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the whole sad single-person culture

High Fidelity failing the Bechdel test is at least half the point, whether its creators know that or not (and I think, given John Cusack’s general awesomeness and Stephen Frears’ other movies, they probably do). High Fidelity the film is about a group of self-centered, stuck manchildren. The film knows this is what they are.
There is virtually no genuine interaction of any kind between the characters. The only examples I can think of off-hand are Dick’s asking Rob if he wants to talk about it and the sweater fight between Rob and Barry, both of them intentionally comic examples of interaction fail. The only conversations the characters care about are about music and film, solidly passive art forms. Their real thinking is limited to art criticism and introspection.
Even arts, like books, which require a little more interaction, are mostly out of the picture. As Rob says, he’s read great ones, like Love in the Time of Cholera, but prefers Johnny Cash’s autobiography. Now, I like Cash, but it doesn’t require much of you, even in the way of emotional involvement. It’s not that kind of story. Garcia Marquez, on the other hand, requires you to get emotionally involved. Love in the Time of Cholera is a story about a lot of people, some of whom are women, that you need to care about. There is a lot of interaction.
This is why it’s not what you are like, but what things you like. What things you like is a checklist, a sorting process mostly in black and white, but what you are like? that requires that we explore the depth of human character, man. So if you like the JAMs and the Beta Band, you are OK, even if you think it’s necessary to re-educate your new girlfriend about her musical tastes Stalinist style (the Dick-Anna interaction in the book is so much creepier, by the way).
OK, yes, there is interaction and power struggle and political stuff revolving around who is the best music listener, but these are all substitutes for actual human interaction. The characters are talking, but they are only listening to music. Rob spends his time obsessing about music, but what actually matters to him is his failure at adult relationships. Look at how each of the three recordshop characters find resolution: Rob attempts deep human interaction, Dick gets a girlfriend, and Barry joins a band. They didn’t find the perfect record (in the book, Rob actually does find the perfect record, and it does nothing for him) or make the best top 5 list. They are interacting with other people.
But still the women they’re interacting with aren’t exactly real. Liz is there solely to give advice and carry messages. Anna is Dick’s Girlfriend. Marie exists to be a distraction (and to confound interest in music and women). The ex-girlfriends are mirrors for self-reflection.
Laura is a little more complicated, a very difficult character. She can’t be real, since these boys’ problem (with women) is that they aren’t other people, they’re objects (in the sense that men are objects to The Rules-women, not necessarily sex objects). At the same time, she has to be real, since it is the reality of her and her life that pulls (or at least helps to pull) Rob out of his uselessness. She’s part MacGuffin and part human. The book and film have different proportions of object-vs-person, and that affects the nature of Rob’s development and the story. I find the film Laura a more developed character, but I haven’t thought about it at length, and this could have a lot to do with the literal fleshing out that is inherent on screen.
If these female characters were fleshed out more fully you’d have, I don’t know, Singles maybe—a movie about three men who are confused about life generally, not about three men who have no idea how to interact with others and have retreated into the Aspie world of intense hobbies.
There’s a spectrum of these man-in-relationships movies, with the two poles of man-and-women and man-and-the-ladies. At the man and the ladies end, the female characters are present as plot devices. This is where you’d find, for instance Beautiful Girls. It’s probably possible to make a quality movie of this type (though I can’t think of one offhand), but Alison Bechdel’s never going to watch it. High Fidelity’s about halfway long the notional scale. Its female characters are still mostly plot points, but Laura is developing some character of her own. I can’t think of any movies that would be at the far end of the spectrum, with a man and some fully (or at least as fully as their screentime allows) developed women he’s in relationships with, but I’d probably like to watch them.
I don’t think High Fidelity is a sexist movie (though it does have sexist characters). I think the women in it are as fully real and developed as they should be to tell the story, and that to develop them further would actually undermine some of the film’s strengths, since it’s a very first-person sort of movie. The trouble with High Fidelity isn’t the film itself; it’s viewers who missed the fact that Rob & crew are broken characters, and are using it them as a guide for how to live. Even in the (very friendly to this type of brokenness) context of the film what these men are doing isn’t working for them, and it doesn’t work outside of the movie either. High Fidelity is a great movie. Rob Gordon is not a great man. It’s an important distinction, especially for those of us who pull our role models from art.

Filed by shaun at September 5th, 2008 under indifferenthonest

Funny, I ran through the same train of thought after reading the Bechdel post (with more limited analysis, to be sure) and started on a reply in the comment thread, and then gave up because I didn’t have the energy or interest to type it out. I’m glad you did.

Comment by Ryan — 7 Sep 2008 @ 4:12 am

I no longer remember what came first for me — the book High Fidelity or the movie. I do distinctly recall that the voice and tone was all wrong when I tried to read the book in French translation. I fought with the first chapter, but Rob Gordon sounded all wrong.

I loved this book, I loved this film. It makes me question a number of things, especially after reading this spot-on analysis. I am a picky reader and film-goer in that I refuse media where women are merely objects. At the age of 13 or 14 a boyfriend gave me a beautiful copy of The Hobbit for Christmas. I read it with the dedicated concentration one gives to such gifts — but I hated every instant of it with a fervor that I still hold to this day.

It was a story about guys running about, goofing up, doing stupid things, taking treasure from dragons, going where they weren’t supposed to be, but somehow being okay and not particularly paying the maker for their sins. Women didn’t have any fun. They mothered. They elved. They didn’t go on adventures, or if they did, certainly not with the guys and only to end up needing a rescue to give the guys purpose.

The filter of insisting upon three-dimensional women has stayed with my media consumption for some time. I kvetched painfully through the actual LOTR, and fussed over Heinlein and Phillip Joseph Farmer. My winter of pure Isaac Asimov left a bitter taste in my mouth until I read some other women’s analysis and said oh! That’s what it was.

I can respect plot and structure and all those writerly details in a boys’ tale. It won’t call me with the same fervor though as a novel with true men and women who do more than plot point for each other.

Thank you for so clearly articulating how this film treats women, structurally and otherwise. I often find myself wanting more out of a media experience and not realizing but weeks or months later that it had failed the Alison Bechdel test and that was what was slowly nibbling at my sub conscious.

Maybe High Fidelity’s appeal is that it reflects so many men (and a fair number of women) that I’ve known, all of them hiding from reality behind a shield of “what matters to them” vitally — their art, music, studies, work, hobbies. Maybe it is because I wish my shield from reality was so deeply effective at insulating and isolating me from pain.

Either way, it’s compelling in ways I am not always comfortable in considering, which means it requires more serious thought.

Comment by Lina Kirkwood — 30 Sep 2008 @ 6:45 am

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