High Fidelity, Then and Now

High Fidelity then starred John Cusack as an immature, self-absorbed record store owner who, because of a recent, painful breakup with his girlfriend Laura (perf. Iben Hjejle), went on a tour of self-discovery through conversations with all of his ex girlfriends. He handles his breakup, which is the opening scene of the film, with the grace and maturity of a five year old who just broke his favorite toy, and that metaphor becomes more and more apt the more time viewers spend with his character.

I won’t say that High Fidelity then, in 2000, was a perfectly paced or acted film. But it was well put together, taking the form at times of a video diary through fourth wall breaking scenes. The confessional character of these scenes generates empathy for Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, as does his interactions with his two employees (including Jack Black), whom he hired part time but who then showed up every day, all day long, just because they like hanging out at the record store. The film also encourages a kind of surrogate empathy through Rob’s interaction with a long time friend, Liz, performed by John Cusack’s real life sister, Joan Cusack. Through the first third of the film, we might think Rob’s character is a bit childish and narcissistic, but we still empathize with his seemingly genuine pain and his attempts to understand himself.

These strategies turn out to be a brilliant setup for increasingly horrifying revelations about the things that Rob has done to the women in his life. Rob rages about Laura’s breakup, moving back and forth between his desire for her and wanting to break it off, but we only find out why she broke up with him about halfway through the film: he admitted to cheating on her about the same time that she was going to tell him she was pregnant, leading her to get an abortion. We only discover these details after Rob’s friend Liz does, who in a great scene tells him off in a way only a real life sister could. Just watch how she walks into the room.

Rob’s fourth wall breaking reaction? Yeah, maybe I should have mentioned that.

Unbelievably, even this revelation wasn’t the low point for me. Rob’s total narcissism becomes apparent when he finally works down the list to his first girlfriend. Talking to her now, he realizes she didn’t break up with him, but he broke up with her — because she wasn’t ready for sex. In their meeting, she admits to him that his breakup left her so scarred she didn’t have sex for years, and when she finally did, it felt like a rape: she was just too tired to fight the guy off anymore, so while she didn’t want it, technically, she said, she consented. Horrifying? Yes. Absolutely. But somehow it gets worse. After Rob hears this story, he immediately — immediately — moves on to this insight: she didn’t break up with him! He broke up with her! So there was nothing wrong with him! Worst of all, he never revisits his complete, almost inhuman lack of empathy for this woman. He just moves on.

That’s when Rob’s total narcissism hit me. Rob’s narcissism isn’t a developmental stage, a personality quirk, something he’ll outgrow. At this point in his life, it’s his defining characteristic. Viewers learned Rob’s history with his first girlfriend about the same time Laura starts showing renewed interest in Rob. By this point, I’m not rooting for him anymore, I have zero empathy for this character, and I wish Laura would run away screaming and keep it up. But, no. She’s interested in him. When he finally wins her back, he has experienced some growth, but he’s still a fundamentally narcissistic character.

So when he proposes to her near the end of the film, she laughs and says, “No.” There’s no explanation. She just knows he’s too big a manchild to be ready for marriage, but he has convinced her of his commitment to her, so she’s willing to give him some time. The film assumes viewers understand her reaction, and she stays with him. She’s also encouraging him to engage in growth behaviors: producing an album for a couple of talented teenagers who stole records from his store, and then starting to DJ, so that he’s doing something himself and not just trading in other people’s creativity. She understands him in ways he doesn’t understand himself.

High Fidelity now (2020) was a single season remake of the film that was cancelled after a ten episode run. It’s very hard to compare the two because the full story wasn’t told — no, a ten episode series arc didn’t complete the narrative arc covered in the film. The series was cancelled just as the main character, Rob Gordon (perf. Zoë Kravitz), starts to face her own narcissism, but it doesn’t follow the story through to the end.

The 2020 series substitutes a thirtysomething black woman for a thirtysomething white man. The series’ opening scene is almost shot for shot and word for word a reshoot of the opening scene of the film, except a black man is leaving a black female record store owner instead of a white woman leaving a white male record store owner. She even slouches in her chair the same way Cusack’s Gordon does.

There’s a lot to chew on here. Are they really interchangeable in how they would react to a breakup? Kravitz doesn’t perform cultural blackness the way her friend/employee Cherise (perf. Da’Vine Joy Randolph) does. I’m not complaining about the change in character — Kravitz does a great job, and I enjoyed watching her in this series. But are there really no sex and race differences at play here? Is Rob Gordon as a white man interchangeable with Rob Gordon as a black woman of the same age?

I can’t completely answer that question because Kravitz pulls it off, and I was disappointed that the series was cancelled before the whole story could be told. It’s possible, as one Guardian reviewer said, that the problem with the series was that it stretched out a 2.5 hour film to a 5 hour series that still wasn’t finished telling its story. I wish they’d completed the story arc in their ten episodes. I suspect that the completion of the film arc was meant to be left for season 2, ending with a reconciliation and marriage proposal that was refused, and that season 3 might lead up to a marriage. Child in season 4? I have to ask how much mileage you can get out of a reformed narcissist. Marvel’s Loki had to reform much more quickly than that within the space of his first season.

My only hint of an answer to the question about the interchangeability of these actors comes from another review, which I won’t link here. This well-intentioned reviewer complained about the series’ cancellation and argued for its return this way: we need to keep High Fidelity the series because Kravitz’s character was “so much more likeable” than Cusack’s, who was a horrible person. My first reaction to this review was to think, “And that’s why we can’t have nice things.” The horrible narcissism of Cusack’s Rob Gordon was the point of the film, which is a film about narcissism, immaturity, and growing out of it. It’s a film about what men do to women and why. I think that is where sex and race differences come into play: Kravitz as the main character, as a black woman, was not allowed to be that completely horrible. She took this character a long way, don’t get me wrong. But at least as of the ending we saw, she never hit that low.

But I don’t think she ever would have hit bottom quite that low. In a small narrative arc within the series around mid-season, Kravitz’s Rob Gordon was offered a unicorn of a record collection, one containing individual albums which, by themselves, were worth well over $2000 in some cases (such as the Beatles’ butcher cover version of Yesterday and Today) for only $20.00 by an angry ex wife. Not $20.00 per album. $20.00 for the entire collection, which had to be worth at least close to ten thousand dollars. Rob couldn’t accept. She tried. She tracked down the white male husband at his favorite bar, was treated rudely and dismissively by him even while he was getting things wrong, and she still couldn’t accept the offer because “music is for everyone.” If you’re not sure about this scene, by the way, Michelle, the owner of Savvy Vinyl Records in Melbourne, FL, who told me to watch this film (and who couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it — so she ordered me to watch it), has related a number of these stories herself over the few short years I’ve known her. I think I recall witnessing one of these conversations myself.

On the one hand, this decision says quite a bit about Kravitz’s version of this character and her core beliefs, especially as a record store owner. On the other hand, in this series a black woman was absolutely not allowed to get the upper hand on a white man who completely deserved it. Cusack’s Rob Gordon probably would have taken the deal, but I’m not sure. I totally would have taken the deal. I think this scene is the product of our expectations of black women if they’re going to be leading characters. We can accept a narcissistic white male as a lead character because of… all of human history, but a black woman had better be empathetic if she’s going to be the center of a TV series. These narrative decisions are also the product of our review and audience environment. People, in general, don’t understand the point of characters whose flaws border on evil unless they die in the end.

Maybe she would have been this character by the end, this flawed and awful. Maybe the series would have had the courage to go this way. We can never know.


Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at jamesrovira.com for details.

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