“500 Days of Summer,” and Its Real Star–Downtown Los Angeles

July 27, 2009 § 4 Comments

The Eastern Columbia and United Artists Buildings by Night/Courtesy Ian McFarren Anderson

The Eastern Columbia and United Artists Buildings by Night/Courtesy Ian McFarren Anderson

Over the weekend I went to this summer’s best-reviewed romantic comedy, “500 Days of Summer,” expecting to be amused and charmed.  But I didn’t expect to be electrified, which I was, by the film’s use of downtown Los Angeles as a romantic setting. It’s probably the first time since the Silent Era (e.g., Buster Keaton’s “The Navigator”) that downtown has looked desirable on film.

Although downtown Los Angeles figures prominently in many period films–“Chinatown” and its sequel, “The Two Jakes,” and “LA Confidential”  instantly come to mind–it’s usually a place of mystery and danger.  Whatever beauty shows through in its grand avenues and architectural masterpieces  is usually negated by sinister goings-on. And films about contemporary Los Angeles–“Heat,” and “Collateral,” for example–merely use downtown as a glittering backdrop for car chases and shoot-outs.

“500 Days of Summer” is a complete departure from these films, yet the district’s importance isn’t immediately apparent. When Zooey Deschanel, as Summer, says, “We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” it’s not yet clear what city she’s talking about.

Summer’s love interest Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)  is a true urbanite, living and working in dark old buildings and going almost everywhere on foot. It’s not until the two start spending time together–in Angels Flight Park and on First Street, Pershing Square and Broadway–that we appreciate their location. It’s not LA but downtown, a planet away from the bland Westside millieu of countless films set in Los Angeles, movies so suburban they could take place anywhere.

Tom and Summer see a movie not at a multiplex but at a Broadway movie palace. Their world has no suburban houses with big lawns, no time spent on freeways. In fact, the movie’s only driving shot shows Tom’s car entering the Second Street Tunnel, a quintessential downtown experience. The one time they go out of town–to a wedding at the beach–they actually take the train.

Tom is an architect with a keen appreciation for the City’s surviving 19th and 20th century buildings. He points out the Eastern Columbia Building and the Continental to Summer and –at her insistence–draws a temporary tattoo of historic buildings on her forearm. And at the film’s end, he goes for a job interview at LA’s greatest architectural landmark: George Herbert Wyman’s iconic 1893 Bradbury Building, whose previous appearances in “Blade Runner” and “Wolf” placed it in some other time (the future) or city (New York). Here, fittingly, it appears in its actual downtown location in the present day.

This is important: Los Angeles is the only city where an obscure draftsman from Dayton, Ohio could have seen his plans for a utopian skylighted building come to life. The very fact that Tom has lucked into an interview with a firm headquartered there–amid the open staircases, corridors and cage elevators–foreshadows his own bright future as an architect. Joseph Gordin-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel make an appealing pair of lovers in “500 Days of Summer.” But the Bradbury Building and downtown Los Angeles are the movie’s true stars.

I am indebted to Gloria Koenig’s Iconic LA (Glendale, CA: Balcony Press, 2000) for information on George Herbert Wyman.

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