Hollywood Boulevard, Memory Lane
Revisiting a childhood film favorite with less unworldly eyes.
By Gaby Edwards
Each week, a Blue and White writer pens an essay about a book, movie, painting, album, or some other work they find interesting and relevant. This is an extension of our monthly Bwecommendations column, in which staffers suggest timely things to read, watch, and listen to. To pitch a Bwecommendation, email email@example.com.
Every movie before 2012 was good.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, god, another declaration of cinema’s death. The kind that the New York Times publishes every four to six weeks to make Upper West Siders feel better about not seeing foreign films.
No, don’t worry.
This is a far more personal declaration: I thought every movie before 2012 was good, because when you’re young, every movie is good. The pesky critical eye doesn’t develop until teendom, when middle school raises analytical consciousness through pubescent misery. And that period of uninterrupted cinematic pleasure doesn’t top the list of what’s lost after childhood. Innocence, energy, a fast metabolism, and fairy money also fall away as we come of age.
To the young spectator, everything is new. When you watch a film like 17 Again, you’ve never seen anything like it. Plus, you are a stranger to the good-versus-bad dichotomy that adults swear by and form whole social networks around. In me, pleasure formed an indiscriminate cinephile, the ideal audience member for everything from a PG Pixar epic to an R-rated Sundance darling. I was game for it all.
But what happens when we return to the films we saw before 2012? When we are no longer frolicking in the land of perpetual enjoyment? Hindsight can reframe long-beloved storylines as fancifully melodramatic or affirm their aesthetic brilliance. When we excavate these films from their golden memory cocoons and ask ourselves how they hold up, we can discover why we loved them so much and what’s changed (and, if we’re lucky, experience the unmitigated euphoria of a full-on regression—fun, right?). The films fossilized in my loving memory include Donnie Darko (2001), Akeelah and the Bee (2006), Juno (2007), Twilight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
But 500 Days of Summer (2009), starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, a failed architect turned greeting card writer, and Zooey Deschanel as Summer, a quirky, elusive assistant at the same office, comes first. It has been hailed as a film that subverts the formulaic aspects of the rom-com genre, although only to the extent that it asks: What if we made a rom-com about the kind of people who listen to the Smiths?
I first saw 500 Days of Summer at the movie theater in the Grove, an outdoor mall in LA, with my two best friends. My father, who would have preferred to re-watch the Criterion director’s cut of Apocalypse Now, chaperoned. When I asked him what he thought as the credits rolled, he said, “Cute, I guess.” Feeling rebuffed, I berated him for being the one who simply didn’t get the movie. He took my insults in stride.
Soon after, I plucked the DVD from a front-of-the-grocery-store rack and snuck it into my parents’ cart. On lazy Saturday mornings, I would feed the DVD player the disc and languidly watch the film while eating syrupy pancakes, hushing any member of my family who dared to drown out the dialogue. By the age of 11, I had probably seen it four or five times. I even downloaded the soundtrack on iTunes and listened to such classics as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” while instant-messaging my crushes on Gmail, hoping that one day I, too, could make someone boring love me. (I had more success in that department than the soundtrack did in indoctrinating me into the cult of Smiths-fandom.)
Part of the joy I felt when watching the film as a kid was a keen ability to identify with every character on screen, even if their goals or emotions were competing or absolutely opposed. My sense of self was elastic, so I allowed my emotions to rise and fall simultaneously, letting that flood of pleasure engulf me without questioning why it was there. My moral compass was similarly unformed, probably starting and stopping at the Ten Commandments, so as long as nobody murdered, stole, or coveted thy neighbor’s wife, I let it slide—which is to say, I wasn’t yet a particularly judgemental viewer. To momentarily live out others’ lives and the ensuing consequences they faced was enough for me.
While identification is a somewhat perplexing process, there are the occasional moments when the likeness between you and someone on screen are so exact that you can’t help but feel profoundly seen. To an impressionable young mind, these coincidences provoke euphoria, which is why questions about the privilege of identification and a diversity of representation remain so important.
During a recent viewing of the film, I had a revelation as the famous expectation vs. reality split-screen scene unfolded. As Tom tries to win Summer back, he attends a party at her apartment: On the left half of the screen, Tom’s “expectations” play out, while on the right, “reality” does. Things do not go as he had hoped. When I was 10, I was enamored of this clever juxtaposition, probably likening Tom’s disappointment to an unanswered Gmail chat I had sent. I credited Webb with inventing the split-screen.
This time, however, I felt condescended to, as if I needed to be spoon-fed basic plot development, incapable of charting for myself how reality deviates from Tom’s expectation, which is one of the most basic tensions in any sort of art. The scene is entirely predictable, a mere extension of the film’s original set-up: Tom likes a girl, she doesn’t like him back quite as much. And it made me realize how little the film lets you breathe. It seems to constantly be asking its viewer: Do you get it? Did you see that? Which is part of why I enjoyed it so much as a ten-year-old (and a precocious one at that). The film persistently reassured me that I was in on all the jokes, understanding the naughty punchlines, and following the main character’s emotional trajectory to a tee.
The film’s lack of subtext extends beyond this scene. Many of its “quirky” formal qualities, the ones that veer the film away from the most conventional of rom-coms—its nonlinear time frame, the occasional insertion of animation or eruption into a musical number, a strange interlude that investigates Summer’s past by examining her magical effect on men—aren’t so much experimentations in form as didactic methods to ensure you’re picking up on what’s in front of you.
What’s so paradoxical about childhood and adulthood is that each period is permeated with a grass-is-always-greener effect. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up. I wanted to accumulate experiences, to have rules lifted. I was plagued with a fervent curiosity about what I was going to look like. Would my chin elongate? Would my jawline fortify? Would I be unrecognizable in 10 years? I sensed how fleeting my face and body were, how prone I was to sudden and constant alterations, but instead of savoring each stage, I wanted to fast forward to the finish line. I remember yearning for braces as a six-year-old because I thought they signified maturity, a subtle brag that all your grown-up teeth had come in, which meant a lot to me since I was a self-conscious late bloomer. (Fun fact: My last baby tooth fell out when I was 14. Yes, 14. I looked like a pirate for half of ninth grade, and no, I’m not over it.)
As someone who looked chronically young and coveted the physical and emotional attributes of grown-ups, every movie was an opportunity to mentally perform adulthood, to psychically become a character living a more exciting life, to rehearse dilemmas that were still far enough away that they incited enthusiasm rather than anxiety. As I watched 500 Days of Summer for the first or second time, I remember asking myself: Would I have settled for being a greeting card writer when my dream was to be an architect?
Then, during my most recent screening, I noticed the comparable rigidity of my present sense of self, its firm contours. I felt no pleasure in stretching my identification across the cast, no a-ha! moment at seeing myself reflected on screen. Although the movie takes place in my hometown of Los Angeles and I’m now much closer in age to Tom and Summer, the distance between what was happening on the TV and happening in my head was expansive. Adding to my dance card of on-screen personalities with whom to identify for the pure joy of it, didn’t delight me as it once had.
While I still have a vague bucket list (listen, I haven’t completely given up), that youthful hunger to experience and that distinct ability to see myself in everyone—the pivotal features of my constant, impassioned satisfaction—have quieted. When I envision myself as a child, I feel a certain amount of envy, especially in regards to my pliableness. While an unformed self can certainly be chaotic and confusing, being an individual, a singular body in space separate from others, is often lonely. How many times have I wished to melt into someone, or be in someone’s head, so I don’t have to explain myself? Or, how many times have I been prompted to “look inside myself” and “see who I really am” and been unable to formulate an answer?
Although there certainly is a loss in maturing, there are also some notable advantages. I’d like to think that moving beyond childhood has allowed me to broach a more intimate relationship with film that is, ironically, less self-involved. Part of why film is so enjoyable, why it’s such an arresting medium, are those moments when you catch a glance, or a phrase, or something distant in the background, that sticks with you, gnaws at you long after the credits have rolled. The reasons may remain unclear, but it doesn’t make them any less striking.
Some films that captivated me include The Blob (1958), Woman in the Dunes (1964), Barry Lyndon (1975), Fish Tank (2009), Tangerine (2015). They do not gratify you solely through a character’s relatability or the cleverness of plot. Rather, the dialogue, the texture of the landscape, the angle of the camera, the soundtrack, the lingering of a touch, all coalesce to bend your ego towards recognizing a brilliance, or hilarity, or beauty that is at once inside and outside yourself. I can take pleasure in anything intimate and strange, find joy in the way films diverge from my lived experience but ignite my eyes to sharpen, my breath to momentarily stop, and my stomach to clench out of quiet rapture.