Collectors are a strange bunch. We’re fetishists who obsess over organization and arrangement, meticulously cataloging what we have and searching tirelessly for what we don’t. It’s a very specific kind of crazy that often provokes raised eyebrows and patronizing questions. But Stephen Frears’ 2000 film High Fidelity understands us. It’s about a collector’s need to create patterns and relationships between his life and the art he holds so dear. It’s about the ways we use art to fill in the gaps in our souls. But while High Fidelity’s attitude toward pop-cultural pretentiousness reads especially prescient in the years since its release, its true gift is in how it approaches the connection between art and ego, how the art makes us feel about ourselves. Obsession breeds expertise, and expertise breeds certainty. For High Fidelity’s hero, however, questions about love and life aren’t answerable through evaluation and expertise, but rather embracing the unknown and taking some risks.
Thirty-something record store owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is burnt out on relationships. His latest catastrophe is Laura (Iben Hjejle), who we meet just as she’s packing up her things and heading out the door. Rob laments the failure of yet another romance and wonders (aloud to the audience, of course, because Cusack) if he’s doomed to repeat the same cycle of love and loss forever. His only refuge is his store, manned by Musical Moron Twins Barry and Dick (Jack Black and Todd Louiso). The three circle the wagons and return to their daily routine of harassing customers, shitting on popular music, and committing other acts of fascist culture snobbery. In their world of indexes and rankings, What You Like is far more important than what you are like. Everything can be listed an collated, including relationships: High Fidelity quickly becomes a journey through Rob’s Top Five Breakups of All Time and a dissection of the various wrongs wrought upon him by each and every one of those women.
It’s through Rob’s petulance and immaturity that we begin to realize High Fidelity is actually a thorough critique of its protagonist, and that the only sins these women committed were growing up and moving on. Rob has always been static and passive in his relationships, letting each one flow over him in the same way his favorite songs have his entire life. There’s an essential imbalance here: each of these women was asked to live up to his standards while simultaneously ignoring all of his flaws. Again, consider the parallel this creates with his music: The Unassailable Critic sits back and defines the terms of his experience while bringing nothing to the table himself. He can simply choose not to engage, almost like skipping a track on a record. As he realizes late in the film, he’s always lived with one foot out the door and one eye furtively angled toward his next conquest. It’s no wonder that within weeks of Laura’s return, Rob starts making mix tapes for Caroline Fortis (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a journalist from the local paper who thinks his Top Five attitude is cool but has no idea of what kind of baggage comes with it.