Theological Dialogue: (500) Days of Summer

This post is more geared to the class I wrote it for. The class watched 16 films and put them into dialogue with Ecclesiastes, the most depressingly hopeful book in scripture. So, just know that this has a different “voice” than most of my posts because it was written for a particular occasion. Our final project was to choose any film and bring it into dialogue with Ecclesiastes as we had in class. I chose (500) Days of Summer, which is one of my favorite movies. If you have the time, and actually want to understand this post, I would recommend watching that movie and reading Ecclesiastes. If you’ve already done both, then on you go!

Theology and Film: Ecclesiastes and (500) Days of Summer

Elvis Costello asked, “What shall we do with all this useless beauty?” In the film (500) Days of Summer, first-time director Marc Webb asks this question about a fickle thing called love. What are we to do about relationships that go wrong, when one person is madly in love and the other just is not? Is the pursuit of love meaningless? Is it all vanity, vapor? It is easy to see then how this book can be a dialogue with Ecclesiastes. While Ecclesiastes is a critique of the whole experience of life, (500) Days of Summer focuses its attention on the vanity of romantic relationships, and I believe does so in a similar vein to the Qoheleth. One might say that (500) Days of Summer is the “Ecclesiastes of rom-coms”. I hope to show that an analysis of Ecclesiastes will inform our understanding of this film, and, furthermore, that our analysis of this film will inform a better and deeper understanding of the book of Ecclesiastes.

But first, some theory: the field of theology and film is an expanding one, as it is being taken more seriously qualitatively and quantitatively. What I mean by this is that there is an increasing respect and understanding in the Church that the study of film may be beneficial to the Christian experience and teaching (qualitatively), and that there is an exponentially increasing number of books and teaching materials related to the field (quantitatively). While entire books have been devoted to the theory side of theology and film, the why of it all, I want to simply take the time here to not attempt to convince all that this field is credible. There are enough (great) books on that. But I will take a moment to share the specific things I have read that convinced me.

The primary thing we have to deal with is that film dominates our culture. Hundreds of millions are spent at the box office each weekend to see the newest offering that Hollywood has for us. Movies are quoted in public with the expectation of recognition. You can’t even really go a day without hearing some allusion to Star Wars! Johnston writes that the filmmakers “are the ones who are creating the root metaphors by which we seek to live.” (Johnston 21)  A proper methodology for film studies, then, would seek to find the ways in which not only the films “remind” us of or “look like” biblical allusions, but we must also embrace the way that films reveal to us something about the world we live in, the way people think, and the truths that our world holds. It holds an insight for the sake of understanding the world, and if we can understand the world, I think we have a much better chance of participating with God in its salvation.

(500) Days of Summer does exactly this with romantic relationships, better than any movie I’ve ever seen. The film received an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review website. Some of the critics it assembled for the review spoke highly of its honesty: Mark Pfeiffer wrote, “The film’s bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.” Bruce Bennett writes, “Charming yet brutally honest. Offers a certain mainstream appeal for anyone who’s experienced love’s thorny and persuasive illusions.” And one reviewer even suggested, “If it just misses being this generation’s ‘Annie Hall’, it’s still deliciously refreshing.” Annie Hall, a timeless classic in the romantic comedy genre, could very well be another movie to take the Ecclesiastes-like look at love.

The way this movie and only a handful of others, including Annie Hall, does right by romantic comedies is that it takes the painful nature of relationships very seriously. As the movie’s narrator tells us right at the beginning: “This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.” This realistic depiction on life’s hardship is exactly what we find in Ecclesiastes. The most oft used phrase in Ecclesiastes is “all of this is vanity”. “Vanity” here is sometimes translated meaningless, but is really the word for “vapor”, so it could be rendered as meaningless, useless or vain, but could also be meaning something like “fleeting”, “temporary” or “passing”. Indeed, Ecclesiastes recognizes that point and season of life in which nothing is right or fair, and it all seems meaningless. Johnston breaks down some of the truths of Ecclesiastes into the following statements: “Death is our common fate”, “We cannot know what we are to do”, Life lacks any discernible moral order”, “Life is messy”, and “Given life’s incoherence, all attempts to masster life by our own effort are simply futile.” (Johnston 172-173) This is not the end of Johnston’s list, nor the end of the story, but it serves my purpose here to show that the negative, realistic view of love in (500) Days of Summer reflects the negative, realistic view on life in Ecclesiastes. The titular character, Summer, says early in the film, “I think relationships are messy and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it? We’re young, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world; might as well have fun while we can and, save the serious stuff for later.” And the relationship turns out very messy, as Tom hopes to break through this barrier while falling in love with Summer, and she actually begins to let him in, before finally shutting him out for good.

Love, in the film, is analogous to life in Ecclesiates. But what does Ecclesiastes say about love? One small verse, in 7:26, shows that the view of the Qoheleth on love does not stray far from the movie in question. “I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.” This passage, along with many Old Testament wisdom texts, does not celebrate a high view of women. It’s important that we not accept the potential underlying theme that women are symbols of evil and heartbreak. But Ecclesiastes certainly does not have a high view of women like Summer who are a trap, who play around with love without ever taking hold of it, and who destroy others along the way. And, interestingly enough, we are in danger of a low view of women as much in this movie as we are in this text. Before the movie begins, the author’s note on the screen reads: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” Whether it is true or not, we are led to believe from the beginning that the filmmaker has an axe to grind, and that the portrayal of women may be less than fair and come from a place of bias. This is something that could probably be said truthfully both of the film and the Ecclesiastes text.

One of the unique things about film is that beyond enabling a story to be told, it allows countless ways for how a story is told. And often, the way a filmmaker chooses to tell their story can tell you as much about the message as the story itself. This movie uses non-linear story-telling, using days from 1-500 as chronological markers for where in the story we are. Non-linear stories are a token of postmodern filmmaking, exemplified in movies like Memento. This movies uses this tool to juxtapose the highs and lows of the love relationship. We are first shown a trip to IKEA in which Tom makes a joke to Summer and she brushes it aside. This trip takes place on day 282. Shortly later in the movie, we see a trip to IKEA that takes place on day 34, a scene absolutely oozing with chemistry and playfulness between the characters. This scene contains some of the most memorable quotes and moments in the entire film. Other scenes are juxtaposed, such as two instances in a record store. But perhaps the most obvious juxtaposition is the scene done in split-screen format. The narrator introduces this scene by saying: “Tom walked to her apartment, intoxicated by the promise of the evening. He believed that this time his expectations would align with reality.” The scene then breaks into split-screen, where on the right we see Tom’s “expectations” of what will occur that evening. In it we see a happy greeting at the door, lively conversation, ending in Tom and Summer kissing at the end. On the right, we are given Tom’s “reality”, what actually happens at the party. Summer greets Tom awkwardly, is alone for much of the party, and leaves in a fury having discovered that Summer is now engaged to another man.

This juxtaposition of good and bad, positive and negative, expectations and reality, is not only a reflection of true romantic relationships; it also reflects the way Ecclesiastes holds life’s contradictions. Johnston writes, “How can the writer [of Ecclesiastes] say, on the one hand, that ‘those who have never been born’ are ‘better off,’ for they ‘have never seen the injustice that goes on in the world,’ and yet reflect a few pages later, ‘But anyone who is in the world of the living has some hope; a live dog is better off than a dead lion’ (Eccles. 4:3; 9:4)? Such concurrent reflections of both despair and hope make no sense, and yet we realize from our own experience that they make all the sense in the world.” (Johnston 19) And later, he adds, “To hold together joy and sorrow, meaninglessness and meaningfulness is a vexing problem in any age.” (24) This is why (500) Days of Summer is such a captivating film to watch. It takes a genre known far too often for cliché, pandering, and unsatisfying surrealism and inserts pain, realism, and truth in a way that reflects human experience in a deep way.

This is one of the few movies in this genre where the two title characters don’t end up together. There is no “happily ever after” for Tom and Summer. This movie is a critique, then, of the whole romantic-comedy genre. From the opening declaration that “this is not a love story” to the realization that the two actors on the poster and DVD box don’t end up in love, we see that the film has something to say about how many movies of this type end. Tom’s job in the movie can be seen as a way the movie internally critiques this artificiality. Tom works for a greeting card company, writing sentimental and sappy statements for others to give to each other. Tom’s ability to write these cards is correlated to his situation with Summer. During the good times, he came up with top-sellers like “I love us”. But after the relationship falls apart, Tom is only able to put out a card that reads, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Fuck you, whore.” Even this card is a critique of a cliché expression of love. Tom quits the company in a powerful moment. “This is lies. We are liars. Think about it. Why do people buy cards? It’s not because they want to say how they feel. People buy cards because they can’t say they feel or are afraid to. And we provide the service that lets them off the hook… It’s these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they’re to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We’re responsible. I’M responsible. I think we do a bad thing here. People should be able to say how they feel, how they really feel, not ya know, some words that some stranger put in their mouth.” In this way the movie uses his job as a greeting card writer to critique the artificial ways in which our culture doesn’t do justice to the complex and difficult nature of love and heartache.

But the ending isn’t all negative. Summer, against her own judgments, falls in love and marries another man. Tom, on the other hand, finds a hope of his own in a brand new season. While waiting for an interview for a job in architecture, his great passion, Tom meets a new girl and has instant chemistry with her. However, he is called to his interview in mid-conversation. The narrator begins a monologue about how Tom had learned his lesson with Summer: “If Tom had learned anything… it was that you can’t ascribe great cosmic significance to a simple earthly event. Coincidence, that’s all anything ever is, nothing more than coincidence… Tom had finally learned, there are no miracles. There’s no such thing as fate, nothing is meant to be. He knew, he was sure of it now.” But Tom’s actions actually interrupt the narrator. He stops, goes back to the waiting room and asks the girl to coffee. She agrees with a smile and introduces herself as Autumn. The film cuts to a new title card displaying “Day 1”, indicating a new “season of love” has begun.

Life as a sequence of seasons is a theme in the film, and in Ecclesiastes. In chapter 3, Ecclesiastes proclaims, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” It continues with a poem, juxtaposing mourning and dancing, love and hate, war and peace, saying there is a time at all. Life fluctuates; it peaks and dips, unpredictably and without purpose. But there is always hope, for there will always be a new season. This is the final message of hope in (500) Days of Summer, that for Tom a new season has begun, full of its own challenges and successes, expectations and realities, joys and heartaches; but Tom’s look at the camera upon hearing Autumn’s name tells us that he is ready and full of hope for this new season. Similarly, Ecclesiastes ends with an epilogue that insists that in all of it, God is still Lord. Many believe that this epilogue was added later to “soften” or “correct” the negative nature of Ecclesiastes, but a good reading of Ecclesiastes shows that this hope is pervasive throughout anyway. It may very well still be a redaction; in fact, it probably is. But it is not one that negates or even “corrects” the message of Ecclesiastes, but rather puts it into context and allows the final word to be of God.

If anything, the epilogue confirms the message of Ecclesiastes. By finishing the book with a confirmation of God’s lordship and our call to love and fear God, we are shown that all that has come before, the doubting and despairing, the cries that life is unfair and unjust, is part of what it means to love and fear God. We tend to romanticize the Christian experience to be all about joy, celebration and love. And these are valid and healthy expressions of faith. But anyone who has been a follower of Christ for any significant length of time knows that it is not all butterflies and rainbows. And when the hard times come, the temptation for Christians is to say that God is far away, or that they are in a spiritual-slump. The truth of Ecclesiastes is that this desperation and heartache is not a malfunction, but a genuine and true part of the human experience, and that God is present in it!

Ecclesiastes is a critique on an over-romanticized view of faith in God. (500) Days of Summer is a critique on an over-romanticized view of dating and love-relationships. In ways that pay close attention to the realities of life and experience, these works demonstrate that life and love are messy, hurtful, and fickle. To believe otherwise about either is dangerous, for the first instance of pain can rip us to the very core from which we may never recover. But both the book in scripture and the 2009 film offer hope and beauty within the despair, knowing that there are more seasons coming. In this instance, our watching of how (500) Days of Summer takes the rom-com genre and holds it up against reality, informs the way we read scripture! Theology and Film is indeed a two-way dialogue, because our watching of this movie gives a wonderful analogy to what Ecclesiastes does to the wisdom tradition.

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