I re-watch High Fidelity about once a year, just to see how much I’ve changed.
More than a decade ago, I saw High Fidelity in a little movie theater in Nelsonville, Ohio. Back then, I sat there with the girl I was dating and, over and over, I saw shades of myself on the screen. I laughed a lot, but she really didn’t.
At 24 years old, I guess I needed a film to reassure me that what I was feeling and thinking about women and music was normal, and that other people like me (read: young and very dumb) were out there.
Do I really need to point out how that relationship was doomed?
Yes, there are others like Rob, the main character (played by John Cusack), and these people are self-involved, officious wankers. They are awkward people who value only the superficial in others, and they wouldn’t know what to do with a relationship of any depth.
I like to think I’ve made progress. I used to idolize Rob — even cheer him on. Now, for most of the film, I see Rob as a sad protagonist who I can’t stand. Watching Rob is like looking at a home movie of myself from years ago and wanting to reach through and slap that younger me (or at least give him a haircut).
Rob is a calculating misogynist. He’s the kind of man who can’t stand the idea of someone else sleeping with his ex, so he goes out and sleeps with someone else. It’s as if he’s in a race to hurt his ex before she hurts him — a pre-emptive strike. This is a loving relationship?
Once he sleeps with someone else, he immediately goes back to obsessing about his ex…and whether she’s sleeping with someone else! Then he flips out when he learns she’s slept with a new guy! These days, I find myself yelling at the screen: “But…look at what you just did, asshole! AAARGGH.”
And because John Cusack is so likable, what his character does is…okay? Funny? His third act redemption is…earned? What did he do to earn redemption? His ex’s father died, so Rob went to the funeral. Big deal. That’s not enough to win someone back.
Years ago, I understood Rob. I felt his pain, even. Bitches, man! Women — especially ones who had the audacity to dump me (when I probably deserved it) — were the enemy, and I had so much stored up anger at my own failures, and so much misdirected blame, that I should’ve stayed single. Instead, I kept going back out there, taking that darkness with me. Baaaad.
High Fidelity has this other element: Rob owns a record shop where much of the film takes place. I used to have this fantasy of owning my own record shop, and if not for the demise of physical media and my own savvy move to hide in grad school and the teaching profession for many years, I likely would be running my own store into the ground right now. I’d be raging against digital downloads and the death of physical media, and I’d be chasing Katy Perry and Nickleback fans out of the shop, pelting them with unsold promo copies of Maroon 5 CDs, and I’d be a miserable old git.
Despite the changes in the record industry, the stores are still cool somehow. I idealize them because I don’t own or work in one. They’re my church. Record shops have an allure, a palpable attitude about them, and that hazy, nicotine and vinyl and incense smell.
Record stores are a fantasy that doesn’t really deliver for me, though. I know plenty of people who work in shops and have great, happy lives. I tried, and I loved the free music and conversations, but I hated the retail drudgery. “It’s retail hell,” my friend Stevie Ray used to say. His shop went under a few years later.
Still, as a customer, I can’t stay away from these places. When I travel, I have to find the nearest record shop, just to see if their store feels the same. I’m rarely disappointed. I’m the type of boring person who sees a record shop as part of a sightseeing tour. I have this impulse to go look. I never know what I’ll find. There could be a bargain!
I once heard my dad telling someone about how he’d work all week, then wake up on Saturday morning with this itch, like he had to go out, because there was a bargain out there. If he did not act quickly, he would miss that bargain. He would come back with all this stuff — a used lawnmower, a car, or furniture. He always found a deal. At least I came by this honestly.
I feel the same pull — if I don’t check the shops, I’ll miss some amazing bargain, like when I found The Jimi Hendrix Concerts for a buck, or The Funk Box for $25, or the Neil Young Archives Blu-Ray edition for $100. (As an adult, I’ve come to understand that it is not polite to share details about how much something cost, and that’s why I’m not telling you anything else.) Shop owners see me coming. I’m an easy target.
I’m roughly Rob’s age now, but aside from the record collecting and the (mostly harmless) navel-gazing, I like to think I’m a different guy. What changed? I watched my friends marry off, have kids, buy houses, etc., and I didn’t understand. I kept collecting stuff. I kept having bad relationships. Two dates, maybe even three, and then a flameout.
I kept going with my gut each time: “Maybe this new girl is the one.”
Finally, I had the same epiphany that Rob has around the 100-minute mark in High Fidelity: “I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”
I spent New Year’s Eve 2005 with friends, and I felt hopeful about 2006. My friends would later say something about me had changed. They’d never seen me that way. I’m still not sure what they meant. Maybe I was just at peace for once.
And then, almost all at once, along came my wife, our life together, our home, and Rufus, our house rabbit, who is a total asshole who destroys my things, but we love him anyway.
High Fidelity isn’t really about music, and every time I re-watch the film, I’m reminded. “High fidelity” is just another phrase for commitment, and the peace that comes from letting go of the rest of what doesn’t matter. I’m sure there’s some Buddhism in here somewhere.
When you commit to somebody — really, really commit to something real and steady, you can get something that transcends the fantasy (even if piles of shoes accumulate in front of every door and half-full glasses of water collect on every flat surface).
You get to come home to that person. (I say this with the utmost respect for people who come home to an empty home for whatever reason. For the record, I really enjoyed living alone, so if my marriage doesn’t work out, I’m living alone in a shabby apartment full of records for the rest of my life.)
Despite being married and supposedly more mature, I still pieced together all the deleted Bowie albums on Rykodisc (you know, the ones with the bonus tracks you can’t get anywhere else), and I put together the Stones’ SACD discography, and I spent so much money at the Borders going-out-of-business sales last year that I actually wondered whether I’d single-handedly resuscitate the company and/or the entire record industry.
That doesn’t mean I want any of that stuff more than the wife, the career, the house rabbit, or the house he is trying to destroy.
All that collecting, that obsessing, that itch on Saturday mornings to go out and find a bargain — even as physical media sits on life support — it’s all just providing a soundtrack for a pretty good life in high fidelity. That’s the real epiphany here.