500 Days Disrupted
Ye higher men, the worst thing in you is that ye have none of you learned to dance as ye ought to dance—to dance beyond yourselves! What doth it matter that ye have failed! (Nietzsche Thus Spake Zarathustra)
There is every reason to dismiss this very light and whimsical moment in Mark Webb's 2009 film 500 Days of Summer. Everything about the clip indicates this is just a frothy Hollywood dance number that denotes Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon Levitt) finding true love. However, this interpretation disregards the possibilities for fruitful analysis provided by this sequence. As Hansen enters the park and the lightweight music of Hall & Oates 1980's track "You Make My Dreams Come True" kicks into full swing, some interesting observations can be made that speak to a particular Marxist and Nietzschean inflexion.
I make no claims to dance-film scholarship but take the Nietzsche quote above to offer a remedy against the worker as alienated being. Enamored with this bubbly scene, I want to encounter the dance as a blow against how the everyday worker moves his or her body through the city landscape. As Karl Marx said, "The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him."1 That is, the environment that we move through is often constructed, controlled and managed through a set of unwritten rules on how to move through it. The alienated worker cannot or should not go beyond themselves and treat the work space as a dance space. Of course, the spontaneous shift to dance breaks these unwritten rules because, here, the dancer sheds the shackles of work and begins to embrace a purely personal moment. In some ways, then, Marx and Nietzsche combined can be seen to muse that to be unique and self-legislating, we have to leave behind the banal version of ourselves and defy this version and dance either metaphorically or in this case materially.
In contrast to the spontaneous corporeality of dancing, the everyday spaces of the city seem to be more and more set aside for people to traverse from A to B in a serious, controlled manner, mindful of their productive lives, dance-less and subdued. They are alienated because they are playing out simulated lived experiences knowingly embraced.2 The overall sentiment is one that may head towards creeping melancholia, trending towards a form of collective ennui.
Perhaps, then, there is nothing more typical and symptomatic of this melancholy than walking through the streets or travelling in the city on public transport and watching the muted overcast faces and bodies of the people as they travel to and from work. They often occupy the space as if they are already overburdened by work-life, meandering drudgingly, alienated from a more spontaneous and heterogeneous existence.
In relation to this, while a sudden spontaneous outbreak of dancing can occur in the cinema, elsewhere if a dance suddenly erupts outside of its expected environment, it is treated as suspicious and staged. Dance in real life is decreed to occur in specific places and specific times by characters that are designated as professional or recreational dancers. Thus, when Tom Hansen breaks into dance it is not just that he changes the register of the film and the bodies on the screen but, for me, he signals the most effective way to challenge the collective ennui described above is through a vastly different movement through time and space.
Everybody in the scene that joins Hansen from beginning to end is in vocational mode. They are going to or from work. There are business people, construction workers, a postal worker. From the moment that Hansen enters the space, the mood lightens to the point of euphoria. All tedious assignments are extracted and work is exchanged for a brief moment of ecstatic movement that defies time and space. All of a sudden, a moment of conformity occurs that, parallel to the music, morphs into an organised, homogeneous choreography. The camera moves from a medium close-up of Hansen and broadens out, allowing all characters in the scene to integrate and dance along with his movements. The point here is not to see this as merely a clichéd pop sweetness akin to a pop music video but also, as Erin Brannigan argues, as a challenge to physical banality and the repetition and mundanity of the everyday.3 Through dancing, Hansen and the dancers access the excessive rhythm of their bodies, of the sunshine, the white noise of life which, when everything is silent, can manifest as a hum, a whistle or through the speakers inserted into people's ears. They are challenging the work forces that restrict their bodies because dance defies what they are expected to be doing. The workaday world becomes a platform for a new assemblage, one facilitated by moving their bodies against the strictures of the banal anticipated work-walk that we would associate in going from A to B on any given weekday.
When watching this scene, I can just watch Joseph Gordon Levitt dance, but I can also see the entire mise-en-scene as a defiance of gestural convention. I can see work as inferior to dance, especially if the work is repetitive drudgery. What happens in this instance is that as the extra-diegetic music invades Hansen's diegetic world, the dancers are led by Hansen's effusive contortions and given a singular purpose. This is where the common goal is not in the production of goods and services from which they are physically alienated, but in creating, through moving their bodies in space, one brief moment of absolute solidarity. Yes, they are homogeneously organised through dance choreography, but they are also liberated from their mundane, everyday labors. Everybody in the scene joins in and, while some appear uncomfortable with the choreography, their movements can be seen as the abandonment of who they are either as actors or persons. They dance in harmony with Hansen. They are neither accomplished nor graceful, but they mesh with the music and ambiance perfectly. This abandonment is temporary and liberating and drives a momentary wedge between this time and film space and the placement of the body in that film space.
Of course, there are many reasons to see this confected "feel good" outbreak as sheer wish fulfilment and a so-called independent film's take on the materialised limerence of his relationship. The dance ends with Hansen being given back his bag as a symbol of returning to the work world and the film continues. But, for one moment, he has been lost from himself in the most delicious and energising of moments and that is where some might choose to stay and carry on these "excessive gestures."4