Tag Archives: John Cusack

High Fidelity (2000)

Back in the 1980s, when I was a senior in college, I had a classmate. Let’s call him Ray. Ray was popular with women, mainly for two reasons. He looked so much like the young Paul McCartney that girls would occasionally slip up and call him “Paul” instead of “Ray.” Ray also had the best record collection at Rutgers University. His dorm room looked like a record store. If there was an obscure English punk band, he had a poster up on his wall. If a local band put out a demo tape, somehow he got hold of it. Ray was a one-man counter-culture. While every frat boy or pseudo-frat-boy was listening to Springsteen or U2 , Ray was listening to Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunneymen, Joy Division, or Robin Hitchcock and the Egyptians. Ray was an Irish American, but he had a Anglophile’s taste in alternative music.

Ray was the first person I thought about as I watched John Cusack’s performance in Steven Frears’ 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. Not only does John Cusack’s Rob Gordon look a bit like a the 30-something Paul McCartney. He reminds me a little bit of a grown up version of Ray from college, although “grown up” might not be the best word to describe him. Rob, who owns an independent record store in Chicago, like Ray, is popular with women. But since he’s no longer a 20-year-old college undergraduate, being able to talk a girl into a date on short notice doesn’t mean quite as much as it used to. High Fidelity opens with Rob getting dumped by Laura, his live in girlfriend. Laura, a tall, elegant blond lawyer played by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle has outgrown him. Rob was fine when she dyed her hair pink, but now she’s ready to move on. Laura also has her eye on “Ian,” a yuppie played by Tim Robbins who, at first glance, seems a lot more promising as husband material than an underachieving Paul McCartney lookalike who owns a record store. Rob, who’s better at attracting women than in holding onto them, and, more importantly, who’s feeling his age, starts to examine his past. What went wrong?

What went wrong is probably not what Rob, Laura, or even Steve Fears and Nick Hornby think went wrong, but first things first.

High Fidelity has a happy ending. Rob, even before the age of Facebook, manages to track down and make contact with just about every girl or woman he’s dated since junior high-school. None of them live up to his nostalgic memory. Whether or not Rob lives up to theirs is left unexplored. Laura, in turn, realizes that Ian is no Rob. Tim Robins is no John Cusack, and they start to drift back together. Rob has been a shitty boyfriend. He’s borrowed money he’s never paid back. He’s cheated on her. He’s occasionally clueless about the state of her emotions. But emotional ties once made and cultivated over the course of two years aren’t so easily severed. Laura’s father dies. He’s always liked Rob, and the shock of losing a parent convinces Laura that she doesn’t want to suffer the loss of yet another connection to the past. It’s not exactly the perfect reason to get married but Laura, and, in turn Rob, who’s ready to put his womanizing ways behind him, finally realize that the perfect is the enemy of the good. They look into each other’s eyes and see, in each other, the last chance for happiness. It’s now or never. It’s time to shit or get off the pot.

So what went wrong, and why won’t Rob and Laura live happily ever after?

When Laura thought she was dumping Rob because she had outgrown him, she was only half right. When she convinced herself to take him back, she was only half wrong. After Rob “discovers” an obscure local punk band, and starts his own label to distribute their music, Laura is convinced that he’s changed. You’re no longer just a critic, she remarks. You’re a creator, a man who’s bringing something new into the world. Rob and Laura may, in fact, live to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but it won’t be that easy.

Rob, who owns a record store, seems to have very little interest in music. The running joke is that his two employees, the nebbishy Dick, and the obnoxious, overbearing Barry care about music too much. They’re little boys. Rob is the grownup because he defines himself, not by what music he listens to, but by what woman he’s dating. Rob’s very identity depends on being attractive to women. High Fidelity, a movie released in 2000 and based on a novel written in 1995, testifies to how astonishingly fast the world moves in the digital age. It’s 2015, and Rob’s record store went out of business a long time ago. Rob and Laura’s kids, if they have them, all have iPods. None of them listen to alternative rock. It’s either Beyonce or Taylor Swift. Vinyl, CDs, independent record labels, and punk rock might are ancient history.

But the real change didn’t come in 2003 with the iPod or in 1992 with the Internet. It came in the 1970s and 1980s, with the transformation of the industrial economy into the consumer economy. Like my old college house-mate Ray, young Rob (and we can assume Rob had more interest in music when he opened his record store than he does at the beginning of the movie) made himself cool by becoming a good consumer, having a sense of style. He knew where to see the new bands. He knew how to dress. He know what was popular, and what would be popular. He could date women — like Charlie Nicholson played by Catherine Zeta Jones – who were far above his station in life, not because he landed a good job at 23 and built up a big stock portfolio, but because he had amassed what, for lack of a better word, we’ll call “cultural capital.” But cultural capital in the age of Facebook and Twitter isn’t what it was back in the 1980s. It takes more than just knowing who the newest trendy bands from the UK are. Anybody in 2015 who knows how to use Google has infinitely more information, and cultural capital, then Ray did in 1988 or Rob Gordon did in 1995. And it doesn’t make you cool.

Laura, who thinks Rob’s outgrown his identity as a consumer and a womanizer might be right. But it might also be wishful thinking. Only time will tell. I wonder sometimes what ever happened to Ray. I’ve never Googled his name or stalked him on Facebook. His name is so common it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. But if I can find him, I can probably make an educated guess about how Rob and Laura ended up. Are you out there Ray? Are you reading this? Have you cyberstalked me? If so, leave a comment. I’d love to get back in touch.

Say Anything (1989)

Say anything is a beloved romantic comedy starring Ione Skye and the young John Cusack. I’m almost exactly the same age as John Cusack, so I was part of its targeted demographic back in the 1980s, but I missed it the first time around. Looking at it from the perspective of a middle-aged man writing in 2015, what fascinates me about Say Anything is not the romance. It’s the superficially leftist, but ultimately tricky, and perhaps even reactionary political agenda.

Say Anything was released in 1989. That means it was written and filmed in 1987 and 1988, exactly at the same time the now largely forgotten Savings and Loan scandal was playing itself out in the media. Unlike the Obama administration, which blocked prosecutions and sold the country on a massive bailout for Wall Street, the Reagan administration actually did send a token number of the S&L crooks to jail. This has very little to do with any philosophical or personal differences between Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Obama, like Reagan, is a charming corporate shill, little more, little less. But the United States was a different, more liberal country back in 1986. The American people simply wouldn’t have tolerated the same kind of corporate coup that it embraced in 2008 and 2009.

Jim Court, the father of the heroine Diane Court, isn’t a savings and loan banker, but he is a crook. The proprietor of an independent nursing home, he comes under investigation by the IRS just as his gifted daughter graduates from high-school and falls in love with Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler. Jim Court doesn’t consider himself a bad person. Why does he steal? Like Michael Corleone and Walter White, he does it for the children. He wants to set Diane up with a trust fund that will let her live through her 20s without worrying about money. John Court truly loves his daughter. He’s a likeable crook. But if he loves his daughter, he also sees her as a possession. The more he steals, the more perfect she has to be to justify his crime.

“It’s like a pyramid. It starts out with everybody, and it narrows through your life and through everything, and all the hoopla and the competition narrows it down to one brilliant person who is so special that they celebrate you on two continents. And it’s you. So tell me something, where’s the flaw in that? There is no flaw.”

If that doesn’t sum up the ideology of the American upper-middle-class in a few sentences, I don’t know what does.

John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler by contrast, is a slacker and an anti-corporate rebel. He has no real career plans, not because he’s lazy, but because unlike Diane, the ambitious high-school valedictorian he falls in love with, he can see the kind of societal rot people like her father embody. The son of an army officer stationed in Germany, Dobler sees the upper-middle-class world as phony and exploitive.

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

On the surface, Say Anything could be the official movie of Occupy Wall Street. The young rebel — who’s also a genuinely decent human being who respects women — liberates the sheltered young overachiever from the smothering, almost incestuous control of her father. Diane Court, who we’re told is brilliant, but also comes off as passive and conformist, learns how to think for herself, ultimately pushing herself to face the horrible reality, her father steals from senior citizens in order to bulk up her trust fund. Diane Court, the pampered young “show pony” — as one of Dobler’s friends puts it so eloquently — rejects a life of privilege based on lies in favor of true love.

What’s not to like? Probably nothing. I’m a bitter old fart who hates the sight of true love when he sees it on screen because he never found it when he was young. But I can’t help but notice how Cameron Crowe, the film’s writer and director, soft-pedals Jim Court’s crimes. The nursing home he runs is a really nice place. He may be stealing from 90-year-olds, but, unlike in a real life shady nursing home, they’re not living in their own filth or going hungry. They even have the young John Cusack to host “movie night.” What’s more, Jim Court doesn’t face any real consequences for his crimes. He gets 9 months in a country club federal prison and a fine. That may in fact be realistic. How many bankers or corporate criminals serve even 9 months in prison? But the film doesn’t seem to see anything amiss. In fact, Cameron Crowe sees Jim Court’s arrest as more of a convenient way to get him out of the way of his daughter’s burgeoning love affair with Lloyd Dobler than as any kind of genuine reckoning.

Then there’s Diane Court. We’re told that she’s a genius. But she gives no evidence of being the kind of person who’s going to win a Nobel Prize. She’s a nice girl with a good heart. But that’s part of the problem. She’s almost too good to be true, and her goodness, far from being a challenge to her father’s criminality, actually justifies it. Diane is not virginal — she’s the sexual aggressor not Lloyd — but she’s pure. She lives in the upper-class bubble that was created by her tax-cheat father by ripping off senior citizens, but it never touches her. She’s nice to the old ladies at her father’s nursing home. Somehow that makes it all OK.

That leads to the inevitable question. Say Anything ends on a happy note. But is Lloyd Dobler doomed to become just another Jim Court? Is he more like the second chance at a good father than a lover? Tellingly the last scene in the film has Lloyd coaxing the nervous Diane through a transatlantic flight — she’s won a fellowship to study in England but she’s afraid of flying — in a way her father never could. While Lloyd is almost an ideal sensitive, considerate man, he’s not as different from Jim Court as he might imagine himself. For Jim Court, Diane is the prize that justifies his theft. For Lloyd Dobler, Diane is the prize that justifies his inability to choose a career. Lloyd can coast through the rest of his life because, at 18, he’s already scored a perfect woman far above his own social status. Diane, not hard work, is Lloyd’s gateway to the upper-middle-class. Lloyd may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary, merely a young man who’s retreated from the economy into the bubble of domesticity.

Lloyd Dobler in other words, is an ideal for a generation that had to lower its economic expectations, to clean up the mess that corporate criminals like Jim Court left them, but not, necessarily, to have it as good as their parents did.