(500) Days of LA and Film: On Loving Cinema and Downtown Los Angeles
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
I have a painting of Los Angeles on my desk, a birthday gift from my grandmother. It’s a historical view of downtown; immemorial, pre-war buildings and parking lots command the sight. It’s not the grandest view in the picturesque city of Los Angeles- where just the sight of a high-rise palm tree can pique interest from a newcomer- but it is alluring as the best view downtown.
It’s a look back into the past, the LA just before Hollywood but at the nascent of movies, the LA of the late 19th and early 20th century when Beaux-Arts was the preeminent architecture of the city; when the tallest building was 175 feet and considered to be the city’s first skyscraper. Tom Hanson in (500) Days of Summer, singles out this Beaux-Arts building, known as the Continental Building (or Braly Block) built in 1904 as Tom says, while showing Summer his favorite spot in the city. Tom’s go-to spot is the subject of my beloved painting, a bench at the top of a small hillside in Angel’s Knoll Park, where this view can be taken in. It is the spot where both the sweetest and heartbreaking scenes of the film take place. It is also the centerpiece of the film’s immortal love for downtown Los Angeles, the body paragraph of the film’s love letter to the most understated part of the city. (500) Days of Summer is a simulacrum of the old, uninteresting Los Angeles; the part that locals and residents like Tom may enjoy, but for tourists and new explorers of LA, the underrated skyline is all they care to see as they pass by on highway 10 coming from the East on their way to the Pacific Ocean or Hollywood glitz.
For me, it was the spot I swore to see first if I ever made it to Los Angeles after seeing (500) Days of Summer for the first time in 2009. I love this film with all of my being, not just because I relate to the anti-hero Tom’s bashful mannerisms and inarticulate speech from sudden debilitating moments with the girl he loves (it’s like he freezes, never knowing how to respond to Summer, a testament to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wonderful performance), but because it is a quirky, refreshing romantic-comedy about how love doesn’t work. All against the backdrop of the Los Angeles that would usually be used as a sit-in for a film set in New York City. I did say anti-hero; Tom Hanson is irrefutably an anti-hero. We root for him, we want him to be with Summer and we want Summer to be with him, but by the end we realize Tom is the problem and love doesn’t work this way. It doesn’t work because we want it to. We can’t make someone be our dream, the person we want them to be. We love people because of how they already are.
This is something the film understands not just for romantic love but for its love for downtown Los Angeles. After I fell in love with the movie, I wanted to learn about this city the film lensed with nothing but pure adoration. The true hero of the film is the setting, the old city of angels. It can be argued that downtown LA fits the movie’s quirky-hipster sensibility or is a contrivance of Tom’s aspirations to become an architect, thus the scene where he gives Summer a tour of downtown LA’s historical, architectural landmarks. This may be true, but there’s no denying it uses this antiquated part of the city with respect and admiration.
As I watched (500) Days of Summer in 2009, the year it was released, I was struck not only by that conversation on the bench (wait, she’s actually married? She’s leaving? Isn’t this a rom-com?), but where that bench was located and if I could go there someday. I Googled the setting and was stunned to see Los Angeles. Where was the Hollywood sign, the palm trees and the ocean? The film kicked off not only my love for cinema, but a newfound interest in the capital of the entertainment world. While I learned about and consumed arthouse films, classic gems, and grew newfound adoration for the French New Wave, I brooded about Los Angeles, devising ways to get there as soon as possible. I became obsessed with the skyline, flat-capped buildings topped with helicopter landing pads; I memorized the building names and types of architecture within the confines of downtown LA and I found the location of the bench on Google Earth, 4th and Hill Street next to Angels Flight Railway and across the street from the Grand Central Market. The Bradbury Building on Broadway became my favorite building from afar, not for its bland exterior, but for its Victorian atrium interior of natural light shining from the ceiling window on its cast-iron railings and cage elevators; popularized by the dark climax of Blade Runner but a final scene of hope in (500) Days of Summer, the Bradbury was a must-see.
The film hardly strays from downtown, where Tom’s apartment and his job at the greeting card company is located. Besides an excursion where a reunited Summer and Tom take a train to a wedding outside of LA, the brilliant split-screen expectation vs. reality scene is the great, poignant scene set at a distance from downtown. Where a disillusioned Tom arrives at Summer’s rooftop party with expectations of a Summer where Tom is her world but instead he realizes Summer is Summer and she has her own world, even a world he didn’t know anything about. The left side of the screen plays Tom’s fantasy world, expectations of excitement, a pep in his step taking two stair steps at a time, fewer party attendees, Summer flirting and giving him a long hug, Summer talking to him and only him at the center of her own party where the few guests sit together, then the same conversation continued at the edge of the roof, the sublime downtown LA skyline in the background in focus because for Tom, being with Summer makes everything clear; meanwhile, the right side of the screen dispels all of this with reality as reality does so many times in life; Tom lumbers slowly up the steps, there are more people there than he anticipated, Summer accepts his gift with a friendly hug and nothing more, Tom tells a lame joke to the guests and an unenthused Summer before he leans against the ledge, drinking alone while the LA skyline behind him stands out of focus, reality blurring his expectations. Finally, the coupe de grace, Summer flaunts her engagement ring, Tom notices and the reality side swipes away Tom’s expectation of a fiery make out session with Summer. Tom leaves immediately, hurt and heartbroken by Summer’s separate world, and angered by his impotence.
It’s fitting that Tom’s first instance of irrevocable disconnect with Summer takes place away from downtown, where their rocky 500 day relationship begins. With the exception of the final bench scene, Summer and Tom are “happy” most of their time in downtown Los Angeles. They meet and kiss for the first time at their place of work, they talk about love at a downtown bar where Tom spills about his hopeless romanticism and Summer argues that they live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, why mess with relationships? Love is fantasy, she says. Tom, of course, disagrees and doesn’t listen to her first sign that she’s not looking for anything serious. Then on an IKEA adventure where their first signs of coupledom is clouded by Summer’s blatant confession that she is, indeed, not looking for anything serious right before they sleep together. She just wants to have fun with Tom, he just wants to be in love with Summer because she’s the first girl that likes the “same bizarro crap” he does. That doesn’t make her his soul mate, as Tom’s little sister tells him. This is where the film really presses down on the fact that this is objectively Tom’s story. There is only Tom confiding in his sister, Tom dancing to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” by the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain in Grand Park, and Tom doing this and that without any reaction or responses on Summer’s end. Then the first signs of trouble, Summer breaks up with Tom after seeing The Graduate at the classic Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway but Tom holds on and isn’t finished pining over her until after they are reunited at a wedding outside of Los Angeles where Summer invites him to her rooftop party, his inevitable, fateful heartbreak sealed.
If only people could see downtown Los Angeles the way Tom sees Summer. It is a venerable place of history, intimately infused with old, vibrant and unique architectural marvels. When I finally got an opportunity at an internship in Los Angeles in the spring of 2018, I visited the place I had revered on the internet for so long. Out of everywhere to go in LA, downtown was one of my first stops. I toured the Bradbury Building and admired the Beaux-Arts treasures of Broadway, I pointed out the Fine Arts Building built in 1927 by Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, two of Tom’s favorite architects and I explored the streets of downtown, extolling its beauty; finally, I went to the bench and experienced the view. Unfortunately, the park closed in 2013 and I took in the sight from behind on the deck of a plaza. I saw the deserted bench and the rundown trees around it, the grassy hill no longer green.
Tom isn’t lying when he says there’s a lot of beauty to be found in this view. “I wish people would notice it more,” he says. If it were up to him, he’d make them notice. Sadly, the wrong people noticed. With plans recently unveiled to build a skyscraper with apartments and condominiums over the abandoned park, Tom’s favorite spot in the city will be long gone. (500) Days of Summer will be all that’s left of the park and the bench, immortalized and intangibly saved by cinema. After his anti-love, farewell monologue in the middle of a meeting at the greeting card company, Tom sulks over Summer for a few days before deciding to finally move on. A montage of days 456-476 ensues, accompanied by shots of downtown, Tom catches up on his studies of architecture, draws on his apartment chalkboard, sketches the skyline and applies to jobs before sitting on the bench as he waits for his next interview. Summer greets him there and Tom has a final, lesson-learning but heartbreaking conversation with her. I like to think that Tom, the new architect, after wishing Summer happiness and saying goodbye one last time, looks at that city from the top of that hill and formulates a way to make people notice, revitalizing the area but not ruining it. He arrives at the Bradbury Building for his interview, entranced by its old wonder. He meets Autumn there, competing for the same job; there is hope for love and for the eccentric beauty of downtown Los Angeles. On my last day in LA, I soaked in the view as much as I could, saddened by its now limited time. I left, hoping to come back again soon, and walked the streets of downtown Los Angeles, seeing and noticing. (500) Days of Summer made me notice LA and kicked off my unabating, interminable love for cinema. Later that night in my extended Airbnb, an old hidden backyard garage on Olympic Boulevard, I watched (500) Days of Summer and then another movie after that, relishing my ephemeral stay in Hollywood and sustaining my continued obsession with the movies.