The Perfect Scene #1: (500) Days of Summer

There comes a time when you’re watching a movie, and the most perfect scene comes on. This scene can be anything. It can be two characters having the most intellectually stimulating conversation you’ve ever heard, a fight scene with the highest caliber of choreography and visual effects ever conceived, a beautifully poignant and emotional moment that touches your heart like no other; it is The Perfect Scene. And because there are so many Perfect Scenes, rather than making a list like I normally do, I’d like to dedicate an entire post to dedicate one Perfect Scene, and analyze it frame by frame.

So for my first installment in what could hopefully be a series of posts, I’ve opted for a movie I’m sure most people are familiar with: Indie darling (500) Days of Summer. Be advised that there are, indeed, spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet.

Let’s start out with context for the scene. In (500) Days of Summer, the audience is already aware that the relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel hits a rocky point at some point, but we at the very least hope that they are brought back together at the end. We are teased to believe this when, after a depressing break-up, Tom (Levitt) meets up with Summer (Deschanel) at a train on its way to a co-worker’s wedding ceremony. The two spark up thought-to-be-extinguished fires of compassion for one another, and when Summer invites him to a party at her place, we have reason to believe, as we’ve been trained by countless movies, that he’ll finally get his second chance and they’ll live happily ever after, by the end.

What happens, however, is a disappointment for Tom.

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It’s easy to appreciate this scene for its originality and the emotion it evokes, but what I admire is the astounding technique put into editing this scene out.

Think about it, they had to shoot two different takes of a scene and make each one different in subtle but noticeable ways. Sounds simple at first, but when you add in the factor of playing them simultaneously in a split-screen, it becomes a whole ‘nother beast in the editing room. Everything has to be timed just right so that the right moment can hit and juxtapose effectively with the moment from the last take. I’d like to know how they filmed it. It would be amusing if it was timed with a metronome.

Many people said that they were disappointed that (500) Days wasn’t the modern era’s Annie Hall like it was hyped up to be, but admitted that this scene was one of the few points where the movie exuded greatness similar to the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are talking to each other and subtitles displaying what they really mean appear at the bottom of the screen.

Scenes like that, and the Expectations Vs. Reality sequence are great examples of simply smart filmmaking. I’ve said before that the golden rule of movie-going is “Show, don’t tell”, and while it could’ve been easier to just show Tom’s crushing disappointment at the end of the party, what director Marc Webb did was incredibly unique and well done on its own right.

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Displaying someone’s fantasies versus the harsh reality of the situation isn’t anything new, but it’s presented in a way that hasn’t been done before, and was well put together. It’s all so literal, yet it’s still able to speak so much more than just a mere facial expression about the subconscious feelings and desires of the character, while still maintaining a strictly visual language.

Come to think of it, the entire movie’s style is structured like Tom’s subconscious thoughts. The whole movie is in non-chronological order, skipping forward and backward in time as it sifts through the memories of a relationship gone wrong, looking for the one moment where it all started to fall apart, just as we would in our minds. Perhaps the smartest move of the film is that it never explicitly tells you the exact reason why the relationship falls apart. It just kind of happens, just as it would in real life.

But enough about the film itself, back to the scene…

Perhaps my favorite thing about the scene is the little details in the differences between the Expectations footage and the Reality footage. It’s like those things you get in coloring books when you’re shown two pictures side by side and you have to spot the differences between the two, and they can be as subtle as a missing stripe on someone’s sweater, or a missing freckle on a man’s face.

(500) Days of Summer is admittedly not a subtle film. Hell, this scene practically spells out one of the film’s main themes. And yet…the scene is executed with little subtleties in the scene differences. I especially love the bit at the 1:03 minute mark of the linked video, where she unwraps the gift, and in Expectations, she sweetly says “That’s so nice”, while in Reality, she just gives him a soft, caring, but simultaneously rather indifferent glance.

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The more I see the scene, the more I appreciate it and how the filmmakers approached it. Yes, it drives the point home, and yes, you can be one of those overly jaded internet commenters who would like to point out to the rest of the comparatively idiotic world that the scene is simply just the director showing off…which, in all honesty, it could very well be. But it’s effective, well-choreographed, set to the right music, and–I almost forgot–accentuated by that sexy narrator voice in the opening of the scene.

That is all.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to immediately fap to Zooey Deschanel before New Girl eventually ruins her for me.

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