Irony–or Arrogance? When You Know More Than the Movie

Last night, we saw 500 Days of Summer. And as we left the theater and began to quibble over the movie’s point, I craved a term: What do you call it when you know more than the movie does? It has to be a kind of irony. Or is it just arrogance?

John had a clear-eyed theory for why the Tom/Summer relationship doesn’t work: i.e., failure to communicate. Tom doesn’t advocate for himself; he takes Summer’s skittishness as a given; he lets her dictate the rules, when he could have been clear about his own feelings, and needs, from the start. (This, John argues, would have made Summer much more likely to open to Tom, and to overcome her child-of-divorce trauma.)

But I don’t think that the movie sees it that way. I think the movie believes, simply, that Tom loves Summer, and Summer doesn’t love Tom. For whatever reason. For the “reason” that sometimes you fall in love with someone, and sometimes you don’t. The movie’s tagline certainly suggests as much: “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.” Only a few short months after Summer dumps Tom, she marries someone else. Not dates. Not falls in love. Marries. And that is no endorsement for communication and growing into openness. It’s an endorsement of the fantasy of “the one.”

Of course, both John and I reject that fantasy and believe instead in the model of building relationship—growing together slowly through sharing, opening, and communication. So we walked home feeling that we knew more about the movie than it did.

Irony? Or arrogance? Perhaps both.

One Response to “Irony–or Arrogance? When You Know More Than the Movie”

  1. Amanda Gordon says:

    Your post reminds me of my discussion with my Jon after we saw the movie. Tom does have a flawed understanding of relationships, for sure. Communication, both how he listens and how he talks, is a problem for him — I focused more on his poor listening than his own poor skills describing his own feelings, but both are true. Instead of listing to Summer when she talks about herself, as a way of getting to know her and relate to her, he can ony see “Oh my goodness, she’s telling me personal things. I’m getting past her front.” He doesn’t bother to really listen to her, to explore what is behind the front (he’s definitely caught up in style versus substance, as your other post discusses).

    As for what the movie knows and doesn’t know: that’s a very interesting way of thinking about movies. I do give the movie credit for knowing more about relationships than poor Tom (we see this because Summer isn’t portrayed completely unsympathetically), but it IS Tom’s own perspective that determines the movie: thus, the movie show how an unhealthy relationship works, well enough for the viewer to see those flaws and be reminded, as we have, of what does make relationships work. We can’t find fault in the limitations of a character, but we can learn from it. And he does in fact grow, as Summer encourages him: to know himself first, and be happy with what he is doing — e.g. pursue architecture — is his first step in looking past the superficial in his relationships and not being afraid to get to know someone on the inside. (Though admittedly, this “light bulb” moment in the movie is done cheesily.)

    As for what the movie says about finding “the one” because of the way Summer finds someone so quickly: Finding the one (quickly) doesn’t necessarily exclude the reality of building a relationship, growing slowly together through sharing, opening, and communication. It’s possible that one can glimpse the possibilities of a deep sense of connection with someone, which would make them willing to do all that work that comes later… because there has not be something early on that makes you willing to do that work, with that person, and not keep looking, right? I mean, you couldn’t just do that work with ANY person and have it turn out as happily as it would if you do it with ANY OTHER person? You might decide to call them the ONE years after you meet, maybe even years after you get married. Of course, Tom thinks he has this connection, but he is too limited at that time to actually have it — OR, he simply DOESN”T have this connection with her. But I do think to have this kind of connection, you have to be pretty self-aware and tuned in to others, and I don’t think Tom is either of those things.

    Did Summer have that self-awareness? What Summer talks about at the end — her encounter with this guy — relating over a book she was reading — moved her in a way that her experiences with Tom didn’t. To HER, it felt like fate…the ONE… To me it does feel like an anecdote that is less superficial than Tom’s meet cute setory (which boiled down to: there’s a girl in the office who likes the Smiths). And the movie accepts that. In fact, we see the same the kind of authentic spark, intellectual connection take place when Tom meets the other architect on his way to the interview. WIll we really ever know? No. Not only because love is mysterious, but because we as viewers don’t get to see the emotional life of Summer — because we ONLY really get to see her through Tom’s very immature, limited eyes. No wonder she doesn’t make sense to us.

    As to the question of what does a movie know versus what we know. There’s no omniscient narrator here (even though deceptively, there is a narrator) — it’s all Tom. And he is an unreliable narrator. Not only that, the movie is “ignorant” in that we really don’t get the characters’ internal thoughts. …Not only that, the movie has absolutely no interest in showing what a relationship actually is — after the courtship part — the hard work, effort, slowly building connection part.

    There are of course limits to the genre of movies versus real life or literature … Think of how “Emma” would be if we only got the action, and none of her internal musings about it. That doesn’t mean movies are always more superficial and ignorant than novels, but we can only see so much. In fact, in relationships, that’s how it works — we can only see so much.

    To sum up, I think the movie is a fantastic catalog of the pratfalls of people acting immaturely in relationships — a necessary learning process that includes the total high of having sex with someone for the first time, with the bluebirds singing to you on your way to work, the insanity of asking your younger sister for relationship advice, the total funk feeling of heartbreak and desolation it can lead to, and, hopefully, the growth that comes out of that entire experience, such as the realization that we can be faulty readers of what people say and do, and faulty interpreters of even our own emotions.

    In the end, this wasn’t just a relationship 101 film, but a film about growing up (the two go hand in hand, of course).

    I think we can feel arrogant, but I thank the story for giving me this feeling. And I don’t feel it as arrogance so much as knowing. Wisdom. Thank goodness I have this wisdom! But if I had watched this movie when I was 25, I’m sure my reaction would have been very different. Thank goodness I’m not 25.

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