Tagged: Sid and Nancy

Courtney Love: Behind the Music

Courtney Love at SXSW 2010; image courtesy of laweekly.com

Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.

For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.

I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.

However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.

But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1′s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters.  What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.

I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.

In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.

Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.

In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.

Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.

I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.

Miles and miles of perfect skin; I swear I do, I fit right in -- Courtney Love at the 1997 Oscars; image courtesy of brisbanetimes.com.au

Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.

I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.

Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.

I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.

Courtney Love with Frances Bean; image courtesy of gawker.com

My thoughts on “The Runaways”

Movie poster for The Runaways; image courtesy of fanpop.com

I caught a screening of The Runaways with my dear friends Curran, Masashi, and Kristen at Act Your Age. How do I put this? . . . It was terrible.

It was off to a promising start with the movie’s first image: a drop of menstrual blood. It did a good job establishing the sunny malaise of 70s Southern California, but a hackneyed and incoherent script, weak characterization, and wooden acting were evident early on. Once the band went on their first tour, the movie ran off the rails and never recovered. As a casual fan of the group in question who hasn’t read lead singer Cherie Currie’s Neon Angel (the screenplay’s source material), I didn’t leave the theater with any gained insight. And as someone who teaches rock history to girls, I have no idea what they would get out off this movie. The band’s relevance as musical pioneers is assumed and thus given no context. Furthermore, the actresses are not often shown playing instruments or working as a unit. In fact, the movie mainly focuses on founder and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Currie (Dakota Fanning), giving a little time to co-founder and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), but obscuring Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Robin Blakemore (Alia Shawkat), an amalgam of the group’s many bassists.

The stars of the movie (missing is the rest of the band); image courtesy of fanpop.com

In short, I am at a loss as to the function of this movie. Who is this movie for? Why did it get made? Why is this story worth telling? As a feminist music geek, these questions are usually rhetorical. But as a jilted moviegoer two hours later, these were the questions I was left with.

I’ll elaborate more on my criticisms with the movie later in this post, but first I’d like to get in to the limits of the music biopic but why I still like watching them. Curran asked Kristen and me before the movie started what our expectations were. We said we thought there’d be some salvageable moments and maybe some good performances.

To be fair, that’s really all most music biopics deliver (I’m specifically talking about feature films here, but we could easily extend this to made-for-TV movies too). I’m not sure if any film genre scholars have written on music biopics (feel free to share any relevant texts in the comments section — I love a reading list). It seems like a genre worth evaluating, particularly since they’re often disappointing. As with all biopics, there’s always the matter of historical accuracy, warped by legends, differing accounts, flexible realities, and negotiated subjectivities. When these issues are compromised in music biopics, they often result in fans saying the filmmakers got it wrong.

Since music is such a personal thing to people — perhaps more personal than the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although not for my mother — fandom, with or without its itinerant hero worship, identification, queerable desire, and morbid curiosity, is a critical component of music biopic reception. It’s why I saw Ray, Bird, Walk the Line, Coal Miner’s Daughter, La Vie en rose, Lady Sings the Blue, Impromptu, Sid and Nancy, Amadeus, I’m Not There, and 24-Hour Party People. It’s why I’ll see Control, The Rose, Notorious, Cadillac Records, De-Lovely, Grace of My Heart, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Last Days, Sweet Dreams, What We Do Is Secret, Bound for Glory and a myriad of others regardless of what reviews they garnered. It’s why I’ll see Elijah Wood’s turn as Iggy Pop in The Passenger if it ever gets released. Ditto for the Jeff Buckley biopic, (preferably) with or without James Franco, should it ever get off the ground.

What music fans hope to get out of a music biopic varies. Perhaps there’s hope of being faithful to the subject and source material. As someone who doesn’t mind when biopics play with history, I’m usually more interested in what aspects of their stories get highlighted and how the surrounding era is evoked, because music biopics are also period pieces. Above all, I’m interested in casting. Who is playing the musician in question?

As a film genre, music biopics are foremost star vehicles. The same can be said of biopics in general, as they can guarantee a lock for an Oscar win in the acting categories. Unlike traditional historical biographies though, music biopics tend not be the domain of directors looking to flex authorial muscle. Perhaps this has to do with value judgments placed upon rock music as being less culturally significant than, say, the life of Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, or Jesus Christ. This doesn’t necessarily extend to concert features, as directors like Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch have them on their résumés. But the majority of music biopics are driven by the star, not the director. Regularly, Oscar nominations are given to actors who play musicians, some of whom have even won the coveted prize. Marion Cotillard won most recently for her turn as Édith Piaf in La vie en rose. It was earned, in my opinion. Her devastating performance saved a movie marred by too many tracking shots of the subject suffering in private, pacing backstage, and then taking that pain with her in performance.

Tangentially related, but opinion varies as to whether the actor should sing. My take is that if the actor can pull off the singer’s style, okay. But in general, I actually prefer hearing the original source material. There’s much to be said for an actor who can do a convincing lip sync.

But music biopics tend to be unsatisfying in execution, even if the actors do a good job. The main reason for this, I think, has to do with the genre abiding by staid storytelling conventions and taking on too much of the subject’s biography. Some music biopics have defied expectations, playing with formal convention and myth as well as pursuing alternate perspectives from folks involved with other aspects of the music industry and fans. I’d credit Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There with achieving this.

I also think there’s a lot of value in focusing on a key period in a musical act’s life or career and allow this time to give the subject his or her larger sociohistoric context. I liked Stephen Frears’s The Queen in large part because it narrows its sights on the brief period of time between the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana and resultant grief of her loss and let those events shape the character of Queen Elizabeth II. While I haven’t seen all of Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, I wonder if dwelling on Kurt Cobain’s final moments might say more about his distress than a retelling of the events that led to Nirvana’s meteoric rise.

After the musical act in question starts touring and usually begins tasting some fame, music biopics become boring and predictable. As a result, music biopics take out the electricity from the people who wrote songs to the soundtrack of our memories. They turn their lives into plodding accounts of what become crappy day jobs as routinized and dehumanizing as cubicle-dwelling but with less relateable struggles Behind the Music already exhausted. You can play? I can play too. Hey, we got a record deal! Our song is on the radio! Look, groupies and available drugs! Ugh, touring is boring. All the cities look the same. Oh wait, here come the struggles with fame and the weight of expectations. The fame has driven a wedge between me and my fans. More drugs and probably some questionable vanity purchases. Oh no, the band isn’t getting along. Factions! We can’t replicate the magic anymore. Vices! Overdoses, which result in two outcomes. There is death, and then a celebration of legacy. There is also rehab, which is usually followed by half-hearted reunions or anonymity, often accompanied by middle-aged paunch. YAWN.

And when you focus on boys who deal with these pressures through self-medication and illicit sex with women who aren’t their partners, only to seek redemption in a mistress, a second wife, or Jesus, I really have no sympathy. I will laugh at them however, which is why I’ll get around to seeing Walk Hard, a movie that pokes fun at these conventions.

But Floria Sigismondi’s movie proves that an all-girl proto-punk band can be just as boring as any man in rock music. And now, let’s launch into my problems with The Runaways.

1. The script. This is the movie’s biggest problem. Given that this is director Sigismondi’s first feature, it is also her first screenwriter credit. Early into the movie, I had flashes of Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Like Sigismondi, Romanek proved his mettle as an innovative music video director before he made directorial debut. And while that helped both directors establish an aesthetic style, it didn’t help develop their writing skills. Because . . . oh boy, is Sigismondi’s script marred with clunky dialogue, incoherent tonal shifts, and unfounded character motivation. So often, the movie launches into important developments with little explanation or context. How did the girls discover rock and roll for themselves? Why were there homelives unsatisfying? Why did the girls form a band? How they function as a unit? How did they handle detractors? How did they interact with other bands? What was their relationship with label employees, road crews, journalists, fans, and the number of folks they encountered? How popular were they in the United States? How popular were they abroad? Why were they so beloved in Japan? Perhaps this has to do with a reliance on the movie’s audience to know the band’s backstory. Perhaps this has to do with legal intervention as well, which might explain how little screen time Sandy West, Lita Ford, and the bassists get.

And sometimes Sigismondi’s career as a director encroaches too much on her work in this feature. Bathtubs becoming lagoons? Jett writing a song in a milk bath? Currie calling her sister at an abandoned phone booth in some random abandoned parking lot? It looks cool, but doesn’t really convey any information.

2. The movie isn’t gay enough. Now, to be fair, I was surprised at how gay it was — just like I was happy about Currie’s menstrual blood and Jett urinating on a sexist musician’s guitar. And while I think that Stewart is basically playing Jett as Shane McKutcheon from The L-Word, I believe her baby butch swagger. But a lot is hinted at and insinuated where fan and pro-sex feminist Susie Bright knew there were explicitly gay or queer things were happening at the time. And when Sigismondi pervades Jett and Currie’s sex scene with red lights, slow motion, close-ups on open mouths, off-kilter camera angles, and soft focus, it enforces Currie’s wastedness, thus perpetuating the notion that women and girls have to be inebriated to be intimate with one another. FAIL.

3. The matter of the leads. I don’t want to play the game of pitting one actress against another, as each part has its own demands. And both actresses are at a tenuous point at their career, transitioning from child stars to leading ladies. Interestingly, they’ve also been a part of the Twilight series and seem to be using the money they’ve earned from the franchise to subsidize less commercial fare like this movie.

In truth, I wasn’t wowed by either actress. To their credit, it’s hard to make lines like “I’m thinking with my cock” and “I thought we were your fucked-up family” beat the page. Furthermore, they’re given little motivation for their characters. What possesses Jett to pick up a guitar, much less link up with Svengali Kim Fowley? Why does Currie spiral into addiction and despair? For Currie, a negligent family with a history of substance abuse might be the reason, as might intimations that she was raped while on tour. But the actresses aren’t given much to work with. Jett scowls. Currie rolls her eyes like a Valley Girl. And neither of them convey for me the dynamism their characters possessed onstage.

4. Sexism and misogyny. Again, I was amazed that these issues were acknowledged at all, though they are crucial to the telling of this band’s story. Furthermore, it was interesting to see how the movie dealt with the public and the band’s conflicting feelings about their sexuality and agency over their own objectification as jailbait hellcat rebels. But the script puts too fine a point on how icky and regressive and threatening men were to young girls trying to break into the music industry. At the same time, it provides little context as to why these attitudes were prevalent and if The Runaways changed them at all and how. And why would these girls put up with Fowley’s abuse? Do age and gender have anything to do with it? Assuredly, but the movie doesn’t develop these issues further.

To actor Michael Shannon’s credit, I think he does a credible job with Fowley. As the movie tends to reduce the character to a series of random antics, feel free to watch his interview on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. Note to how little Jett talks, how often she is interrupted and cut off, and how often Fowley speaks for her and the band. I think these interjections and silence speak volumes of the sort of industry sexism Jett had to deal with.

Having said all this, am I happy and pleasantly surprised that this movie got made? Yes. Do I wish it could be better? Of course. Do I think the story of The Runaways and a myriad of other bands should be told? Absolutely. I still recommend seeing this movie. And if it gets people interested in the members’ music and their history, along with the careers of the movie’s director and stars, even better. I’ll close with a recollection of a scene from the movie: Jett visits Currie in the hospital following the lead singer’s free-fall into addiction. Jett informs Currie that she read about an all-girl band forming in Korea. “They suck,” Jett maintains, “but it’s still pretty cool.” My sentiments exactly.

“(500) (excruciating) Days of Summer”

Poster for (500) Days of Summer

Poster for (500) Days of Summer

Note: The following post about (500) Days of Summer and why I was not charmed by it contains spoilers. I will also adhere to a list-like format for the sake of brevity. However, if you wanna read it as some dig against the sleeper rom-com’s indexical use of number-play, texts are bendy.

It was hard to go into the screening for this movie objectively. I had some misgivings about this movie that I catalogued prior to attending a Saturday matinee screening. They are as follows:

1. The preview is really fucking twee.
2. The oft-mentioned post-coital musical number, complete with marching band, animated bird, and ironic use of Hall and Oates’s great but over-used “Dreams Come True.”

Still from the dance sequence; image courtesy of paisleypetunia.com

Still from the dance sequence; image courtesy of paisleypetunia.com

3. A friend mentioned that Gordon-Levitt’s character moves on from Summer with a girl named Autumn. Seriously.
4. Same friend made quite the indictment on race and whiteness.
5. The “vintage” clothes — while Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are in adorable outfits, they seem less vintage than Anthropologie‘s upper-middle-class version of vintage. Everything is so tidy and worn once and unlived in. It just made me miss my friend Kit, who almost exclusively wears amazing thrift-store dresses (many of which I know she’s worn multiple times). Her look is much more comfort-based and much less polished. I think I would’ve responded to the outfits if there were at least one loose thread or frayed cuff, especially since Summer is probably not cashing fat checks as a personal assistant to the head of a greeting card company. Sigh. I know; it’s a movie.

But my big problem going in was the self-conscious music geekery. Examples:

1. Gordon-Levitt wears the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” Joy Division t-shirt in one scene. GET IT? Ugh. Such an obvious visual joke. I think if there’s gonna be a music geek dramatic irony t-shirt joke, maybe having him wear a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt would have been better. But is there really a need?

Still of Gordon-Levitt wearing an in-joke

Still of Gordon-Levitt wearing an in-joke

2. A friend said that Summer quotes a Belle and Sebastian song in her high school yearbook. Blech.
3. When they break up, Summer casts her and Tom as Sid and Nancy, respectively. Ain’t nothin’ skid row about these two.

In addition, I tend to have misgivings about movies and TV shows that make music geekery — and its quirky application — so central to informing characterization and narrative (see also Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Flight of the Conchords). It might be contrarian, but I feel instantly resistant to these kinds of texts because I feel like I’m supposed to like them because of the music geekery. But I need more than that. While I enjoy movies like Adventureland and High Fidelity (among others like Velvet Goldmine, Times Square, Dazed and Confused, and recently Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the music geekery is actually most interesting in the peripheral.

As an aside: it seems the people of my acquaintance who have the most vitriol toward this movie are also the most personally invested in music culture. They’re also pretty cool, but wouldn’t describe themselves as such. This perhaps gestures toward how pejorative and subjective the word “hipster” has become within my generation.

To stay positive, three things about the movie made me hopeful anyway:

1. The leads are appealing.
2. Summer doesn’t want to be in a relationship.
3. Apparently director Marc Webb made iPod playlists for the leads for each scene to help get them into character. This is interesting to me, especially read alongside playlist auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson, who use music to create scenes and develop characters.

With that said, I hated this movie. So much so that I was relieved that I saw it for free. 

I was pretty turned off from the start. Principally because the trailer and the opening sequence stress that this is not a love story. But that’s a lie. It’s completely a love story. It’s just not between Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Deschanel’s Summer. It’s between first-time feature director Webb and first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and how goddamn clever they can be. Just how goddamn clever?

1. There is a marching band and a girl named Autumn.
2. There is a black and white French film that plays in the middle of the movie that turns into Tom’s life story as he sees it. I think they’re going for Godard here, but in my limited knowledge of Godard, this seems too cheap for him. He seems like the type who’d have celebrity culture gatecrash into real life, not have real life imitate a French film.
3. Summer and Tom like to have dates in Ikea, playing house in the showrooms. I will overread this as a Pavement reference.

And then there’s icky touches of whimsy that feel forced and disingenuous. Being cute and fanciful is tricky business, mainly because being charming on camera has to seem effortless. The exemplar for me is Jack Lemmon straining pasta with a tennis racket in The Apartment. Here are a few examples that miss the mark:

1. This movie has a narrator (who, as my friend Karin astutely pointed out, is far from omniscient or objective — he’s basically there to align the audience to Tom). In general, I hate movie narration. It reminds me of what I learned from “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation. With some exceptions, narration is profoundly lazy storytelling and filmmaking.
2. Tom has a blackboard covering an entire wall of his bedroom. So he can be close to his true passion. Drawing buildings.
3. Summer is so much a fan of artist René Magritte that she’s actually arranged a bowler hat and an apple on her coffee table.

Magrittes The Son of Man

Magritte's "The Son of Man"

4. Tom wants to be an architect, but is somehow saddled with a job at a greeting card company. To convince Tom of his true passion, Summer has him draw a landscape on her arm.
5. After Summer breaks up with Tom, he quits his job at the greeting card company after a rousing boardroom speech about how the industry feeds lies about romance to mankind. When he storms out, his wiseacre friend does the slow clap. (Aside: I actually predicted this by starting my own clap about five seconds before actor Geoffrey Arend did it on screen – gold star for me!)

And then there are things that make no sense:

1. Summer and Tom first get to know each other at a karaoke bar. Summer does “Sugartime,” a delightful little tune from the late 1950s. Apparently she wanted to do “Born to Run,” but they didn’t have it. Then Tom does a rendition of “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies. What karaoke bar has The Pixies but doesn’t have any Bruce on hand? The Boss is who drunk people turn to when they don’t wanna sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” again.
2. It takes Tom twenty days or so to work toward his dream of becoming an architect. Primarily because he starts drawing and making lists on his blackboard and reading books at coffee shops.
3. Tom rags on Summer for liking Ringo best. Who doesn’t like Ringo?
4. This movie takes place in Los Angeles? Really? Locals and natives, help me out. I’ve been to your fine, sunny city several times. I’ve even been in the vicinity of where some scenes were shot. It never looked like New York to me.

And finally, there were four things that I found interesting, but did not think were well-executed. As they were related to issues of gender and age, these missed opportunities made me the saddest.

1. Summer really doesn’t want a relationship with Tom and stresses that from the very beginning. There’s mention of her parents divorcing when she was young, but I think she just wants to be alone and be independent and figure out what she wants in life (both maybe explain why she cries at the end of The Graduate before breaking up with Tom). I thought this was awesome. . . . At least I thought this until she gets married to some guy at the end for some reason.
2. The movie seems invested in making a commentary on how men objectify women, how movies abet that process, and how it results in men not really knowing the women they claim to love (I think Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep was trying to make a similar statement, and failed in my estimation for similar reasons). Tom’s “expectations vs. reality” split-screen sequence is made all the more poignant after the scenes where Tom (along with the camera and the editor) have cut Summer into fragments (her smile, her hair, her laugh, her eyes, her knees, etc.). Because, for all his obsession, Tom never really knows Summer. He may think he sees her everywhere, but he never really sees her. Instead, he sees creepy images like this one.

Summer through Toms eyes; image courtesy of 500days.com

Summer through Tom's eyes; image courtesy of 500days.com

3. Tom has a wise-beyond-her-years kid sister. Too bad she’s not really a person. A good precocious girl is my kryptonite (I love you, Linda Manz).
4. Summer isn’t really a person either. That’s too bad because I think Deschanel could have easily made her one and does fine with what she’s given (as does Gordon-Levitt). I also think this movie would have been more interesting if this sort of character was the protagonist.

Again, I think Summer’s lack of embodiment is part of the point — Tom wants Summer to be a manic pixie dream girl that can save him from his mediocre, humdrum existence, but she never performs as he thinks she should. Thus, Tom becomes obsessed with a woman he never actually knows.

But we, the audience, never really get to know her either, in part because the production personnel seem similarly vexed by her (as I think Tom is really just a stand-in for one of the screenwriters), but mainly because they are so bewitched by their words and camera tricks to give their characters any genuine motive or meaning.