academic writing: a cultural analysis of webbs’ 500 days of summer

academic writing: a cultural analysis of webbs’ 500 days of summer

analyse the iconography, conventions and audience expectations (grant, 2007) of one film genre & assess how (and if) they have changed over time. 

romantic comedies, or ‘rom-coms’ have not shifted dramatically since their birth in the late eighties. in fact, the genre is now firmly positioned within cinema; predominantly known for it’s codes and conventions used to gratify the audience and cater to their expectations. characters are cherry-picked from a selection of stock-type stereotypes who expose the idealistic nature of love, whilst remaining realistic in presentation. it is considered rare that the genre boldly attempts to embrace realism. using marc webb’s ’(500) days of summer’ this essay will deconstruct how the films iconography, conventions and audience expectations correlate to your classic narrative within the romantic genre.

what sets webbs’ ‘(500) days of summer’ apart from the rest of the romantic comedy lot, is first and foremost the narrative structure. the structure is non-linear. the film jump-cuts into calendar-style stills paired with informative and prompting semiotics. for example, the text ‘day (420)’ anchored below the tree representing a change of seasons and a shift in time (see figure 1). on initial viewing, it would appear that the film sequence is jumping erratically back and forth whilst documenting the various stages of summer and tom’s relationship, we are nevertheless drawn in by the haphazard structure, grasping our attention and narrative understanding. many credible theorists have penned repeating patterns within contextual narrative structure, including ‘narrative codes’ by ronan barthes, ‘binary opposites’  by levi-strausss and ‘character identities’ by vladimir props. tzventon todorov identified linear patterns within your traditional narrative, famously coining five stages:

* equilibrium

* disruption of this equilibrium by an event

* recognition that a disruption has happened

* attempt to repair the damage of the disruption

* restatement of the equilibrium
(1990: 97)

on initial inspection, it would appear that the film does not follow todorov’s theory of narrative structure and said stages. however, if you rearrange the film into a traditional linear sequence you discover that in-fact it follows the exact same narrative structure as any other films of the romantic genre. the haphazard, non-linear arrangement simply gives the illusion of a disjointed and unconventional narrative structure. michael weber, contributing screenwriter of the film stated that the narrative structure reflected “…how memory really works. where something will trigger your mind to think of an amazing, wonderful moment and then that will trigger the memory of a bad moment and then comes a revelation of how they were all connected" (weber, 2009: online).

furthermore, the film continues it’s unconventional narrative structure by denoting an array of technical codes throughout. a prominent split screen moment of‘expectation’ vs. ‘reality’ (see figure 2) connoting the juxtaposition of the protagonists quixotic expectations vs. the sombre reality of the evening unfolding. in tom’s mind, this could be the pivotal turning point of their break-up. the narrator voices “intoxicated with the promise of the evening, he believed that this time his expectations will align with reality”. as the scene progresses, the audience begin to understand the dissonance between tom’s expectations and the reality of the situation. furthermore, the split-screened sequence is made all the more poignant after tom retrospectively cuts summer into fragments (her smile, her hair, her laugh, her eyes, her knees) paired with the dozens of summers he sees upon alighting a bus. these technical codes allow the viewer to enter tom’s gaze (see figure 3) and once more, webb practically hands us a visual diagnoses of tom’s repetitive and obsessive thoughts.

prior to watching marc webbs’ ‘(500) days of summer’, the audience have already been subjected to a number of semiotic codes to suggest not only the genre, but what to expect from the rom-com. the promotional poster hints multiple factors contributing to reversed expectations of this genre, with signifiers such as ‘this is not a love story. it is a story about love’ and ‘boy meets girl. boy falls in love. girl doesn’t’ (see figure 4). these tag-lines instantly stand out from other tag-lines of this genre as what this presents us is an unconventional romance. firstly, they signify that the leading love interests may not in-fact end up together, which challenges the fate fuelled, star-crossed notion of ‘meant to be’. secondly, the signifiers present the possibility that audiences might not get the happy ending they so usually expect. finally, the tag-line casts the male as the yearning romantic; thereby challenging the traditional gender roles of heterosexual relationships which is strongly reflected in the films poster and billboard campaigns. these initial visual codes challenge the traditional semiotics used in the romantic genre; a far cry from the visual language we see in classic romantic cinema (see figure 5) in which we see the male protagonist conveying a hero or great protector, subsequently overpowering and/or objectifying the damsel-in-distress.

’(500) days of summer’ unconventionally reverses the gender roles the target audience so often relate to. the film connotes harsh realism and post-modernism. historically, men would play active roles who drive the narrative, whilst females would play passive roles which were seen as erotic objects. the women often fitted a constraining stereotype; a bimbo, a housewife, an object of desire. summer finns’ character profile challenges these stereotype in a number of ways. summer is quirky, post-modernist, chaotic, uninhibited and spontaneous. she cares little for definitions and labels. she does not seem to be affected by restrictions or anxieties and prides herself on being whole-heartedly independent. she firmly believes that “there’s no such thing as love; it’s a fantasy” and that “relationships are messy and feelings get hurt”. summer rarely leaves her emotions on display. most of what the viewer knows about her feelings are revealed by a dry voiceover, for example, “since the disintegration of her parent’s marriage, she’d only loved two things. the first was her long brown hair. the second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing”. in the character summer’s case, the conventional lead female role has been challenged. in cinema, there is on occasion a type of stock character often coined as ‘the manic pixie dream girl’. the term was written by nathan rabin who said ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures’ (rabin, 2007: online). director mark webb states “yes, summer has elements of the manic pixie dream girl - she is an immature view of a woman. she’s tom’s view of a woman. he doesn’t see her complexity and the consequence for him is heartbreak.” (2009: online). this character development within cinema sparks a revolution and boldly challenges your fragile damsel awaiting her lead male protagonist.

tom is introduced by the narrator as a “hopeless romantic” who grew up listening to “sad british pop music”. tom designs for a greeting card company, spewing hook-lines and puns daily. he is in love with the idea of love and believes that he cannot possibly be happy without ‘the one’. tom’s romanticism puts him in stark contrast with summer’s cynicism. the film subverts the gender stereotype, unlike most romantic films were in-fact the leading lady shares her feelings with friends, over-analyses the relationship and who so desperately wants to define the relationship with labels. whereas in this case, that person is tom. the film repeatedly challenges conventional gender roles by reversing them. for example, when the couple break up, summer humorously casts her and tom as the iconically dysfunctional, sid viscous and nancy spungen:
s. we’ve been like sid and nancy for months now
t. summer, sid stabs nancy. seven times with a kitchen knife. we have disagreements but i hardly think i’m sid viscous
s. no, i’m sid
t. oh, so i’m nancy?
looking further into gender reversal, in a conventional classical narrative the side-kick or ‘helper’ will resemble him or herself as non-family and the same gender as the lead protagonist. tom hansen’s side-kick reveals herself as his much younger sister. she is both witty and wise beyond her years, directly coaching tom in his times of need.

‘(500) days of summer’ was without doubt an indie cult favourite. the film is bursting with intertextual pop cultural references to reflect the emotions of the leading characters, who both project said references in two very different ways. summer quotes the popular belle and sebastian song in her high school yearbook ‘colour my life with the chaos of trouble’ hinting summer’s cynicism, while tom wears a printed joy division t-shirt with the lyrics ‘love will tear us apart’ hinting his romanticism. summer and tom first get to know each other at a karaoke bar. summer opts for ‘sugartown’ though originally wanting to sing ‘born to run’. tom does a rendition of the pixies ‘here comes your man’. these humorous yet prominent song choices reveals summer’s yearning for freedom and toms yearning to be a more desirable, prominent love interest. a lift scene shows the two listening to the smiths ‘there is a light that never goes out’. tom may be channeling morrissey’s poetical mannerisms, while summer channeling the pessimistic, cynical side to the singer. a key to understanding both summer and tom is when the couple go to watch mike nichols’ 1967 film ‘the graduate’. from a narrative reference placed at the beginning of the film we understand that ‘the graduate’ is one of the key elements that has shaped toms’ romantic beliefs; when we are introduced to tom the narrator tells us that growing up he had a “total miss-reading of the film - the graduate”. the scene unravels as benjamin braddock and elaine flee their flash-in-the-pan wedding. the newlyweds faces are prominent as both are confusingly wearing neutral, enigmatic expressions. tom reads this scene as a resolved and happy ending, while summer is viewing this scene with a lack of freedom, direction and resolution for the couple.

visual and audio codes are used throughout the film to reflect tom’s ever changing mood. when everything is going well in the relationship, his world is almost completely blue (the colour associated with summer) and the images on the screen are echoed by cheerful, up-tempo music. when things are going bad for tom, his world is mundane and grey, accompanied with monotonic and brooding music. this technique has been used not only in this specific genre, but films of all genres since the beginning. here we finally see a more conventional side to the genre.

’(500) days of summer’ pokes fun at cliché conventions, iconography and audience expectations of your classic hollywood rom-com. the light-hearted dance sequence the day after tom spends the night with summer (see figure 6 & 7) denotes tom walking merrily to work with the joyful hall & oates’ hit ‘you make my dreams come true’. tom has an uptempo strut accompanying said music. we hear a sound overlay of fireworks exploding while the fountain erupts - adding sexual reference to the scene. an illustrated bluebird flutters down to tom, playing on disney-esque musical numbers when the leading female is feeling on top of the world. a second scene shows summer and tom role-playing an archetype style relationship. the couple run merrily around ikea with such one liners as “honey, i’m home!” or “i’ll race you to the bedroom” - it would seem the film itself is mocking conventional romance. furthermore, comical screenplay is apparent when tom states that he hears the song ‘she’s like the wind’ when he thinks of summer. these references may be marc webb poking fun at the predicable, cliché conventions that an audience so often expect. webb is both playing on the public demand for narrative entertainment but at the same time has the ongoing message of narrative realism. john hill states that ‘one of the central expectations of spectators ‘accustomed to cinema’ is that a film should..‘tell a story’. the conventions of the narrative guarantee that what an audience will see and hear will be interconnected and.. cohere into a meaningful whole while’ (hill, 1986: 53). hill also states ‘a number of critics have argued, their unbalancing of elements of novelty and repetition performs a critical function in the fulfilment of an audiences desire for pleasure’. moreover, richard maltby suggests ‘this expectation of a ‘story’ is conventionally allied to that of realism, that an audience should be able to think of the story a film is telling them as if it were a ‘real event’ (maltby, 1983: 195).

as the ending of the film begins unravels itself; the audience unexceptionally discover that summer has committed to marriage. this could be viewed as both conventional; the lead female role has a happy ending, or it could be viewed as unconventional; the leading male and female do not end up together. kristen ramsdell states that ‘rarely do romances end with the protagonists separating, but when this does happen, it usually is the “right” ending’ (2012: 22). the very final scene in the film shows tom meeting new character ‘autumn’. not only does autumn arrive after summer seasonally, this is a season associated with change. at this point, tom has grown as a person, after realising that he may have been wrong about summer and reaffirming his belief in love. this is an unexpected and traditional twist at the end of the film, leaving the audience asking is autumn ‘the one’? however, the film quickly draws to conclusion with our protagonist tom making direct eye contact with the camera, grinning and winking. again, this may be webb poking fun at romantic-comedies and the happy endings the audience are so used to getting. a general feel of a shift in genre runs not only through the romance of summer and tom, but in many other aspects of the film. tom’s manager proclaims “the nuclear family is dead and we need a new holiday that recognises that; other mothers day!”. this is certainly a recognition of a change in times and in traditional classical narratives.

taking some familiar scenarios found in many classic love stories and integrating a unique presentation of those elements, marc webb’s ‘(500) days of summer’ breaks off from any average representation of the romantic comedy genre. webb’s hit film shows many transformations and submits strong evidence of ‘remodeled and reapropriated’ (krutnik, 2002: 130) traditionalist conceptions which ultimately redefines codes and conventions of this genre. the film boldly deflects away from the genre routinely celebrating ‘an immutable, almost mystical force that guides two individuals who are ‘made for each other’ into one anothers arms. love is shown triumphing over all manner of obstructions, over all kind of differences in social status, cultural backgrounds or personality.’ (krutnik, 2002: 138). this concept is reaffirmed by tom’s younger sister, stating “just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate”. kristren ramsdell believes that ‘the romance genre has seen some dramatic changes‘ (2012: 3) and that ‘the genre continues to expand and diversify, and while firmly clinging to it’s basic tenets, it has broadened it’s scope to include a wider variety of stories within it’s established sub-genres..redefining the boundaries.. venturing into new territory. characters, settings, themes, and plot situations have evolved with the times’.

- lizzy kirkman


* codell, j.f. (2007) ‘genre, gender, race and world cinema’ oxford: blackwell

* elsaesser, t. (1990) ‘early cinema: space frame narrative’  second edition. london: british film institute

* hill, j. (1986) ‘sex, class and realism’ edition unknown. england: british film institute

* hill, j  & gibson church, p. (1998) ‘the oxford guide to film studies’ edition unknown. england: oxford university press

* king, g. (2009) ‘new hollywood cinema: an introduction’ edition unknown. london: i.b taurus publishers

* langford, b. (2010) ‘post classical hollywood: film industry, style and ideology since 1945’ first edition. united kingdom: edinburgh university press

* maltby, r. (1983) ‘harmless entertainment: hollywood and the ideology of consensus’ edition unknown. england: scarecrow press

* mulvey, l. (1992) ‘the sexual subject: a screen reader in sexuality’ edition unknown. london: routlage

* miller, t. (2005) ‘global hollywood 2’  second edition. england: british film institute

* neale, s. (2002) ‘genre and contemporary hollywood’ second edition. london: british film institute

* ramstell, k. (2012) ‘romance fiction: a guide to this genre’ edition unknown. america: libraries unlimited

* sergeant, a. (2005) ‘british cinema: a critical history’ second edition. england: british film institute

* todorov, t. (1990) ‘genres in discourse’ edition unknown. london: cambridge university press

* stringer, r. & radner, h. (2011) ‘feminism at the movies: understanding gender in contemporary popular cinemas’ fourth edition. london: routlage

* williams, c. (1996) ‘cinema: the beginnings and the future’ edition unknown. england: university of westminster press

suggested reading

* langford, b. (2005)‘film genre: hollywood and beyond’ edinburgh: edinburgh university press

* sanders, j. (2009) ‘the film genre book’ leighton buzzard: auteur

* stafford, r. (2006) ‘understanding audiences & the film industry’ london: bfi

* saunders, j. (2001) ‘the western genre: from lordsburg to big whiskey’ london: wallflower press

online articles

* webb, m. (2009) (online)

* weber, m. (2009)

* rabin, n. (2007) (online)

whistles: gaining momentum within the industry

whistles: gaining momentum within the industry