Sunday, April 30, 2017

the ones that really hurt

Something that bothers me less the more I watch High Fidelity: that Laura's father dies as a deus ex machina third-act turnaround for Rob and Laura. I mean, in terms of story structure, it is a cheap trick, an easy out. Make Laura too tired to keep rejecting Rob and Rob doesn't really have to reform himself, he just has to sorta imply that he might want to. He is our narrator, after all, so we're on his side. Whether we're on his side or not.

I've complained previously about Laura's father's death being such an easy out but, here's my thing today: this isn't a story about Laura's father dying. We don't even know how he died. [Barry's invented song later 'The Night Laura's Daddy Died' implies he had angina.[Also, Rob listens to a voicemail from Laura's mother about her father's angina, but I somehow didn't hear that during many viewings.]] This isn't the tale of Laura's dad dying slowly from some deliberating disease while his children return home from wherever they've moved onto with their spouses and 2 1/2 children and white picket fences to be with him in the hospital. So, how else is he supposed to die?

Assuming that him dying is an acceptable choice in the first place in terms of the story of Rob and Laura, and why isn't it as long as people actually do die and people actually do make rash decisions in the face of grief. Laura being too tired to stay away from Rob after her father dies makes sense in her story. Nevermind plot. Nevermind the act structure of Classical Hollywood Cinema. I'm talking story. I'm talking, here's a woman with a job she likes (even as Rob thinks she doesn't) and a boyfriend she doesn't like (even as Rob thinks she does).

(And, fifteen minutes in, the customer that Barry runs out of the store is a father buying, or trying to buy, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" for his daughter." Just as Rob and Laura fail to actually have a conversation over the phone, their first since the breakup. Played a little differently, it would almost work as foreshadowing for the death to come, but in execution, it is just one of Barry's asshole moments.)

Laura has finally gotten up the nerve, or whatever, to leave Rob. But, that doesn't mean she's happy with her decision, it doesn't mean her decision was easy. It doesn't mean there isn't pain on her side of things. She just isn't our narrator. Her pain is in a pocket on the other side of the fourth wall. Rob's is on display for us, open to us, mansplaining and excuse-making included. Her story is told at a distance. So, her father's death can't be set up beforehand. It just can't be. And, it would be unrealistic if it were, or it would change the movie from one type of film to another. People die. People die suddenly.

(Similarly, and in a sort of echo to the interjection of Laura's father into the proceedings, it occurs to me that the interjection of Rob's mother, just happening to call him the night after he and Laura broke up, is kind of out of place in terms of plot structure. She offers up the recurring course of Rob's love life, and does so succinctly--"You meet someone, you move in, she goes. You meet someone, you move in, she goes."--but we already know this by then, and she never calls again even though the film covers a long enough stretch of time that the coincidence of her calling just as Rob's story is getting underway cannot just be one of her regular calls on a Monday night.)

Breakups, too. They've got plenty of foreshadowing, of course, because relationships have problems. But, that doesn't mean that when it finally happens, we're ready, or that we expect it. And, even if we expect it, that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. Same with a death in the family. Act one, Rob experiences the big breakup and he rethinks his life choices to the point of self-absorbed insanity. Act three, Laura experiences a death in the family and she rethinks (or is too tired to think) her recent choices and gives in to his absorption. The echo almost works.






Finally, think about it like this: the plot begins en media res with the breakup having already triggered. Rob meets Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet) at a club, slightly different situation from how he met Laura, but not far off. He meets Caroline Fortis (Natasha Gregson Wagner) at the shop, like Dick meets Annaugh, like Barry meets his new bandmate... It's all coincidences and randomness and suddenness. Otherwise, you know, life. Whether High Fidelity encapsulates so much of what makes life life deliberately or by chance, it has to include a birth, a death, and/or a wedding to really resonate. It's how this sort of story works. Play it like a simple, intimate look at one guy's life as he goes through some shit, but throw in a funeral because it yanks it all down to a more real level. Whether that really works or not is up for debate. But, in terms of what films do, what stories do (remember, this came from a book), this is how to build it up into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Plus, you know, people do die.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

call me shallow

"When a narcissist's sense of control is challenged, he feels threatened, and responds as if his survival is at stake," writes Kristina Nelson in Narcissism in High Fidelity (2004, p. 19). This is Rob Gordon's existential crisis--his girlfriend has just left him and he turns inward because, basically, who is he without his conquest, without his companion, without his distraction... depending on his mood, of course? He looks back at his top five all-time breakups like they are the building blocks of his being. Well, them and all the music he's got catalogued in his head, in his record shop, and on the shelves that crowd his apartment.

And, he's not wrong. There's a realism in the horribleness of Rob Gordon. His obsession with music, his obsession with his sexual (and non-) partners, his obsession with himself--there is familiarity and believability there. His excessive voiceover is our ticket to something that rings true and may even ring biographically. I mean, we can sympathize, we can empathize, we can identify. We can certainly understand. He's stuck. Stuck in a life he (feels he) can't control. Stuck in a life where things don't go his way, but the same basic beats keep repeating with his top five talks with Barry and Dick, his need to get into bed with his various girlfriends--

(As his mother tells him on the phone, "You meet someone, you move in, she goes. You meet someone, you move in, she goes.")

--his conviction that his life isn't working...

Not unlike Phil Connors in that time loop. As Daughton (1996) describes Phil's plight: "Groundhog Day presents one man's metaphorical journey away from the stereotypically masculine pursuit of Power and agency, the drive to control his life and the people and events in it" (p. 143). Or Davies (1995) describing Phil's situation in Groundhog Day as "white masculinity in crisis" (p. 215).

And I'm talking about Groundhog Day and it's not even the 2nd of the month. Laura tells Rob, "You have to allow for things to happen to people. Most of all, to yourself." Rob doesn't do this. Phil doesn't do this. Too often in my life, I haven't done this. But, then again, it's like a cookie cutter, newspaper horoscope version of captain obvious: I fear change, I'm special, woe is me, I deserve a nice little movie about my life and my crisis nevermind people living with food insecurity, people living in war zones, people living with constant, ingrained prejudice and oppression. My life is special. Tell my story...

White masculinity in crisis? Not exactly. The "crisis" is imaginary. Any chink in the armor and the privileged panic. They launch into crisis mode. Phil Connors is trapped in a world grown finite, Rob Gordon is trapped in a world where the women in his life dictate things. You know, powerlessness for the powerful.

On the one hand, we love that setup because we want to see the asshole laid low for his assholishness. But then, we're there with him, and we want to see him fix it, become a better person, less of an asshole. Only less of. We don't want him to lose it entirely because then he won't be as interesting, as attractive. Phil Connors cannot lose his sarcasm even if he loses his cynicism. Rob Gordon cannot lose his self-absorption or his detachment, though it may turn a little less ironic. Han Solo cannot stop being a scoundrel. John Rambo cannot stop turning to violence. And so on. If they do, they stop being interesting, stop being worth the stories.

And, we need the stories.

And, we need the assholes so we can feel better about ourselves.

Or at least, so we can feel like we're not the only ones.

Or because we're privileged and want to be reminded that we're special.


Daughton, S.M. (1996). The spiritual power of repetitive form: Steps toward transcendence in Groundhog Day. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 13, 138-154.

Davies, J. (1995). Gender, ethnicity and cultural crisis in Falling Down and Groundhog Day. Screen, 36(3), 214-232.

Nelson, K. (2004). Narcissism in High Fidelity. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.

Friday, April 28, 2017

who needs a drink?

The thing is, we like assholes. In film, I mean.

(I considered Liz's (Joan Cusack) great line as the title for this entry, but "Fucking asshole!" as a title seemed like it might get the wrong sort of attention.)

(Rob's (John Cusack) "I am a fucking asshole." would have worked, too.)

Rob Gordon is an asshole. Han Solo is an asshole. Peter Venkman is an asshole. Katniss Everdeen is an asshole. Phil Connors is an asshole. Pretty much every action hero ever, any cad from any romantic comedy... Anyone whose story is worth telling on film is probably an asshole in some way. They have to be. That is who gets things done.

At least in any form that can be covered in like an hour and a half. Take the new movie Sleight for example--Bo (Jacob Latimore) deals drugs for the sake of getting by, mutilates his body for the sake of magic, and is willed to violence a little too easily long before the climax of the film--

(This not being a review, I won't bother with SPOILERS)

--forces him into more of it. But, the film puts us into his corner and offers just enough justification for us to support him. Because that's what movies do. What film does.

Rob Gordon in High Fidelity is definitely an asshole. He obsesses about women in all the wrong ways, he treats his friends like crap arbitrarily, and he is so full of himself as to think that, as they say, his shit don't stink.

And, whether we admit it or not, to ourselves or to anybody, we all wish we could be like Rob, revolve the world around ourselves, make our bullshit the most important bullshit, do whatever we want and make excuses when it backfires. That is basically the premise to any action hero. I mean, sure, maybe the villain has kidnapped his daughter (e.g. Commando), or he's a virtually-immortal serial killer (e.g. Friday the 13th), or maybe he's just a bigger asshole (e.g. The Quick and the Dead). Or the hero's assholishness makes him his own villain (e.g. Groundhog Day)...

Which is basically life itself, right?






But, you know what's nice in High Fidelity, for today's example. Dick (Todd Louiso)--he's like an innocent counterpoint to the whole asshole thing; he is nothing but nice. Even his attempt to get Rob and Barry (Jack Black) to stop fighting early in the film is practically passive. And, he doesn't learn to get hard as Rob gets soft, as some movies might suggest is the way to go--

(Though it is not the type of film I'm getting at, Stallone's bit at the end of Demolition Man comes to mind: "Why don't you get a little dirty... You a lot clean. And, somewhere in the middle--I don't know--you'll figure it out.")

--he just stays who he is. And he gets the girl in his own story that we're just seeing snippets of because we're stuck in Rob's story instead.

Which seems to be the better place to be, storywise.

Or the more popular place to be, anyway. I mean, classic 90s indie films certainly had plenty of non-assholes front and center. But, who but crazy movie freaks like me even saw most of those?

Not that High Fidelity broke box office records. It was #5 it's opening weekend, but it was March so it only made $6 million that weekend ($27 million in its entire run).

(And, for the record, if I didn't already mention this, I saw High Fidelity that weekend. And, I also saw The Skulls. And, I realize now that, aside from a certain affinity for the asshole at center stage, my attachment to this film might stem from my own situation at the time it came out. Recent breakup, depression (affecting my Depression), and a certain "what does it all mean" kind of thing going on.

Plus, clearly, I'm just as obsessive and full of myself as Rob is. That whole affinity thing.)

But look at big blockbuster films. The Marvel movies, for example. Tony Stark--obvious asshole. Thor--pretentious asshole. Steve Rogers--down home asshole (Seriously, he turns on his teammates on behalf of his dead, brainwashed, former friend.) The remake of Beauty and the Beast is the top movie of this year so far, and that's just asshole and Stockholm Syndrome throughout.

Also it's what every love story tends to be--the notion that we are incomplete without that other, better half. And, that is a sad (but true) building block for a story. I mean, Rob's opening line about what came first, the music or the misery, rings so true here. I mean, is he an asshole for looking at women the way he does, or does he look at women the way he does because he's an asshole? Does he look at women the way he does because society (and film and music and stories going back as long as we've had stories) tell him that it's okay because he's a man and man are on top and you gotta be an asshole to get what you want, and if you don't get what you want, you're just a chump? Does society revere assholes because society is run by assholes, or is society run by assholes because it reveres them? Did we elect Trump because he was the bigger asshole or because we are?






That transition was inevitable, by the way. I actually figured I would start talking about Trump closer to the top of this entry. I'm kinda proud of myself for the restraint. I mean, you've got (after the primaries) boring old Hillary who we've known (politically) for decades, or exciting new Trump who speaks his mind and says stupid reactionary crap like we all do. Of course he's going to win. Of course we're going to go all in on xenophobia and homophobia and whatever reactionary conservative fears can be belayed with a bombast in the Oval Office. Because, for some twisted reason, that kind of boorish crap is comforting. We don't want people to get handouts, we don't want to help refugees, because we want everyone to be assholes who can take care of themselves.

Political angle, over.

Except inasmuch as all film is political. All stories are political. And, all politics is stories. And everything twists together over and over and forever and it doesn't matter what film I'm watching, I can turn it into something that will offend one person and inspire another, just like any of my political lines on Twitter or Facebook... Because that's what kind of an asshole I am.