Monday, November 18, 2013

Semiotic Tricks in 500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer opens with a standard disclaimer, “Author’s Note: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.”  But then follows with, “Especially you Jenny Beckman.”  And then “Bitch.”  The initial statement is rote, expected, and part of the established expectation for works of cinematic fiction.  The latter two parts take what is a standard film procedure that slips by most film viewers almost unconsciously, and makes it a pronounced, formalistic, self-aware statement. 

Following this, there is an aural cue for the film opening, a whistle, it begins wildly reminiscent of “Moon River” from Breakfast atTiffany's. (Almost identical to the Andy Williams version), but after just the first 2 notes whistled, the melody turns to a minor key, and sound effects accompanying a visual sketch of a city skyline are creeping over it.  (A lot of things about the film are set up to make the two films seem parallel.  But then they run amok.)  The film immediately introduces its device for helping the viewer navigate its nonlinearity – a day counter.  It spins and lands us anywhere within the 500 days of the title.  We begin at day 488, and with no orientation of what has come before, we are unable to tell in this scene, taking place on the park bench overlooking downtown L.A., what the status of the relationship between the two main characters is.  We see them sitting next to each other on the bench, we see Summer’s character smiling, (match cut) Tom’s character smile back weakly, and we see her be-ringed hand on top of his.  With no context for these images, a viewer is likely to draw from similar visual cues in previously experienced films and assume these two are romantically involved in this scene.  But we immediately get an omniscient voiceover stating, “This is a story of boy meets girl,”  which proceeds to introduce the two characters by pointing out their fundamental differences over the point of love.  Then tells the viewer, “This is a story of boy meets girl.  But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

Thus the film has immediately begun by using conventions and codes of the romantic comedy genre, and also “abused” them or “played with” them by relying on the viewer’s misreading of the text as a romantic comedy.  Interestingly enough, the film actually is a love story in that it is a story about a romantic relationship, but it is not a love story with a concise, anticipated resolution, which is to say it does not conform to IMR or the viewer’s expectation based on experience with films that do conform to IMR practices, but rather takes a post-structuralist approach.

(500) Days of Summer Video Shot Analysis from Heather Frymark on Vimeo.

The film consistently plays with the viewer’s tendency to cognize, as described by David Bordwell, and to hypothesize about what will happen.  Despite having told the viewer at the offset that this is “not a love story,” the film proceeds to use conventions and norms of film language to indicate otherwise, creating a tension within the viewer between what is known and what is expected.

The film essentially tells us in the opening sequence that Tom’s paradigm for romance is based on IMR.  He “grew up knowing that he would 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.””  Thus as the film proceeds to use IMR methods, they are perceived as being congruent with Tom’s own experience and perception of his relationships. 

The way that poststructuralist methods shake up the experience of an IMR accustomed viewer can be seen as representative of how Summer’s non-conformity with Tom’s romantic ideal and expectation shake up his reality, or even in the differences between their compatibility-as-perceived by Tom and their actual incompatibility.

Tom’s perception of their compatibility is displayed as being identical to cues used in IMR to signify compatibility.  Their similar taste in music, their willingness to display quirky behavior in public together, and consistent uses of “the gaze” in matching reverse shots.  However, as the film progresses cyclically and disenchantment sets in, we see less and less of this blatant “compatibility.”  In fact, after the scene wherein Tom’s younger sister asks him to try to remember things less infatuatedly and to remember the warning signs, we see an altogether discontented, disconnected, and ennui Summer.  We experience David Bordwell’s forgetting and remembering as we see the same scene or same shot in a newly framed context over and over. 

By the time we arrive at the end of the 500 days, we are back at day 488, back at the park bench, and we have forgotten and remembered that this was how the film opened.  We now know that Summer has married someone else, that Tom is still attached to the cinematic ideal of her that he’s created in his mind, but that never actually existed embodied in the world of the text.  Tom was in love with the idea of Summer, but never actually with Summer, though the two initially looked identical according to IMR conventions, especially the use of music over montage.  And depending on the viewer’s attachment to conventional genre norms, they too may

Have been fooled into thinking that Summer was “the one” for Tom.   But by ending the film with Summer happily in love with and married to someone else, the lack of reality in IMR, and the lack of closure in reality.

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