Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Based upon the novel by Nick Hornby
Screenplay Written by D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg
Directed by Stephen Frears

Celebrating the 15th Anniversary--Original theatrical release March 31, 2000

I honestly cannot remember exactly how High Fidelity, Author Nick Hornby's seminal novel about one not-so-young man's musical obsessions and how they shape and even collide with all of his romantic relationships as well as his own sense of emotional arrested development, entered my life. But when it did, it easily sailed into being one of the finest books I had ever read, and it remains as such to this day. It was a story of such rare perceptiveness that it didn't just solely speak to me. It was a book that deeply understood me...for better or for worse.

By the time the film version starring the inimitable John Cusack in the leading role was released, I saw the film on opening weekend with my wife,  just days after we had celebrated our anniversary. Now despite the fact, that I knew I was witnessing one of the best films of 2000 (and furthermore of the decade between 2000-20009) unfold in front of my eyes as everything about it was pitch perfect, I found myself enduring quite a hefty number of rough yet playful elbow jabs from my wife during many key moments within the film when Cusack's character, the record store owner and musically obsessed Rob Gordon, endures and agonizes over his self-inflicted romantic plights while also expending much energy over creating the perfect mixtape...and usually for one woman he wishes to impress after another. "You do that all of the time!" she would again playfully (I hope) seethe with each elbow jab. I, in turn, would feign innocence and keep my eyes on the screen.

Around that same time, I received some contact from a few women from my past who expressed that they had also seen the film and while watching, they thought of me often. Hmmm...

To this day, I am not quite sure what to think of that. Look, dear readers, my own obsessions with music are well known by anyone who has ever come in contact with me, and they are as well documented copiously on-line if you happen to follow my exploits on Savage Cinema's sister blogsite Synesthesia. For those of you who do not follow those particular exploits, let me explain to you that my obsessions concerning music far outweigh my obsessions concerning movies, as odd as that may seem. For you see, I do not watch movies every day. In fact, I haven't even set foot inside of a movie theater since January!! But music....aaahhh...

I listen to music every single day of my life. It is beauty It is oxygen. It is life itself to me. I am a collector. My tastes are wide, varied and much less judgmental as they were in my formative years. Although, I have been guilty of (softly) applying the philosophy that Rob himself utilizes when viewing the personal tastes of others: "It's what you like, it's not what you are like." If I have been fortunate to have been invited into your abode, chances are I will surreptitiously be taking peeks at your music collection--not to judge you, of course. But just to see what makes you tick. In the larger world, I still love the beauty of record stores. I can easily lose myself within the pleasures of a song or an album and the autobiographical nature of the music that has made up my life is unquestionable.

Now, as for my romantic life. Well...

Trust me, dear readers, I have never been a Lothario at any point in my life (despite my best intentions!) but if I may make a confession, and with no intended disrespect to my wife, my life and emotions have been fully disarmed time and again over the presence of girls and women as they (as a species) have captivated my spirit from the earliest days of my childhood to the present. I never experienced an "I hate girls!" phase as a child. I have always felt a greater sense of comfort around women. My closest friends throughout my life have more often than not been women. In my professional life, I have essentially worked with nearly all women. And it has always felt to be so...right.

Even so, I do daydream still. I do fantasize. And if I needed to catalog every crush I have experienced and endured throughout my life, it would indeed be quite the lengthy list and if pressed, like the character of Rob Gordon, I am certain that I could compile a "Top 5 List" of my biggest crushes but I cannot bring myself to quantify people who all meant something uniquely special to me at one point or another for it would be unfair as well as cruel in its inherent sexism.  And then, there is my married life, which has just celebrated another anniversary, and blessedly so for my union is nothing that I take for granted in any conceivable fashion as it was a relationship status I, at one time, never thought would ever happen to me. That being said, the ebb and flow of marriage remains a sometimes difficult arena to navigate as we both continue to try to understand and nurture each other as well as ourselves with as little conflict as possible, the very conflict that will always find ways to rear its ugly head thus bringing forth periods of self-doubt and dissolution, anger and recrimination, implosions, resolutions and hopefully, some sense of evolution.

I turn my attention at this time to Director Stephen Frears' outstanding adaption of "High Fidelity" starring John Cusack in what I deeply feel is one of the finest performances he has given in his entire career. It amazes me to realize that it has been a whopping 15 years since I first saw the film as it feels as fresh in my memory as it did just moments after leaving the movie theater that first time. But indeed, it has been 15 years and in some respects there are qualities within the film that may feel completely archaic to new viewers. Yet, I am here to implore to all of you that not only is "High Fideity" more relevant than ever but it is indeed a representation of a time and place that is simultaneously timeless.

With its surprising yet absolutely perfect transplanting of location from London, England to Chicago, IL, "High Fidelity" opens with a howl of romantic pain as voiced by The 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me." We are then introduced to Rob Gordon (re-named from the novel's Rob Fleming, and played to perfection by John Cusack), in the throes of music and melancholy as his long time girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) walks out on him.

Despondently spending his days at his business, the struggling Championship Vinyl record store and enduring the endless and obsessive debates about Top 5 musical listings and desert island dream collections alongside his musically elitist employees, the meek and mild Dick (Todd Louiso) and the abrasively unhinged Barry (a flat out terrific Jack Black), Rob constructs an emotional Top 5 listing of the crucial break-ups that have shaped his life. As he attempts to pursue and re-connect with Laura, Rob travels backwards in his memories and forwards in his mid-30's through the women of his life in order to figure out just where he went wrong and if he is indeed romantically damaged goods, doomed to live a life of loneliness.

And then, there is the matter of the music and the aesthetics needed to craft the perfect mixtape plus the continuous conundrum of figuring out whether he is miserable because he listens to pop music or whether the pop music itself has made him miserable.

Director Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity" is as warm, honest, painful and as deliriously romantic as they come. Richly acted, lovingly filmed throughout the Northern Chicago neighborhoods, meticulously executed through its terrific non-linear editing and structure yet completely accessible and downright breezy, it is the rare romantic comedy in recent years that truly explores and examines how real people exist and behave in relationships and the connections they hope to forge and maintain with each other. It is not a story of villains and slapstick fueled duplicitous behaviors all spinning the creaky wheels of interminably wacky plots. It is a fully recognizable world filled with a collective of characters that just may uncomfortably hit a bit too close to the bone, therefore enhancing not only the romance but the sense of truth that pervades compellingly throughout.

With regards to the music and how it is mostly presented within the film, watching "High Fidelity" 15 years later and seeing how the music industry has changed over this same stretch of time, I maintain that for those new to the film it just may seem to be an artifact from a most antiquated era. To a great extent, those people would be correct considering that record stores have decreased tremendously in favor of on-line streaming and downloading. But then, there is the resurgence of vinyl plus the annual event of Record Store Day to provide a 2015 counterpoint. As for me, and as I have previously stated, comparisons between myself and Rob Gordon would persist as I still visit record stores frequently. For me, I treasure the human connection with friends, acquaintances and even strangers that exists within the world of the record store as well as the tactile experience that arrives when visiting a physical place.

That inexplicable feeling of wonder, discovery and connection is beautifully displayed within one sequence in the film where on a rare busy day at Championship Vinyl, we witness Dick making a landmark meeting with new customer Annaugh Moss (Sara Gilbert) over the influences of Green Day; where Rob confidently inspires sales of the new EP by The Beta Band by playing the music over the speaker system and also where Rob and Barry stop a store theft from two skateboarding kids with aspirations of creating home recordings. This particular experience, living a life inside of record stores, is a pursuit that will remain a part of my existence for as long as it is possible to continue doing so. If that makes my proclivities somewhat Quixotian then so be it as I make no apologies. Even so, where "High Fidelity" transcends the location of record stores and the medium of vinyl records and mixtapes is indeed the connection we all make with music and ultimately how autobiographical those connections become. As the mighty Questlove, drummer of The Roots and self-described "musicologist" has expressed: "When you live your life through records, those records become the record of your life." 

But when life and records collide to the degree in which it does for Rob Gordon, matters complicate and then some. Beyond the aesthetics of records stores, vinyl albums and the creation of mix tape collections, what makes "High Fidelity" forever relevant is its exploration of romantic relationships combined with the process of maturing, aging and dealing with themes of mortality and most importantly, its persistent and uncomfortably perceptive and perfect delving into the secret world of the fragile male ego and all of its insecurities, vanities, delusions and desperation, a topic that Writer/Producer/Director Judd Apatow has mined brilliantly in the years since "High Fidelity."

As John Cusack expressed himself on the DVD's bonus feature interviews, the character of Rob Gordon is a most imperfect hero. No, he is not a "bad" human being, per se, but he is one who is so self-absorbed and narcissistic, and long past the point where it is really socially acceptable, that it is indeed amazing that audiences just didn't either walk out of the theater or stone the screen in disgust. What saves the character (especially on the page in the original novel) is that Rob does make for a most generous and loquacious host for the proceedings and he is also decidedly honest and forthcoming at that, even as we witness him lying to himself over and over and over again. We don't walk out or stone the screen in disgust for we recognize our own faults, obsessions, insecurities and fears of loneliness within his own, therefore making Rob a person that we do not necessarily judge but do empathize with because we have all made the same mistakes and carry the same foibles and imperfections as well.

Yes, situations are indeed quite comical, especially as Rob deals with his delusions of sexual prowess (take the scene where he dances in triumph to Queen's "We Are The Champions" after a tryst) and fears of sexual inadequacy in regards to the presence of Ian (a perfectly unctuous Tim Robbins), the man for whom Laura has departed Rob. The short imaginary sex sequence set to Barry White's "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby" plus a later sequence where Rob imagines increasingly violent confrontations with Ian are two of the film's comedic high points.

Yet, the beauty of "High Fidelity" is that we are seeing the baby steps taken in the painful process of growing up and realizing that we are just not as young as we may think we are or how the music we listen to makes us feel. For Rob, we could not have received a better conduit to represent Nick Hornby's material and this particular journey than John Cusack who has arguably never been more charismatic and magnetic on-screen. His performance is so naturalistic that it feels effortless, especially as he makes breaking the fourth wall and personally addressing the audience look so easy and fully deserving in existing in the same stratosphere as Michael Caine in Director Lewis Gilbert's "Alfie" (1966) and Matthew Broderick in Writer/Director John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986). 

It truly is no small feat to keep audiences riveted to the screen when portraying a character who is essentially depressed to varying degrees for the bulk of the film, for that is what we do often see within "High Fidelity." Rob Gordon, perpetually smoking cigarettes, hiding in his record store office, remaining in his apartment strapped to his headphones, sitting alone in bars drinking away, pining for Laura while also engaging in meaningless sex with singer/songwriter Marie DeSalle (Lisa Bonet) as he confides his pains and sins to us in the audience.

As engaging as Cusack is, Frears and Hornby's source material wisely never allow the character of Rob to be let off of the hook for his behavior. In the film's flashback sequences, most notably Rob's teenage romance with Penny Hardwick (Joelle Carter), whom he dumps when she does not reciprocate his sexual advances, Frears very smartly takes a precious moment for us in the audience to witness the pain Rob has inflicted upon her, for she truly liked him very much and he was too blind by not being able to have sex with her to see her real feelings. In the present day sequences, when Rob re-connects with Penny, now a film critic, to discover just what went wrong, she furiously and rightfully puts him into his place. Yes, what originally transpired between them as teenagers could all be chalked up to adolescent callousness and nothing more. But, to see it pathetically continue into adulthood for Rob completely showcases a level of self-absorption that is clearly stunting his growth and development while also still being deeply hurtful towards Penny.

While he essentially has not changed very much since high school, this episode does indeed give him a small push towards a newfound maturity. Rob's reunion with another past girlfriend named Sarah Kendrew (Lili Taylor)  gives him another push as she is clearly more depressed and even lonelier than he is, thus forcing him to take a moment to look outside of himself for once.

Throughout "High Fidelity," the characters are constantly pushing each other towards maturity and personal growth intentionally and unintentionally. One of my favorite scenes in the film is a brief moment where Rob, constantly irritated by the presence of Dick and Barry, also shows how much he needs them to prolong his inertia, as well as possibly being the only friends he has. On one evening as the store closes, Dick forgoes a night with Rob in order to build his relationship with Annaugh while Barry decides to stay at home to write some lyrics and work with his new band Sonic Death Monkey because he knows that Championship Vinyl is purely temporary, where for Rob, it just may be forever. As both Dick and Barry depart for the night, Frears frames Rob all alone in the record store surrounded by the music and the memories they all contain as life itself is seemingly passing him by just through the process of always moving forwards.

So as to not allow the audience to wallow in despair, thankfully, the energy John Cusack displays from beginning to end mines all manner of comedy and pathos brilliantly. Perhaps the film's finest moment for him is the sequence we could call the "Top 5 Things Rob Misses About Laura," one of the film's several grace notes. Rob addresses the audience once again in a gorgeous soliloquy that reveals as much about himself as it does about the woman who has walked out on his life. We have seen his vulnerability all the while, but never in such a selfless manner as he has been so fully selfish during the entire story thus far. For us, he gives us a window into the woman he has loved and to an extent, has remained somewhat elusive to us.

In one scene late in the film, as Rob is sharing a drink with Laura's lawyer friend Liz (sharply played by Joan Cusack), he is asked just why does he want to have L:aura back so badly, and surprisingly, he does not have an answer to give. This was one of the film's most strikingly direct moments for me because it is the very question that I would gather we in the audience would be asking Rob as well as we really haven't seen that much of Laura by this point and frankly, we've watched him mine his romantic past as well as become infatuated with Marie DeSalle and later with Caroline, a reporter for Chicago's The Reader (played by Natasha Gregson Wagner). Laura, for all intents and purposes, does seem to be a bit bland by comparison, especially when placed next to the alluring but vacuous Charlie Nicholson (Catherine Zeta-Jones), another of Rob's old girlfriends.

What is indeed different about Laura is really only hinted at with all of Rob's past affairs (at least, quite possibly, within his own mind and narrow perceptions). It is that Laura is defiantly real where all of the other women from Rob's past either represent some prefabricated ideal or fantasy and by adulthood, they are all memories which Rob can shape into any form that he wishes, especially in order to protect his own fragile feelings and deep shortcomings.

Laura, despite being emotionally older and more professionally mature than Rob by a long shot, does indeed fall into the same emotional traps as she has also seemingly hopped from one relationship to another, perhaps also out of fear of being lonely and forever unloved. Even as she is with Ian, she keeps returning to Rob's apartment, under the purpose of retrieving her items for good but we do begin to see just how good for Rob she actually was, and how she just may wish to remain in the role because deep down she knows she is the best woman for him plus the fact that they were indeed in love. Laura is grounded where Rob is lost in the clouds, as evidenced by her dry wit as well as her ability to provide a perspective that Rob just may not have seen for himself due to his ever present self-pity. Rob explains as one point that the time when he performed as a DJ was the happiest he had ever been, perhaps because he was in the process of creating rather than solely sitting on the sidelines critiquing. With thanks to Laura, she pushes him into trying to think about what the future could be rather than what the present is not, therefore making the future a foregone conclusion despite that it is unwritten. In turn, and at the funeral of Laura's Dad, Rob finally begins to see beyond himself and relaizes just how much damage he has caused by placing Laura, and all of the women of his past, upon pedestals.Because what do those idealized and unrealistic perceptions of women ultimately mean when you are all alone, face down in a mud puddle in the pouring rain?

It is within the film's triumphant club sequence where Rob is back in the DJ booth, promoting the debut single from his new record label by those aforementioned two skateboarding petty thieves and also where Barry stuns the crowd with his euphoric rendition of Marvin Gaye's"Let's Get It On," that "High Fidelity" finds its moment of transcendence. It is a sequence where all of the film's primary characters congregate and rejoice in music, togetherness, connection and love and it is quite telling that Barry has chosen this particular classic to sing, as it speaks for all of the film's characters and for all of us watching as well. "We are all sensitive people," he sings."With so much love to give." Amen!!

And that is "High Fidelity" at its profound and tender core. That we have spent time with a collective of characters, all sensitive, romantic, creative, tender-hearted people who want for nothing more than to find a meaningful connection in the world with someone who will take the time to understand, accept and love them for who they are, flaws and all.

And like Rob, none of the characters are transformed by film's end. They are informed. Yes, they will stumble, fall and fail again and maybe Rob and Laura won't make it in the long run (I hope they do) but what they are all guaranteed to do, as their hearts are so open, is to keep growing, changing, and evolving one song at a time.

Just as I do.

Monday, March 2, 2015


And now, the dust settles...

I have a feeling that the month of March will prove itself to be a quiet time after the flurry of activity that occurred due to my Savage Scorecard series and the Academy Awards predictions and wrap-up. And so, this opening post of coming attractions will be of an especially brief quality as the movies being released this month are scant indeed.

Yes, I do plan of heading out to see "Chappie," the latest film from Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp once that opens but beyond that, I am just not certain although I do have some ideas...

There was one film, a documentary actually, that I had recorded from HBO on VHS (yes, I do still have a VCR as I am determined to keep that technology alive--ha ha) but ultimately goofed the final product making the entire film unwatchable. I have since re-recorded the film and perhaps, that could be something special to present to you.

And there is also perhaps one other bit of cinematic related material I could share with you as well. I do not mean to sound to cryptic but I would hate to make promises that I am unable to keep so, why not allow this time to be of surprise for you and myself.

So, until then, and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!