I hate unoriginality as much as the next guy. But sometimes seeing a poor imitation of a great film can heighten your appreciation of the original. In this case, I’m talking about Annie Hall. Don’t get me wrong. There are great movies that borrow from Annie Hall like the gold standard for romantic comedies, When Harry Met Sally. But there are also some not so great Annie Hall imitators like (500) Days of Summer.
This is not a case of “the original is always better than the imitator syndrome” because I saw (500) Days of Summer before I saw Annie Hall and was actually quite taken with it. I had never seen a film that featured such unique stylistic flourishes and had so much insight into the nature of relationships. And then I saw Annie Hall.
As that film quickly became one of my favorites, I realized that (500) Days of Summer kind of paled in comparison. I’m not saying that (500) Days of Summer is a bad movie, nor am I saying it’s a carbon copy of Annie Hall. In fact there’s still a lot of things I like in (500) Days of Summer. There’s that mesmerizing “Expectation vs Reality” sequence that plays like a combination of a few Annie Hall gags but it is powerful nonetheless. There’s a delightful musical number . And there’s enough wonderfully inventive and endearing scenes scattered throughout the film to recommend it.
But it falls short of Annie Hall’s brilliance in many ways. Tom and Summer are nowhere near as interesting or memorable as Annie and Alvy. The theme of Annie Hall is much more satisfying and understated. Annie Hall is funnier and more poignant. But I’d like to talk about two ways that these two films differ: style and structure.
Both Annie Hall and (500) Days of Summer are what I like to call “stylistic smorgasbords”, that being films that employ a vast array of cinematic techniques to tell their stories. I’m not just talking about films that have a distinct style. Even directors with a distinct visual style, like Wes Anderson, or Martin Scorsese will typically use just a few techniques consistently throughout a film. These two films,along with Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, are some of the best examples of “stylistic smorgasbords” I know of. Seriously, there’a lot going on in these two movies.
Annie Hall begins with Alvy directly addressing the audience, a device that appear often throughout the film. There are flashbacks, an animation scene, and subtitles that reveal what’s really on the character’s minds. There are two split screen scenes, one of Annie and Alvy in therapy and one that compares Annie and Alvy’s family dinners. Then there are these zany scenes where Alvy breaks the fourth wall while interacting with his memories or random bystanders in unexpected ways. Like when hesettles an argument with a pretentious theatergoer by pulling out philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, to back him up. Or when he consults passerby’s foradvice after a fight with Annie. Every time I rewatch the film, I forget how much is packed into this little ninety-three minute film. But it all feels of a piece, because we know that it’s all coming from Alvy’s imagination. Although nearly all of the techniques in the film are used once and never reused, they feel consistent with the rest of the film because it’s all coming form our protagonist’s head.
Annie Hall is unique in that it’s very grounded as well as very experimental. Often one scene will just be Annie and Alvy talking in a master shot and that’s the whole scene. Or the film will halt in it’s tracks so we can just watch Annie sing for a couple minutes. Scenes like these give us something that’s underappreeciated in cinema: breathing room. There’s no need to pack every scene with some sort of stylistic flourish. Just watching characters talk is enough.
(500) Days of Summer has some equally inventive stylistic devices, although some work better than others. There’s a narrator, the aforementioned Expectation vs Reality and musical number scenes, the “Love Documentary” interview sequence that feels like a shameless When Harry Met Sally ripoff, a few montages, and a scene where Tom imagines himself in some European art movies. My problem is not that there is too much artifice, but that there’s isn’t much else but artifice. (500) Days of Summer lacks the breathing room that Annie Hall has. Annie Hall spaces out it’s gags so the film doesn’t feel like it’s just one stylistic device followed by another.
Another problem is the inconsistency in perspectives that arises because of the narrator. The narration appears only a handful of times throughout the film and is only used to deliver quick exposition. For all you Robert McKee disciples out there, this is the kind of lazy voiceover he’s talking about. Anyway the film seems to be conflicted about what perspective it wants to use to tell it’s story. It begins with third person narration, giving it a semblance of objectivity. But the film often seems like it wants to take place from Tom’s point of view as well. The aforementioned Expectation v.s. Reality sequence and the musical number feel like they’re lifted from the imagination of it’s protagonist. This inconsistency certainly doesn’t ruin the film, but it weakens it. Unlike Annie Hall which always lets us know that we’re seeing the world through Alvy’s eyes.
At first glance, these movies are structured almost identically. We learn in the first moments of both films, that both relationships end in breakups. The rest of the films track the progress of the relationship out of order. So why is Annie Hall’s structure so much more effective?
Well this may sound kind of contradictory, but even unconventional narratives need discipline. And I think Annie Hall’s plot works because works better than (500) Days because it has discipline, albeit very loose discipline. The structure of Annie Hall seems erratic the first time you see it , but after you watch it a few times you begin to understand it. We’re essentially watching Alvy’s memories as he remembers them. As he says in the opening monologue, he’s “sifting the pieces of the relationship through [his] mind " Therefore each scene seems like a direct result of the last, with very few exceptions. For example, After Alvy fails at convincing Annie to have sex with him, she delivers the line: "I mean, you've been married before, you know how things can get. You were very hot for Allison at first.” This acts as a transition to the next scene where we see Alvy’s first encounter with his ex-wife. There are clever transitions like these throughout the film. And it’s easy to underestimate the value of links between scenes. But for movies with experimental structure, it’s important to have them to keep the audience engaged.
The structural intent is never as clear in (500) Days of Summer. Are we seeing Tom’s memories? Are we just watching a traditional chronological narrative? The answer is Yes. The movie switches between these two modes of storytelling at different times. And the result is a film that feels uneven, inconsistent, and a bit unsatisfying. The film will occasionally flirt with the stream of consciousness style, but never give itself over to it. Take the scene where Tom and Summer are at Ikea on day 238. Tom jokes about the sinks on display, complaining that they’re broken. Summer isn’t amused. The film then cuts back to Day 31, where the couple is in Ikea. In an adorable scene, we see the characters develop a rapport as they play house in Ikea. This scene is reminiscent of Annie Hall in the way these two scenes connect, but unlike Annie Hall it quickly loses interest and just goes back to telling the story linearly.
There are a lot of moments like this throughout the film. The movie will play like a traditional narrative and then cut to a scene that’s way in the future and then connect that scene to a scene we would’ve seen next chronologically. This really disrupts the rhythm of the movie and we never needed a connection between the scene we would’ve seen next and it’s future counterpart. This is not to say that comparisons like these aren’t interesting. They are. And it’s effective because it shows how time changes relationships. But it feels totally unmotivated structurally.Either tell the story linearly or tell it non-linearly. The movie tires to do both and does neither effectively.
Because of it’s disciplined, yet loose structure, Annie Hall’s plot develops a certain rhythm. The cuts are unpredictable, but logical. (500) Days of Summer on the other hand feels sporadic. It has no guiding principle to carry the audience through it’s rather disjointed narrative.
Just to reiterate, I do think (500) Days of Summer is a good movie. My intention in this essay was not to belittle it by comparing to Annie Hall. My intention was to investigate how we can learn more about a work of art by studying what came after it. Let me put it this way. Annie Hall was greatly influenced by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. And I’m sure there’s some other guy on the internet writing about how Annie Hall pales in comparison to 8 1/2 or Wild Strawberries. It’s all just part of the conversation.
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