High Fidelity (2000)

Title: High Fidelity (2000)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer/s: Nick Hornby, John Cusack, D.V DeVincentis, Steve Pink and Scott Rosenberg

Based on a novel by Nick Hornby author of About a Boy (2000) and A Long Way Down (2006) both of which have been made into films.

“What came first? The music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, or that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” 
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Laura (Iben Hjejle) is leaving Rob Gordon (John Cusack). Rob has no idea why she’s leaving, but he does know that she is NOT on his Top Five Breakups of All Time list! No, those positions belong to the really devastating breakups and just in case you (the viewer) are interested Rob is going to list said breakups in chronological order.

First there was Allison Ashmoore (Shannon Stillo), who in junior high kissed Rob behind the bleachers for three days running until on the fourth day she started kissing Kevin Bannister.

Second came Penny Hardwick (Joelle Carter) who didn’t want to have sex with Rob so he broke up with her claiming, “what’s the point? It never goes anywhere”. Weeks later Penny would have sex with someone else and Rob will be devastated.

Then along came Charlie Nicholson (Catherine Zeta Jones) who was the epitome of wild and free and sexually-liberated. He feared she would run off with someone in her art department, and she did. With some guy called Marco or Rocco. Cue John Cusack standing in the rain outside Charlie’s apartment screaming her name.

Sarah Kendrew (Lili Taylor) is the next woman to break Rob’s already fragile heart. It doesn’t really help that they were both just getting over respective breakups with other people when they met. They subsequently find mutual comfort in each other’s misery whilst sharing a bed until Sarah announces one morning at breakfast that she has met someone else. And that ends that.

In the meantime Rob tells us about his job as the owner of a record store called Championship Vinyl located in an area that “attracts the bare minimum of window shoppers”. Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso) work in the store with Rob, even though he seems to spend more time being annoyed with them than anything else. At one point they are arguing about music (which they seem to do a lot) and Rob faces the camera directly (he does this a lot) and proclaims: “I can’t fire them. I hired them for three days a week and they just started showing up, every day. That was four years ago.” However despite Rob’s unenthusiastic manner and penchant for melancholia (mostly over his breakup with Laura), Rob does rely on Dick and Barry’s unrelenting friendship and clear musical kinship. One regular customer even accuses them of being ‘elitist snobs’, and that “[they] feel like the unappreciated scholars so [they] shit on everybody who knows less than [them]. Which is everybody.” It is testimony to the overall attitude of the entire premise of this film that they all agree to this unprecedented remark on their character. They know they are music snobs, and that’s why we love them. On the other end of the spectrum Rob may seem the voice of reason when he asks Barry: “How can it be bullshit to state a preference?” when Barry questions his musical choices. However Rob himself is guilty of the same ‘bullshit’ time and time again. In fact his entire life is based on the following philosophy, which Dick and Barry both seem to agree to:

“What really matters is what you like. Not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fucking truth”

We don’t need to agree with Rob. At this point before he even makes this statement we are already beginning to feel that Rob has it all wrong. He is determined to find out why women keep rejecting him, and so ensues a series of scenes in which Rob calls or meets up with all his previous girlfriends on the Top Five Breakup list (mentioned previously).

First up is Alison who it turns out married the boy she left him for in the seventh grade. This clearly delights Rob, and so apparently inspired by the revelation that it is not his fault he calls up Penny, the girl who wouldn’t sleep with him. When he explains his predicament to the now grownup Penny she breaks down and tells him that he in fact broke up with her. Her traumatic experiences after Rob broke up with her affected her deeply, but that doesn’t seem to bother Rob. He remains obsessed with his own need to remove any blame from himself.

Deciding he will leave Charlie until later he calls up Sarah, the girl who shared in his pre-breakup pain. Sarah turns out to be just as screwed up as she was back then. When Rob realizes this he doesn’t have the heart to ask her about what went wrong. This is probably the first time he actually does a purely selfless thing, but there is an element of contriteness in his decisions. Perhaps he just didn’t want to get unnecessarily involved with someone whose mental stability was in question. At least that’s the conclusion I come to with this.

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In the meantime Rob has also gone out to a bar with Dick and Barry, and has met the exotically enigmatic Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet). Up on stage Marie sings a song Rob never liked but somehow hearing her version makes him want to date a musician. After the show they are so enamored by her that they invite her to visit their record store. Days later she is suddenly in the store, purple cowboy hat and all. It is also significant to note that they are playing her album when she walks in. Rob is on the phone to his and Laura’s mutual friend, Liz – played by John Cusack’s sister who is  insanely great at playing the wise-cracking best friend, Joan Cusack. Liz is expressing her sympathy with Rob, and mentions a guy called Ian. Rob clearly knew nothing about an Ian, and becomes determined to prove that Laura never knew an ‘Ian’ in her life. Well, it turns out that the ‘I.Raymond’ from upstairs in the very same apartment block Rob lives in was the very same Ian. Rob traumatizes himself even more by remembering that they used to hear Ian having sex upstairs when he and Laura were still together.

Laura also spends a significant amount of time returning to their apartment to pick up the rest of her stuff. During one of these visits she is forced to tell him about Ian (Tim Robbins). The crowning glory though is when she admits that they haven’t had sex ‘yet’. Cue Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’ as Rob runs out into the night after Laura has left again. He’s so happy that he goes out and sleeps with the musical Marie De Salle. Yeah, Rob is a real gem, and a  brilliant member of the male species. The use of the word ‘yet’ becomes a delightful conversation catalyst in which Rob and Barry discuss the genius of the 1987 film Evil Dead 2 .

Days later, Rob like the hypocrite that he is, will get mad at Laura for finally sleeping with Ian. He stalks Ian’s apartment in the rain and calls her from a phone booth across the road. Typical John Cusack really… (As a side note I am saying that Rob is John, but sometimes John does tend to play caricatures of  John…).

The next thing that Rob does is find that the exotic Charlie is in the “goddamn phone book”. He makes a dinner plan with her, but only on the condition (of Charlie’s) that this not be “one of those ‘what does it all mean?’” scenarios. When he gets to her lavish home and spends time with her pretentious friends Rob comes to the conclusion that Charlie is equally pretentious and is in fact quite awful. He questions why he made her the answer to all his women woes and it becomes clear that he made her up to be something entirely different in his head. So much of Rob’s life is made up of imagined scenarios. When Ian comes to his store to confront him about stalking the apartment and constantly calling Laura, he fantasizes over beating Ian up in several different ways. Of course none of this happens. Ian just succeeds in embarrassing Rob in front of Dick and Barry.

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Laura appears at the apartment to pick up the last of her stuff (finally) and stumbles upon a Top Five List of Rob’s dream jobs. Their time together seems great until she leaves. We know that Laura has made it to the Top Five Breakups because Rob has told us that she has. He takes a walk through the city and makes up another list: Top Five Things I Miss about Laura and one of them is her smell. He claims that “some people as far as your senses are concerned just feel like home”.

Chronologically my analysis of this film is a little Topsy turvy but I would be remiss if I didn’t throw in a little description of how Rob and Laura met, and why exactly Liz (their mutual friend) stormed into Championship Vinyl one day and called him a “fucking asshole”. You see Rob was working as a DJ at some club, and Laura was working in Legal Aid and they met when she complemented his choice of a Chemical Brothers record. They swap mix tapes, they fall in love and they move in together. It is only through Rob’s admittance that we learn that an affair, an abortion and a borrowed sum of money are also to blame for their breakup and that Rob is not as innocent as he made himself out to be – “I just invented a sketch of a decent sensitive guy because I’m in a position to invent him”.

When Laura’s father dies Rob attends the funeral and it is there when Laura is at her most vulnerable. They get back together and he starts to realize that he never truly committed to her because he was always so obsessed with keeping his options open. This doesn’t last every long because Rob meets up with a music critic and starts a very brief and casual flirtation with her. Will Rob ever learn? Will he ever stop self-sabotaging?

He’s managing a band called The Kinky Wizards, and Barry is now in a band called Sonic Death Monkeys and Laura is organizing him a few new DJ gigs. The critic is suddenly being forced to produce something himself and it frightens him. Losing Laura again also frightens Rob and after the success of his band’s debut, Rob realizes that he’s fucking up with Laura – again.

What truly makes this film so unique is its commitment to a culture of purists and music lovers. Using the typically ‘square’ coolness of Cusack and the masterful exuberance of Black, we sit with a classic that makes us remember why we listen to the songs that we do, when we do. And how we feel when we hear those songs, and what we remember from our past that makes music so great. It is also a film so much about the realities of love, that we are forced to acknowledge the notion of love more for its downs than its ups. It is this rawness that makes Rob and Laura’s love story so tragically real.

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In the final scene Rob is back in his armchair wearing headphones and surrounded by his records. He is making another mix tape for Laura and this time it’s going to be all the music he knows she will love and not what he thinks she should love. Now that’s LOVE.

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