Thursday, August 6, 2009

(500) Days of Summer - An Appreciation


Movies have long been as close to a passion as I might have. For me, movies are meant to accomplish a couple things.

First, they entertain by allowing us to escape for a moment into a place we might not otherwise find ourselves. In the midst of this feat a truly great movie will also shed light into our world by revealing to us the lives, the dreams, the conflicts and the hopes of others. If a movie manages these two things - to entertain and to enlighten - it is both rare and wonderful.

Given the infrequency of a truly great movie, entertainment is often enough. The whiz and the bang, the explosion, the impossible love, the daydream - all the while it flits across the screen we sip our sodas and munch our treats with contentment. If movies offered nothing more than this I would still shell out my cash, sit in the darkness and await the first flashing lights of the projector.

On the other hand, if movies were nothing more than art, I would be less enthralled. The art movie, meant as a work of influence and meaning and imbued with passion and importance, can enlighten and inform but just as likely bore us. When I choose to see these movies I often come away with some new insight or an appreciation for the work itself but much more rarely do I leave the theater entertained.

My lack of enthusiasm for movies that critics might deem important for me to see leads me to consider the sadder development of my long history with movies. As I have grown older, movies have continued to lose their magic. There's no obvious place to put the blame - cynicism, understanding of the process, actually knowing actors, poor movie-making - but this does nothing to alleviate my longing for that singular sense of complete immersion in a movie like when I was child.

The great movies of my youth - or so I think of them - I saw almost exclusively on commercial television or grainy VHS from the gas station movie rental rack. Yet no matter the size of the screen or the quality of the picture and sound those movies were as real and wonderful to me as anything I've seen since.

Often it is the technical that supplants the magical. We can watch a film and know that it is technically superior. We appreciate the insightful story, original and intimate. We marvel at the actors communicating an array of emotion with a single shift of posture. The lighting may be brilliantly cast, the camera angles novel and expertly arranged or the editing might add to the effect of the story but the movie may fail to sweep us away, lift us above the process and deposit us squarely into the heart of the story.

In the end, it takes a perfect balance of many things to make a movie great, but for me there is a silver bullet. It is the same for movies as it is for books, television and even stand-up comedians. It is the connection. If while sitting in a darkened room I can look up to a lighted screen and upon it see a life or a character or a place not unlike one I have known myself then most everything else that makes the movie a movie simply melts away.

In those long ago days when I watched Goonies I wanted to be one of those kids. I wanted those friends and that sort of adventure. When I watched Stand By Me I had had those conversations, told those kinds of stories and lived that type of life. I wanted to meet aliens with the Explorers, fight in my spaceship with The Last Starfighter and I longed for just one Reese's Pieces eating alien in my closet.

Sadly, this connection does not always hold up to the test of time. A connection can be a fleeting thing whereupon the first viewing of a movie is powerful and magical, but when watching it the second time it becomes obvious there was something in that particular moment that captivated me and could not be duplicated. As such, the rarest of all movies must be those that are technically sound, truly entertaining and bridge a connection that stands the test of time.

It remains too early to say whether (500) Day of Summer is such a film. I do know that it entertained me and I enjoyed it. I know that for a time the rest of the world, the real world, dissolved into the mists unseen and unheard. I know that as I walked out the doors I felt I had seen something that may have connected with me more than it might have others, or even my own movie companion. In Tom, the main character, I had seen much that I see in myself. Perhaps I am not so handsome. Maybe I am not so assertive. I do not contend that it was as if looking in a mirror but there was much material on which to draw out the resemblance.

The movie was technically sound if somewhat risky at times with the narration - always dangerous - the shifting back and forth through time, the use of little numbered screens for temporal clarity and one brilliant but difficult split screen showing the differences between Tom's expectations and his reality. In the end, none of that matters because this way my movie. This was a story about a man not unlike me, living in the city in which I live, under circumstances similar to my own and with a perspective frequently indistinguishable from my own. In other words, for this viewer at least, it was movie gold.

My appreciation for (500) Day of Summer resides in the strange recirculation of my thoughts about it. The movie became a reflection of a reflection like two mirrors facing one another. Whenever I stopped to consider the movie and ask myself the questions it posed about the nature of love I was reminded that this act of consideration and analysis was in fact reflected by the parts of the movie I was considering. Thinking about the themes of the movie was also my connection to the movie.

Later, I sat with my movie companion and quizzed her on her thoughts about the film only to realize that within our conversation of Tom and Summer we were becoming more like them. As I thought more about the movie, indeed, as I sat down to compose this appreciation, I was analyzing life and the nature of love (of movies? of people?) just as Tom would have done.

After chasing this idea around for awhile I realized that whatever anyone else may think, whether my companion gave it 3 and a half stars or hated it, none of that mattered. Love doesn't make sense. Love is coincidence and timing. Love may only reside in one heart - (500) Day of Summer shows us that. It is as truthful for people as it is for movies.

So for now, I love this movie and though time may slowly cause us to drift apart, like Tom and Summer, I have the joy of the first time I saw it and the happiness of this 1 day of my summer.

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