REIMAGINING LOS ANGELES IN (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
WRITTEN BY MERISSA VICTOR
The romantic comedy is rarely set in “smoggy cities like Los Angeles”, where the landscape of the city remains primarily flat and “traditional public space” has been rendered inaccessible due to its “occupation [by the] moving vehicle”. Instead, it seems as if the romantic comedy has been reserved for more picturesque cities like Paris or New York. The "highly recognisable landscapes” of these cities are foregrounded within their narratives and are made more “accessible to the camera” through the use of sharper and deeper depths of field, as seen in films like Paris, je t’aime (2006) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). In the reimagined romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009), however, the smoggy city of Los Angeles is not only reimagined but also foregrounded within the narrative of the film. Thus, in order to determine the ways in which the city of Los Angeles is recontextualised within the genre of the romantic comedy and to what affect, I will be conducting an in-depth textual analysis of the film (500) Days of Summer.
Directed by Marc Webb, (500) Days of Summer follows Tom Hansen, who works as a greeting card writer (although he is a trained architect), as he tries to pursue a relationship with the emotionally unavailable new-girl-in-town, Summer Finn. The film follows a non-linear and non-chronological storyline structure, as Tom, who is reflecting on his failed relationship with Summer, moves back and forth through the 500 days that he has known and been involved with her.
Throughout the film, inter titles that feature trees and the Downtown Los Angeles skyline are used to establish the day that Tom is reflecting on while also externalising his feelings. On the 8th day of Summer, Tom has a breakthrough conversation with her as he opens up about his failed career as an architect. Immediately following their conversation, a non-diegetic piano tune fades in timidly, as an inspired Tom sits at his desk to sketch a skyline in pencil. As the piano tune begins to swell, the camera grows from a detached, removed wide shot of Tom at his desk to an intimate close-up shot of Tom’s hands as he sketches. All else is obscured from view in this shallow focus shot— heightening Tom’s intense concentration and dedication for his craft. However, when a flash of uncertainty surfaces in him the camera snaps back into the detached wide shot. Tom begins to erase his sketch as the piano tune trails off dejectedly (Figure 2). The overall tone of the scene is depicted in the inter title that precedes it: a tree full of green leaves and a grey sky tinged with blue (Figure 1). Although, the scene ends with a dejected Tom and an erased sketch, at this early stage of Tom and Summer’s relationship, Tom clings on to promise of hope and change that Summer seems to bring him. And thus, Summer, who is represented by the colour blue, just by engaging in small talk with Tom has already begun to infiltrate Tom’s bleak, grey world with some colour and the trees are seen to be healthy and full of green leaves. In this scene, the city is foregrounded in the narrative as the way that Tom sees his world seems to be directly related to the way he sees himself.
At the climax of the film, Tom and Summer have been separated for a number of months. After reconnecting at a mutual friend’s wedding, Summer invites him to a party that she is hosting. On the 402nd day of Summer, Tom reenters Summer’s world “intoxicated by the promise of the evening”, the narrator observes. Tom believes that they are on the path of getting back together, while a quiet non-diegetic pop song warns that “[Tom] never saw it coming at all”. Despite his expectations, the tone of the inter title (Figure 3) has already foreshadowed a less than unpleasant outcome awaits Tom— unbeknownst to him, he would soon be attending Summer’s engagement party. Completely in contrast with Figure 1, the inter title in Figure 3 is completely void of any hope, colour or life. Instead, the sky is a dark, bleak shade of grey, the trees have lost all its leaves. There is absolutely no hope for Tom to reconnect with Summer.
After realising Summer is an engaged woman, Tom rushes out of her apartment in a frenzy, completely shocked. The once quiet pop song now screams that “[Tom is] the hero of the story. [He doesn’t] need to be saved”. The camera attempts to keep up with Tom’s pace in a hurried tracking shot, as he makes it onto the sidewalk. But as he side steps a couple, Tom voluntarily takes himself out of the camera’s frame and out of his own narrative. The pop song continues trying to console him hurriedly, chanting “it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, no one’s got it all”. In a long shot, Tom keeps trying to move forward. The only light source in the scene, a streetlamp, fails to light him and his body is silhouetted against the city lights he is aiming to reach. In a sudden, the whole world goes still and the physical Downtown Los Angeles skyline before him, starts turning into a sketch (Figure 4). The streetlamp goes out and his whole world is at a standstill, his entire world is finally turned into sketch. The intimate world that he has constructed, in Figure 5—of Summer, and their “love”—- has been stripped from him and he is rendered useless.
Slowly, as the scene winds down, the sketch of Tom’s world begins to erase itself and he is left to stand alone (Figure 6). Tom’s narrative has been tied to his love for the city, thus the erasure of his world directly relates to an erasure of the self. He has failed to get the woman of his dreams and there is little reason to carry on. Thus, in the following inter title (Figure 7), the absence of the skyline and trees are powerfully indicative of the psyche of a character who has closely aligned and S Through a personification of Tom’s psyche through his relationship with the city of Los Angeles, the city has recontextualised within the genre of the romantic comedy —becoming integral to the character’s narrative.
Alkan Bala, Havva, “Reading of the Architectural Identity via Cinema”. CINEJ Cinema Journal. Volume 4, Issue 1. PDF.
(500) Days of Summer. Dir. Marc Webber. Fox Searchlight, 2009. Film.
Los Angeles Plays Itself. Dir. Thom Anderson. Cinema Guild, 2003. Film.