(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy released in 2009. It is certainly a cut above the rest of modern rom-coms, but this review will focus on the story’s setting in lieu of the plot.
Though there is only one mention of the city in its dialogue, specifically a quip, this film — as so many other Hollywood productions — takes place in Los Angeles. Since America’s moviemaking industry is based in LA, filming “on location” is cheaper to do locally instead of sending the crew and sets elsewhere. Plus, being remarkably diverse in landscape and architecture helps the City of Angels double as almost any other place across the globe. Downtown’s Chinatown can be name-your-Asian-locale, the surrounding hills can serve as a backdrop for anyplace that requires it, and the nearby desert has frequently stood in for the sands of the Sahara or Arabia.
(500) Days of Summer takes place almost exclusively in Downtown LA, which will be examined more closely below, but it is worth noting that on-site filming was once the exception rather than the norm. One would think the most realistic backdrop could be obtained by merely going out into the real world and filming it, but weather, lighting, noise, and many other unpredictable variables can make filmmaking, which requires a fully controlled environment, difficult. Furthermore, movies are a business, and just as Henry Ford mechanized the production of cars into an assembly-line process, so too did Hollywood with films. The “studio system,” as it came to be known, exemplifies this process. Though studios are still powerhouses and control enormous sums of money for producing pictures, from the 1920s through the ‘40s, their domination of the medium was nearly total.
The Naked City (1948) was an early outlier. It is notable for being one of the first films to be shot on location, accurately depicting New York City’s gritty street life. Quite hysterically for today’s viewer, this crime-noir’s background actually looks quite genial when compared to today’s hellscape. Filming outside of studio lots continued to gain momentum, and today, anything that’s filmed entirely on a lot usually looks cheap. Television programs are an easy example: Seinfeld’s scenes set on the street or in restaurants are all very obviously fake.
Background and setting are important, for they help the overall plot and give the characters and story more believability — but in doing this, they can often skew reality as easily as a script. (500) Days of Summer embodies this.
The story follows Tom, a young man who works as a copywriter at a greeting card company with hopes of one day becoming an architect. He falls for Summer, the office secretary/2000s hipster dream-girl played by the beautiful Zooey Deschanel. Given that neither Tom nor Summer are from LA (Tom is from New Jersey and Summer hails from Michigan), it is an accurate portrayal of Los Angeles and West Coast urban centers more generally, as they are filled with people from almost anywhere else. What makes the setting inaccurate, however, is that the entire film builds a miniature world of young, white professionals who reside and participate in Downtown LA’s community.
Yes, you’ll find many young white people in Downtown LA — modern yuppies, if you will. I’d wager that, for those who are white, most of them are of the hipster/artsy type. Nearby Bunker Hill is LA’s corporate skyscraper district, so it stands to reason there are plenty of suit people bustling about during working hours. But how many of them live in the nearby lofts, as Tom does, in the city’s historic core? When Tom walks the streets of his neighborhood, there are plenty of white people strolling about who are dressed just as sharply as he is. Shops hock their products on folding tables along the sidewalks. Flowers and potted plants adorn the entrances of apartment buildings. There is almost nothing even remotely unsightly to be seen. In reality, any business that attempted to sell merchandise outside would be robbed, the potted plants would only serve as urinals for the homeless, and the only smartly-attired white-collar people you’ll find stay off the streets as much as possible, bustling between office buildings, chic restaurants, and luxury hotels. On a recent trip to the area, a friend of mine remarked that she didn’t see a single “normal” person on the street after an hours’ walk. The entire urban area is now one giant Skid Row. In the year of the film’s release, it wasn’t as bad as it is now, but any fan of the movie would surely be dismayed if he were to visit to any of its filming locations today.
(500) Days of Summer does depict some actual places that it is worthwhile to see for yourself, however. One of the film’s main themes is architecture, and it does an outstanding job of portraying the beauty of the city’s buildings. Many landmarks are highlighted, such as the Bradbury Building, the Eastern-Columbia Building, and the Fine Arts Building. They’re all breathtaking. Regarding the main character’s obsession with architecture, the director, Marc Webb, commented that
. . . his thing is that he sees beauty in places most people don’t even bother to look. So downtown LA just seemed like a perfect fit in a way. So few people pay it any attention and there’s a ton of history and stuff that’s pretty beautiful and fascinating . . .
Alain de Botton’s book, The Architecture of Happiness, is likewise featured. Though I haven’t read it, it’s about the importance of beauty in our surroundings.
These themes are almost the exclusive concern of white people. Yes, there are beautiful Asian civilizations, and Japan is an oft-cited example, but is anyone aware of what constituted Japanese urbanism before their contact with Westerners? Compare Tokyo or Chungking circa 1500 with what was being done at the same time in the Italian city-states, where the beautification of the environment was meant for everyone as opposed to merely a certain class.
Why can’t anyone appreciate the beauty of Downtown Los Angeles today outside of a film? Because it is quite literally being shat upon. Why does no one know its history? Because our history is being actively erased. Why does no one care about the beauty of our environment? Because multicultural polyglots will only ever produce dystopian wastelands. We see this throughout the West today. But occasionally, works such as (500) Days of Summer remind us, quite accidentally, that there’s an alternative.
In the modern era, we, too, only provide beauty for an elite class, as opposed to a homogeneous people. The Eastern-Columbia Building once contained offices and a department store. Today, it’s luxury condos. The lobby of the Fine Arts Building was originally designed to house artists’ studios; now, it’s basically a mausoleum to its own past. The common area that features prominently in the film, Angel’s Knoll, until recently served almost exclusively as a homeless camp as opposed to a place where architecture enthusiasts gazed at buildings; it was recently closed, and it will soon be another luxury high-rise. But the best example might be the Bradbury Building. (500) Days, and many others, always depict its gorgeous interior as some sort of bustling center of activity. Tom goes there for an interview with an architecture firm at the end of the film: Its lobby is shown complete with those Barcelona chairs Tom Wolfe made fun of in From Bauhaus to Our House. The Bradbury today is home to some real-estate offices, as well as that of a creepy Bond villain-esque non-governmental organization called the Berggruen Institute. I peeked in the building once; today, it’s a ghost town.
I don’t want to be too hard on this film, as it’s actually very enjoyable. The filmmakers made the effort to highlight beauty in a world of ugliness. Though it doesn’t bother to talk about who people created the beauty it shows, and who has ruined it, it’s still worth a watch, and serves as a cautionary tale. When Napoleon’s Grande Arméev conquered Egypt, his men were in awe at the sight of the Great Pyramids. His officers approached a Bedouin camp at the base of one of the megalithic structures and inquired about its creator. The locals simply shrugged their shoulders, clueless that it had been their own ancestors. How long will it be before people look at an American skyscraper and ponder, who built this? Will anyone remember?
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 Marissa Gluck, “Screenwriter Explains ‘500 Days’ Focus on Architecture, Downtown LA,” Curbed Los Angeles, June 8, 2009.
 Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (New York: Picador, 1981).
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