nearly letting the opportunity escape him. This shows that love can be anywhere, that individuals should remain open for the potential.

Narrative Elements

Overall, these narrator interjections reflect the stages of the narrative structure as outlined by Porter, et al. They go as follows: stasis, disruption, conflict, climax, resolution, and denouement. At the very beginning, the narrator describes Tom’s life and establishes that he has been searching for “the one.” This sets up the story, shows the history before the film’s events. The disruption happens when, after Tom meets Summer, the narrator describes the Summer Effect and that Tom is about to experience it. It switches to the conflict stage when the narrator points out a particular day was the day that everything changed, signifying the evolution of Tom and Summer’s relationship. The climax occurs after they have broken up and the movie Tom watches with his image on the screen emphasizes his grief and suffering. He starts to see some resolution as the narrator shares Tom’s hopes that maybe his expectations will finally coincide with reality. After the split screen of expectations vs reality, he starts to make his way back to his single stasis. By the time the narrator has his last description, Tom is ready to continue his search for “the one” as he meets a woman named Autumn.

The narrator plays a crucial role in progressing Tom’s romance and journey in (500) Days of Summer. The male voice does not belong to any character on the screen, and his face never appears. This outsider serves as an observer of Tom’s thoughts and progress. His interjections occur at stages of Tom and Summer’s relationship, and it tips off the audience about what will happen, reminding viewers of the complications of romance. The narrator knows as much about Summer as does Tom and the audience. Yet, he does demonstrate an understanding of the romance surrounding her and what Tom will experience, particularly when he describes the Summer Effect and notes the film will follow Tom’s journey through that.

The film also has help in showing the progression of the relationship through the day number showing on the screen as the scenes and times change. These numbers appear in a sketch-like picture with a tree; the tree and color of the background also reflect Tom’s emotional state. The tree goes through seasonal phases, ranging from bare branches to lush green covered branches. The background follows similar suit, ranging from various levels of blue to dark grey. As the days flash on the screen between scenes, they reflect Tom’s state. When his relationship with Summer progresses and flourishes, the tree gets more green leaves and the sky gets bluer. The tree stays completely bare against a dark grey background as he goes through his grief period after the breakup. A few days before the breakup, the leaves have turned yellow. This coincides with nature’s fall season of leaves turning colors in preparation for winter, a grievous season like the post breakup stage.

Yet by the time Tom recovers from his relationship with Summer, the tree becomes lush again, like him. He meets a new potential “one,” and the final sketch looks like painting. The tree becomes full and even includes buds, and a sun with big rays radiates the sky. This goes back to the ultimate quest for “the one.” Tom maintains his hope and belief that she exists and ventures forward, taking the risks. This once a gain goes back to Berlant’s concepts. It also exemplifies the most admirable trait in searching for love: steadfast hope and faithful endurance.

Discussion

            This film reflects culture’s ideals in love. Protagonist Tom exemplifies the belief of finding “the one” and that the quest holds hope for those who seek for love. His character depicts a relatable guy. Audiences connect to his desire to find love and to the joys he experiences and the struggles he endures as he delves into the possibilities of love, taking risks to find his soul mate. The overall relationship coincides with most people’s experiences as they encounter heartbreak along the path to their true love, including showing that even those relationships have their obstacles as well.

While most people would anticipate the story to follow the typical romantic comedy pattern where the two protagonists find out they belong together, as the audience discovers through the course of events, this movie takes a different turn. Rather than having the couple get back together, they move forward separately in their quest for love. Tom touched Summer’s life, helping her realize that love does indeed exist, a cultural ideal held in esteem throughout the film. Tom too upholds more values as he regains his hope and decides to continue stepping forward. The film emphasizes that most people experience the Summer Effect as they make their way through their journey toward their soul mate, learning in the process. The hope that “the one” exists keeps people moving forward in their lives, romantically, professionally, socially. The final shot before the last picture shows Tom turning toward the camera. He acknowledges to the audience that he knowingly steps forward in his journey as he continues to exemplify admirable traits found in the quest for love. He may have experienced the Summer Effect, but he will steadfastly continue his quest for his soul mate.

 

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in

American Culture. Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

Dowd, James, Palotta, Nicole. “The End of Romance: The Demystification of Love in the

Postmodern Age.” Sociological Perspectives. 43.4 (2000): 459-580. Retrieved from

jstor.org

Jahn, Manfred. 2003. A Guide to Narratological Film Analysis. Poems, Plays, and Prose: A

Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. English Department, University of Cologne

Marc Web. Dir. Perf. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel. (500) Days of Summer. Fox

Searchlight, 2009. DVD

Porter, Michael; Larson, Deborah; Harthcock, Allison; Nellis, Kelly Berg. “Re(de)fining Narrative Events: Examining Television Narrative Structure.” Journal of Popular Film &

Television. 30.1 (2002): 23-31.

Wiseman, Eva. “Is there such a thing as ‘the one’- and what happens if you lose her?” in The            Observer. 15 August 2009. Retrieved from            http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/aug/16/500-days-of-summer.

“(500) Days of Summer.” Wikipedia. Web. 27 March 2012.

This entry provides background information on the movie. It includes background on direction and audience reception. The details provide substance for the foundation and validity of the paper.

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