When conceptualizing this series I considered turning each article into reflections following the 7 stages of guilt. While Temple of Doom would certainly qualify as “Shock & Denial,” my original second choice, High Fidelity would have been a more awkward (if not prescient) fit for the second stage “Pain & Guilt”. But this isn’t my first time going through a significant breakup and I don’t think it is going to fit into the standard strictures of the grieving process. I’m older now and can recognize the breakup on a more functional level, where such things as “Anger & Bargaining” don’t make much sense to me at the moment (then again, maybe I’ll get there). The breakup was already a bargain of sorts, where we more or less seemed to agree that maybe it just wasn’t going to work out. Anytime I feel anything approaching anger I realize there is no real target and it tends to dissipate into anxious confusion. In that light, I’m not ready for the movie that defined my assumptions about relationships far before I was ever involved in one. Paraphrasing John Cusack’s own words from the film: “I’m not prepared for that quite yet.” What I think I can handle right now is a film that I never finished watching, but seemed like a quirky, if momentarily honest look at the breakup process from the male perspective: (500) Days of Summer.
Well, I was right about the quirky part of (500) Days of Summer, but not quite as much about the momentarily honest. From the opening text which claims all characters are not meant to represent real counter-parts: “especially you, Jenny Beckman. […] Bitch.” The film wears its juvenile assumptions about love on its sleeve. But it also acknowledges that from the top of the voice-over, proclaiming “…this is not a love story.” From there the film accurately follows with a disjointed (though mostly linear) story of a guy going from crush, to infatuation, to being torn apart by the breakup because he couldn’t see the screws slowly loosening in the relationship. I recognize this story, but not from recently. From a while ago, now.
While I was trying to avoid the whole self-analysis through my relationship past by forgoing High Fidelity, it seems to have come to this anyway. My first real relationship came pretty late in my life (comparably). Like, Freshman in college late. It was with a friend I had had a crush on for a couple of years and it was intense and long and, for a certain portion, not great. I was a ball of paranoia and jealousy worried that I wasn’t up to her standards, and worried that she hung out with guys in bands that I didn’t fit in with, and that one day (to once again paraphrase High Fidelity) “she would leave me for one of them…then, she left me for one of them.”
It’s not all that simple, as I suppose relationships usually aren’t, but I can now look on that period with more self-awareness and really delve into what happened, what happened to me afterwards, and what ‘it all means’. Back then I was simply a mess. An unapologetic, regularly drunk mess. What I couldn't see at the time was how constantly unhappy I was in the relationship that I was grieving over. I thought I was losing my mind with all the anxiety that constantly ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ was causing. And towards the end this anxiety started coming out in aggression towards the girl (not physical, but I learned that I can become a vicious son-of-a-bitch when pushed). We weren’t good for each other, but we were both so invested in the idea of an ‘us’ that we could never truly see how terrible our situation had become. I had turned her into an idealized object, something I had ‘won’ after years of friendship. She saw me as some sort of bastion of relationship-stability while she wasn’t prepared to give up her own freedoms. But in the end neither of us were right or wrong, just wrong for each other.
This is what really surprised me in watching (500) Days of Summer: Where I went in hoping for something lightly funny but cathartic in the way that I can watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt struggle with a breakup (Just like me!), I ended up with a succinct retelling of what I always thought of as one of the more complicated periods in my life. While Zooey Deschanel’s aloofness is completely different from that girlfriend’s co-dependence, the pieces still fit the same. A relationship that quickly evolves on a friendly level, while an infatuation grows. A relationship that seems idyllic, to the point where the guy can’t even figure out where it all went wrong. A heavy crash, where the world seems so unmanageable that not breaking shit just to feel something seems to be the best option for a Friday night (maybe with some Tom Waits playing, but that’s just me). After a while this haze lifts, though, and you can see that the person you were infatuated with was not the same person that you are now talking to. They have moved on and that’s ok, because that person you thought they were didn’t really exist in the first place.
While I don’t consider (500) Days of Summer to be a great film (or necessarily very good), it is at least enjoyable and capably handled. One thing I will say is that it may have been more prescient than it seems on the surface for being an accurate depiction of the Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl phenomenon and also commenting on how this reduction serves to minimize the other person in a relationship to the relegation of an object, something to better ourselves that doesn’t require any effort from our end. Sadly, the film doesn’t have enough self-awareness to follow through with this lesson, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt moves on without learning the essential lesson everyone must strive to learn in the wake of a break-up: How to live with yourself. Levitt simply moves from Summer, straight to Autumn (literally), negating any self reflection that may have served to make him better for having gone through this ordeal. It is hard to tell if the film actually acknowledges this ouro-bouros of relationships that he is falling into, but the quirky animation taking the number from 500 to 1 seems to be a happy indication, while the reality is that it comes off as hollow and rushed.
At best you could say (500) Days of Summer captures the way that we tell stories about ourselves. Where the moments we remember and how we remember those moments makes up our worldview and sometimes closes us in too close to ourselves. At worst you could say that it is a cynical indie-romance that hits all the expected beats and leaves before it overstays its welcome. The deeper message I choose to take from this movie, though, is that pain is part of the process, and how we decide to process that pain determines what we will get from it. Hopefully I’ve learned how to process my own shit better by this point.