There is much to be said about a film’s ability to influence the viewer. We all have a movie that gave us chills and stayed front-of-mind long after we left the theatre. When I saw the 1985 film “Come and See,” I couldn’t understand how people stood up so quickly when the credits began to roll. I had been immobilized by the apocalyptic imagery of Nazi brutality and sat slack-jawed as fellow movie-goers gathered their things and discussed dinner plans. Movies like this have the potential to change the way we perceive and comprehend the world. But sometimes, it is the viewer who changes the film. As we grow and change, our understanding of a movie will change with us.
I recently watched “High Fidelity” for the third time. The movie, released a few months before I was born in 2000, introduces the audience to Rob Gordon (John Cusack, “Being John Malkovich”) as his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle, “Defiance”) is walking out the door. Rob, a former DJ and Chicago record store-owner, is no stranger to break-ups. Throughout the film, Cusack breaks the fourth wall as Rob directly addresses the camera, walking us through his romantic history and quest to understand why he is fated to be rejected.
Rob is something of an antihero. Viewed according to 2021 standards, the film capitalizes on antiquated tropes about heterosexual relationships and a hefty dose of misogyny. By 2000 standards, this is just another movie about male dysfunction. Scott Tobias of The Guardian says that Rob “is kind of a jerk,” and describes the Nick Hornby book on which the movie was based as an “incisive dissection of the pop-addled male brain.” To put it more simply, Rob is a man-child with ill-founded ideas about women and their role in his life. “High Fidelity” is not life-changing, and it hasn’t altered the way I perceive anything. Except, maybe, Jack Black’s ability to cover Marvin Gaye.
What has changed, however, is my perception of the film itself. When I first watched “High Fidelity,” I was 13 or 14 and had recently discovered the world of collecting vintage vinyl. If I recall, I was disappointed to learn that the movie poster was a bit misleading: The film was more about record store-owner than record store. This explains why I more clearly recall the Championship Vinyl scenes than I do the scenes in bars and restaurants.
My next encounter with “High Fidelity” took place a few years ago, when I was probably 17 or 18. This time, with my initial delusions dispelled, I knew what I was getting into. No longer focused on the vinyl aspect, I actually appreciated it more. Rob has pretty good taste, and boy, can Jack Black sing. Reflecting now on my first rewatch, my memory seems to fixate on Rob’s dysfunction. I may have seen too much of myself in self-conscious Rob for comfort, and as an anxious teenager, I was a bit disconcerted. Rob is sad, selfish and more deserving of pity than sympathy. I did not want to be Rob.
Now, rewatching “High Fidelity” again, I still see myself in Rob, but not as the selfish mope. When Laura leaves, Rob undertakes the reorganization of his large record collection “autobiographically.” In order to find a song, he’d need to scour his memory for the person or event to which that song is attached. This is a very minor plot point, and it is meant to support the point that Rob has an obsessive personality. I was struck by this scene, not because I heal emotional wounds through reorganization (if only it were that easy), but because there is something poignant about turning that sorting compulsion on one’s own personal history in a time of crisis.
Rob is still a problematic character on the third watch. His ironically simultaneous fears of commitment and rejection are likely to linger despite his making up with Laura at the film’s conclusion. The insecurity and selfishness which struck a minor chord with my 17-year-old self have been replaced by my identification with Rob’s desire to find and create order in a disordered world.
“High Fidelity” is defined by lists. Rob is always making them, often with his friends, otherwise for the camera. In fact, the narrative structure is oriented around Rob’s Top Five Worst Breakups — you see here a hint of his misogyny as he reduces women to ordinal items. Music is the source material for most of the film’s lists, with one example being “Top Five Songs for a Monday Morning.” If you’ll indulge me, and in no particular order: “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, “7 AM” by Jacqueline Taieb, “Sunday Morning” by Amanaz (ironic, I know), “It’s Summertime” by Morcheeba and “Beggin’” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Rob’s list-making is shown as a symptom of his dysfunction. We get hints of this obsessive quality elsewhere in the film, like Rob’s hypocritical focus on Laura’s post-breakup sexual activity and the way he seeks absolution from obsession over the “top five” exes. Rob is not a healthy man, but there is something else at work here. The characters gloss over his record reorganization, but it reveals an interiority that is lacking in the rest of the movie.
To construct this “autobiographical” system, Rob must draw on a mental timeline of emotional memory. His musical catalog becomes a playable chronicle of his life. His new system will be totally nonsensical to the outsider, suggesting that Rob sees his now Laura-less apartment as a sanctuary and extension of himself. And sweetest of all, when he sits down to make Laura a mixtape at the end of the film, he must first make a sort of memory playlist, curating an emotional experience for Laura from events that may even predate her.
“High Fidelity” is about much more than a self-loathing and obsessive-compulsive record store owner. The viewer is welcomed into an emotional world defined by music, arranged like a setlist and highly curated, for better or for worse. This was lost on me when I first watched and then rewatched the film. On the first go, my initial misconceptions left me dialed into the music alone, generally uninterested in Rob’s romantic woes. The second round was subconsciously sour, as Rob’s insecurities hit too close to my own and left a bad taste in my mouth. Now, I watch his romantic incompetence with pity while focusing on his pathological need to impose order. On the third go, the film is much more interesting.
Rob’s lines and lists are the same as they were when I was 14. All that has changed is me. From viewing to viewing, I traversed setting and superficiality toward plot and character, and beyond to subplot and consequence. I only imagine that next time I will come full circle to the superficial and spend the whole time trying to identify the many Chicago and suburban filming locations. “High Fidelity” is no cinematic masterpiece, but my experience with the film embodies one of the ways that personal growth can alter our perception of art and media.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.