n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
I own a signed, first edition hardcover of High Fidelity. That is how seriously I take this work. As you read this piece, you will begin to question my adoration. Don’t for a second. I love, live in, and date the world of High Fidelity; the music, the details, the obsession. I just don’t always enjoy the people who populate the world. That is the key. I hope you understand. Now carry on, my cyber peeps.
I actually read the book long before all the hype began, which is why my book is first-edition and signed (that’s right; I was there when. . ). It even has that retarded blue cover of a generically cute guy with a cheeky, lopsided smirk on his puss. That should have been my first clue; that smirk. The guy who pulls that face is the same guy who thinks that by pulling the “oh, I know I am a jerk, but aren’t I lovable” smirk on his girlfriend, she will just melt and all’s forgiven. Fool. She’ll have a cursory go at you to make a point and then act like everything is fine. But silently in her head, she is keeping a giant scoreboard of checks in the yeah and nay column. And one day, when the balance is tipped by too many stupid grins-as-apology and not enough real apologies, the jig is up. These guys always think they are WAY more charming then they really are. They don’t realize any quality girl has seen this charm schtick done not only a million times before, but a million times better. If you really wanted that to work, you should have gotten to us earlier (We will revisit this key theme later in our broadcast. Have your workbooks ready). And that is where High Fidelity comes in. It helps to even the score out. Or at least helps to explain why guys do the silly things they do. It doesn’t add checks to the yeah side, but it might help to eliminate a few in the nay side.
Like the Rosetta Stone, Hornby’s book acts as a decoding ring (one with a lozenge-shaped candy-apple-red button in it’s center) for the behaviors, awkward goofiness, and lop-sided smirks of the beast known as the music geek. And Rob Gordon, the protagonist of both book and film, is the pack’s alpha geek. I find it very interesting, and to Stylus’s credit, that they are having a female comment on this most male of films.
For many fans of the book, there were two rather large problems with the film. One was John Cusack. And to be fair, he is a tit. Here’s a story to prove it: one of my best friends is an editor at a very high profile magazine (a woman in your life subscribes to it). She was at a party at the Toronto film festival and was talking with Barbara De Fina (Martin Scorcese’s producer and ex-wife) and Cusack. Cusack starts talking about his film to Barbara and my friend said “Oh, I am really excited to see the film. I have heard great things about it”. Cusack looks right over her head, and says to Barbara “I have no patience talking to people who haven’t seen the film.” and then carried on talking like my friend wasn’t even there. So my friend said “Okay! Where’s the bar?” See? Tit. But seriously, men hate John Cusack. Especially men of the indie-rock ilk. It stems from the character Lloyd Dobbler in the film Say Anything (Please see Chuck Klosterman’s extended diatribe on this in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, where you can also find his genius take on why Luke Skywalker is responsible for Gen X guys. Klosterman is a very entertaining guy, but he also seems like the type of guy I would probably end up decking after one too many Maker’s on the rocks. But it would be fun in the honeymoon hours). Dobbler is the archetype of what most women think they want in a boyfriend. Ladies, you really don’t. Because while the first few years will be blissful, the next few years of his limpet-grip will slowly drive you to the attic bunk next to Mrs. Rochester. Trust me. But indie rock ilkers would rather blame Cusack then just be stand up guys. Whatever.
Onto rather large problem two. Location. Cusack moves the location from London to Chicago. Having been record shopping all over the world, I speak with authority when I say location makes not a jot of difference. Record shops in London, Madrid, Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, Rome, NYC and Chicago are all shockingly similar. In fact, I think there is just one store and it moves in Dr Who’s time-travelling tardis all around the world. Yes, the staff might be cooler in some, some might have a better selection of new releases, some have far more vinyl, some have very specialized genres and some have a great selection of 12”s, but it all shakes out the same. And they can all get you anything you want. Or for that matter, so can the internet. Ah, the internet; it’s the great leveler.
Okay, so now that we have tackled the two stumbling blocks, onto the film itself. The film’s backbone is music. It feeds both the souls and the checking accounts of the characters. Another reason I love this--I spent my university years working at, you guessed it, a record store. Yes, I was one of those people who sized up your tastes with a crippling mix of pity and disdain. And we had lists. Actually, we had games instead of lists, but it was all just a way to pass the time between walking around with a clipboard doing impotent inventory counts. We had the “on-hold” game (calling mall record stores to see who could get the highest dollar amount put on hold for them), the “million-dollar CD” game (which CD would you hide a million bad boys in because no one will buy it) and finally we had the “you are dumb” game. That was our favorite. It consisted of us dispensing withering remarks at the customers from behind the safety of our big counter. So really, record stores are the same where ever you go.
Take it back to the god damn bridge, Zabriskie. The film opens with the “leaving” moment. That’s the moment in a break-up where the balance shifts from “maybe” to “yes”; “can we salvage” to “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out”. It’s a yucky time. Laura leaves and Rob stomps about with an equal mix of pleading and pride. When she walks out, pride wins and Rob proclaims that this break-up wouldn’t even make it onto his top 5 break-up list. What guys like Rob don’t understand is that pride is what ultimately undoes them. As the great oracle Kenny Rogers sings in his paean to Zen philosophy, “you gotta know when to hold ��em, know when to fold ��em”. And guys like Rob don’t know how to do either. Stoic when they should be graceful, selfish when they should be selfless, they are far too busy in their tabernacles built of solipsistic delusions that when greatness arrives, it slips through their hands. Their ship comes in, and they’re at the airport. Even the song that accompanies this scene “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators (get it?) accentuates the misguided reality of the situation. Hey lady—you are gonna miss me! Yeah, we are so going to miss your insularity and your arrested development. No we aren’t; we are going to be alright. And you will go back to living in your world grounded not in musical fetish, but pathos. And you will be pretty fucking far from alright.
Cusack's compulsive habit of compiling countless musical lists closely parallels his desire to understand his present romantic situation by endlessly rehashing and analyzing his romantic past. This brings us back to the point made earlier: if you really wanted to fuck me up, you should have gotten to me earlier. Exactamundo! Here is another trademark; first girlfriend as template for every future girlfriend. All the gaffes, mean things and crap that she pulled will set in place all the mistakes future girlfriends will be blamed for. Our protagonist cops to this, so I am not talking out of turn here and honestly - chicks do this too. The audience takes a little trip down girlfriend lane with Rob. Accompanied by time-stamped tunage—Bow Wow Wow’s spiky “I Want Candy,” Elton John’s queerball “Crocodile Rock,” and Springsteen’s haunting “The River,” we gain insight and knowledge into what shaped Rob’s pussy-possessing misallocations. He can only contextualize and rationalize the past through the filter of music. Music is his language, his life, his love and his lady.
From here we spiral into a laundry list of what is keeping Rob from moving from a 14 year old adolescent boy into a full formed man by chronicling his attempts to make sense of his romantic past and its enduring legacy. He lives in the past and the future—never in the present. He is the geek’s version of Kant. Pop-culture references have become a cliché, but one of many great things about High Fidelity is that it understands the psychological importance music plays in its protagonist's life. It also manages to take another one-two punch cliché – the voice-over AND speaking directly to the camera—and make it all seem shiny and new. That is down to the skills of Stephen Frears, a director of amazing talent. Hello! My Beautiful Launderette, Dangerous Liaisons, and Dirty Pretty Things—thank you! The soundtrack’s choices punctuate and reiterate key moments in the work. Our first introduction to Championship Vinyl is through the exemplary sensitive-pop-rock Stuart Murdoch-crooning Belle and Sebastian’s “Seymour Stein”; we then get a toxic blast of prototype record store employee Barry with Katrina and The Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” giving the optimum blend of cornball ironic doofus. During the “my knowledge is better than your knowledge” scene, we are treated to Smog’s “Cold Blooded Old Times”. Bill Callahan actually is my dream boyfriend, and Smog gets the balance of credibility, gift and popularity just right. I love this scene for the mere fact that Cusack picks one of my all-time top songs for his top five side ones list. It also shows the vulnerability of all music geeks. By elevating their manifesto of minutiae, and having the intense discourse, they are proving to themselves that this fount of information they possess, gleaned over years of study, actually matters. It sets them apart and makes them special. Kind of like the way scholars used to only speak Latin in order to both elevate and identify themselves among lesser beings, picking “Janie Jones” (bingo!) by the Clash is the modern version of it.
Having blathered on for far too long, I am going to bring this thing back onto the AKAS highway with what I believe to the most important part of the film. Laura’s father dies and Rob goes to the funeral. Through various clumsy mishaps, Rob decides it is best to be where others are not. As he gets rain-soddened, and to the backdrop of the striking “Most of the Time” by Dylan, Rob has an epiphany. He realizes that he has never really committed to Laura because he was always waiting for something better. He has finally come onto the understanding that time moves on, irregardless of if you want it to. And waiting for the perfect person isn’t going to stop time. You can’t hold onto your youth by trying to capture the dream girl from it. You don’t get a do-over every time you get a new girlfriend. He realizes that by not committing to anything, he has committed to nothing. And that, he states “Is suicide. By tiny increments.” Although, I don’t really buy it when he does commit to her; I think he will always be looking over her shoulder. All relationship are doomed to fail—but we can still live in hope. Actually, all relationships aren’t doomed to fail, people just need to realize that, like our protagonist says “It’s not who you are, it’s what you like.”
While not getting a do-over might be part of the film’s message, its real heart is music and the starring role it plays in one’s life. Any film that spans Goldie, The Vaselines, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nilsson, High Llamas (a Cornelius remix of them at that!) and De La Soul makes that point stylus sharp. Rob Gordon’s obsession with music gives him a safe place free from the anxiety and uncertainty that he allows to define his life. Music is rich in codes and messages, an archeology of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. He feels a protective tenderness toward his beginnings, part of a strategy in a world of displacement to restore and preserve, a way of fastening himself to a history, to a life. But the only way to really fasten onto a life is through connections to others. Not through connection to objects, but through tangible, positive touches of and from others. No matter how many Licorice Comfits albums you have, they aren’t a patch on how many real experiences you have had. How many lives you have inhabited, and how many people have inhabited yours. If you aren’t scared of it, you will be richly rewarded. Because you can have that person you always wanted. You just need some strength of character and courage. Plus all that music you love? It will take on a whole new meaning—separate but still equal. And that I can tell you for sure.
By: Hope Zabriskie
Published on: 2005-03-03