Updated: Sep 24
“What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
This chicken and egg question sets up High Fidelity as a case study in how frequently we internalize media as a shared experience. A fan culture snob’s dream, High Fidelity is a film about heartache, kismet, and romantic maturity, all layered in vinyl at 33 ⅓ RPM. As a thirty-something record storeowner, Rob Gordon is obsessed with top five lists; they categorize everything: from top five side-one track-ones, to his, “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable breakups.” These lists function as guides to help us better understand his connection to others around him, including the women that have romantically come and gone in his life. Over the course of the film, Rob chooses to revisit this top five of breakups, culminating in the one currently taking place. With each relationship postmortem, he learns an integral lesson on how to love.
“It would be nice to think that since I was 14, times have changed. Relationships have become more sophisticated. Females less cruel. Skins thicker. Instincts more developed. But there seems to be an element of that [rejection] in everything that’s happened to me since. All my romantic stories are a scrambled version of that first one.”
Rob considers Alison to be his first girlfriend, even though they only made out for two hours, after school, for three days in a row. But on the fourth day, much to Rob’s chagrin, he catches Alison on the bench, swappin’ spit, with Kevin Bannister. That experience is Rob’s first unwilling foray into romantic betrayal and deception. As the film progresses, it’s clear that Rob has not grown up to be a man of action. He passively experiences life through music, film, and television. Stemming from this initial experience with heartbreak, he fashions himself to be a man that life happens to, rather than a man in charge of his own life.
Upon reconnecting with Alison’s mother, Rob reevaluates his entire importance in Alison’s life, and that his perception of it, has been a lie. Alison didn’t even consider Rob to be her first boyfriend, and she ended up marrying the “home-wrecking” Kevin Bannister. Rob’s relief cannot be any more palpable. Tween love is fickle, and while the betrayal was painful at the time, he now determines that it in no way spoke to his shortcomings as a three-day “boyfriend.” Rob’s first lesson in love is to understand that it can drive the narrative in anyone’s life, and it isn’t beholden to only his plot. This revelation does not completely solve Rob’s hang-ups on love (he’s only getting started), but it does set him on the path to not harboring a subconscious animosity towards love that others share around him. It doesn’t have to be Rob vs. the world.
“I started dating a girl who everyone said would give it up and who didn’t... and Penny went with this asshole named Chris Thompson, who told me he had sex with her after something like three dates.”
Penny is the quintessential high-school girlfriend: she has the smarts, the looks, and the charm. Rob, however, is only interested in expanding his carnal knowledge. At that current moment in Rob’s life, it’s all about competition and rounding the bases. Unfortunately, he fails to appreciate Penny’s internal attributes. Her wishes to keep the relationship a steady PG-13 result in his decision to pursue someone who seems to be an easier conquest. Much to his dismay, he finds out shortly after their split that she has changed her mind and decided to go “all the way” with someone else. This, of course, plants a seed of self-consciousness that manages to work its way into every subsequent one of Rob’s relationships.
When Rob and Penny reconnect years later, Rob is excited to find out they share a lot of similar interests. Bolstered by the positivity of the evening, he feels confident asking what went wrong in their relationship, and why she wanted to sleep with Chris Thompson and not him. Of course, Rob doesn’t even begin to consider that her experience will differ greatly from his one-sided memory. She tearfully recounts that she had wanted to sleep with Rob, but not while in high school, and that she had felt pressured in the relationship with Chris. Fearful that all relationships would follow the same pattern, she gave in. Her decision to sleep with Chris, in turn, led her to live a celibate four years in college, due to her own personal shame and dissatisfaction. She reminds Rob that HE left HER because she was “tight,” and that it was unfair for him to rewrite history and bring up rejection.
This repainting of the past is more than unflattering for Rob’s character. It demonstrates that he was shortsighted and hadn’t given a second thought towards Penny’s feelings. The truth, however, does reveal a second lesson in love for Rob. For one, he learns (or is reminded) that he had not been cast aside, as he had so long held true. Secondly, if he would have put his own desires aside, he could have recognized how decently matched they really were. Keeping such a narrow focus in a relationship, no matter what that focus is, prohibits a full appreciation of what the union can achieve.
“And she liked me. She liked me. She liked me. At least, I think she did. We went out for two years. And I never got comfortable.”
After surviving the hells of high school anguish and self-doubt, Rob graduates to the next level of romantic pursuits in college. As an art design major, Charlie has opinions on anything and everything. Rob hangs on her every word and cannot help but pinch himself that a girl this cool chooses to hang around him. For two years Rob convinces himself that he’s a fraud and fears that Charlie will wake up and realize he’s not nearly hip enough to keep around. His hang-ups about the relationship cause a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Charlie ends up leaving him for the, “dreaded Marco:” one of the men in her design department.
Out of all the reconciliations in the film, Rob is the most hesitant to get in touch with Charlie. To him, she should be, “living on Mars,” instead of being listed in the phone book. But, strangely enough, his fears should have been ignored, because when Charlie invites him to a dinner party, Rob realizes that she’s terrible. She spouts off uninteresting opinions all evening long, all but ignoring what others have to say, and strives to make herself the most heard. What Rob remembers as eloquent speech is corrected as ridiculous jargon, as if Charlie believes she’s the first to have opinions on any given subject. With her cool-girl facade demolished, Rob takes solace in knowing their whole relationship can now be chalked up to a poor judge of character. He learns a little lesson in self-value and in turn gets a boost of confidence. He’s slowly, but surely, learning to turn away from his self-saboteur ways.
“Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being left alone for the rest of their lives at 26. We were of that disposition.”
Rob meets Sarah while he is still reeling from the breakup with Charlie, while Sarah is also recovering from an equally destabilizing breakup. Instead of the both of them wallowing alone in their respective miseries, they decide to be together while staunchly agreeing to be “alone.” They share a mutual disdain for the opposite sex while living together, and they continue to operate as two single adults... until Sarah unexpectedly meets someone else. How can he, Rob, be rejected by a woman who was his partner in anti-rejection? So, not only has he been dumped - he’s been duped!
It is clear from the beginning of Rob and Sarah’s reunion that while Rob may be a mess romantically, Sarah has a much wider array of issues. She’s unemployed, she’s just been put on a new medication for an unnamed condition, and she’s woefully single. The man she left Rob for turned out to be a dud, and she not so subtly hints she would like to get back together with Rob. In this new light, Rob sees Sarah for the dramatically messy and unguided person she is. He’s now glad she had left him, because at least when she looks back on her life he can be a good memory and not another problem she had to cope with. Now that he’s beginning to become more self-aware, he can see the damage that fostering negativity in a relationship can cause. The basis of their relationship was a crumbling foundation from the start.
“She didn’t make me miserable, or anxious, or ill-at-ease. And you know, it sounds boring, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t spectacular, either. It was just...good. But really good.”
Laura is the catalyst for Rob’s entire journey of self-discovery. At the very beginning of the film, they have just split up, and Laura has packed up the majority of her belongings and is moving out. This prompts the: “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable breakups” list, and Rob is loath to include her. He claims she just isn’t capable of delivering that kind of heartbreak, but changes his tune once he discovers she has begun a relationship with a former neighbor of theirs. These events wake Rob up and give him the drive to reexamine what has caused his relationships to fail and why he has been deemed so unlovable. Instead of seeing these women as just characters in the story of his life, he begins to view them for the people that they are.
One of Rob’s greatest qualities, (and one of his greatest faults), is his super fan nature. He has no problem connecting deeply and emotionally with music, television, or film, but he has a tremendously difficult time transferring this passion to those around him. His nostalgia and appreciation of music tend to cloud his memories with peaks and troughs of romanticisms that rewrite his own history. Over the course of the film, Laura corrects Rob’s interpretation of their relationship. She explains: it became too difficult to watch Rob move through life without so much as changing a pair of his socks. Her career had evolved, her friend group had grown, and he hadn’t been making an effort to evolve with her. It is no question that Rob is a critical thinker, but he had always hindered himself by never being fully present in a relationship, not until his and Laura’s reunion, post love-life rehab. As a “professional appreciator,” he had never taken on a creative role in his own life, living only passively from experience to experience.
After approaching the top five breakups as an adult and better understanding the course of his romantic life, he and Laura reconnect in a healthier and more levelheaded union. He learns a final lesson when he meets an attractive music reporter, with whom he instantly connects. His time apart from Laura taught him to be comfortable with others in relationships, to not focus on self-interest, to be confident in himself, and to not foster negativity; all of which aid him in loving Laura more fully. But upon meeting this reporter, he realizes that the ultimate reason his relationship with Laura failed was because he always had one foot out the door. And with that realization, he decides to fully commit to Laura. Instead of imagining the fantasy of what could be with someone else, he accepts his happy reality with Laura. Choosing to live in the now, allows him to accept Laura’s love.
“The making of a great compilations tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem…Anyway, I’ve started to make a tape...in my head...for Laura. Full of stuff she likes. Full of stuff that makes her happy. For the first time I can sort of see how that is done.”
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.