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L.A. as filtered by love

July 31, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

"(500) Days of Summer" is a movie about obsessions -- gentle, often charming and non-stalkerish obsessions, for the most part, but obsessions all the same. Chief among them -- after romantic love, the subject that stands always at the heart of the story, its existence always up for impassioned, practically theological debate -- is architecture.

The movie, set in downtown Los Angeles, is filled with shots that make the neighborhood look like an architectural guidebook come to celluloid life, mostly because Tom, an aspiring architect with a day job writing copy for greeting cards, relies on walking tours as a central part of his sometimes bumbling courtship of Summer, a flightily charismatic co-worker. Tom is particularly fond of the 1927 Fine Arts Building, on 7th Street, and 1902's Continental Building on Spring, which he proudly cites as downtown's first skyscraper.

It is surely significant that directors are now content to let downtown, so long a cinematic stand-in, play itself and even to put the neighborhood at the center of their story lines. There's a twist, though, to the picture's emphasis on architecture: It has been carefully edited to excise virtually all shots of buildings finished after about 1950. Don't expect to see Frank Gehry's shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Department of Water and Power by A.C Martin. Or Thom Mayne's Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, whose imposing, perforated-metal facade has made it a movie and car-commercial staple. Or Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Or even what was known until a year ago as the ImaginAsian theater on Main Street, an all-white curving design by Hodgetts + Fung that Summer and Tom might plausibly have visited for a matinee showing of some appropriately obscure Korean or Taiwanese movie.

The only time contemporary architecture figures in the story, in fact, is when Tom, sitting on a bench with Summer in Angel's Knoll Park, complains about all the parking garages that have recently disfigured downtown's handsome prewar profile. It's as if there are two kinds of buildings downtown: old ones full of character and new ones filled with cars. His view from the bench, in fact, pretty neatly sums up the movie's view of architecture: What he sees is a tiny, carefully trimmed slice of downtown masquerading as a panorama.

There are a few obvious reasons for that highly selective perspective. For starters, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) are both characters drawn to the old, quirky and overlooked: Neither one much likes new movies, music or fashion. Their taste, finely honed and fiercely held, is best described as anachronistic, both specific and wide enough to include "The Graduate," Regina Spektor and the Smiths. Then there's the fact that the movie's structure is itself retrospective: In aggressively shuffling the story line, the screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, give us the end of the relationship early on and let us spend the rest of the movie looking back. The buildings on view fit neatly into that structure: The content of the movie is what's come before.

But there's another element of the picture's thematic use of architecture that says something intriguing about the relationship between design and certain quarters of American culture, particularly its twenty- and thirtysomething culture. "500 Days" is, as far as genres go, a hybrid picture, something of an emo version of a romantic comedy: It disdains machismo, futurism, violence and volume in favor of subtlety and heartfelt, if often mumbled, emotion.

The one time Tom really runs afoul of Summer's feelings is when he throws a punch at a guy who's been hassling her at a bar (downtown's highly photogenic Broadway Bar, by the way). Tom is one of a number of emo leading men to emerge from Hollywood this year, joining sensitive types in "Adventureland" and "Away We Go," among other pictures. As Gawker noted this week, the cineplex has been full of "gentle, sensitive, geeky male outsiders with a love of Lou Reed and snug hoodies."

With its very particular aesthetic point of view and calibrated tone, "(500) Days" shares much cultural ground not just with indie bands but with emo culture broadly defined -- with journals like McSweeney's (whose founder, Dave Eggers, cowrote "Away We Go"), radio programs like "This American Life" (whose host, Ira Glass, is Tom with chunky black glasses and a decade or two older) and so on.

Tom's architectural drawings, when he gets around to making them, are certainly not done with the aid of any computer software: They are eccentrically, minutely detailed throwbacks that he executes in a notebook, on a chalkboard at home or on Summer's forearm. No blobs or parametric wonders for him, thank you very much, nor any of the straight, spare lines of the International Style: His sketches are a cross between the charcoal drawings of Hugh Ferriss and the precise ink illustrations of McSweeney's favorite Chris Ware.

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