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Stephen Frears, John Cusack and company in the adaptation of Nick Hornby's 'High Fidelity'

By Ray Pride

APRIL 3, 2000:  It is a rainy night on an historically beaten-down, nightlife-strewn Chicago street corner. Sort of. It's early June 1999, the intersection of Division Street and Damen Avenue is blocked off, and there is a tiny patch of Division that glistens with the spray from stories-high rain towers. The downpour starts, stops, starts, as a couple under an umbrella run toward the shelter of a bar. Back to one: the shot is run through once more. Somewhere under tarps and translucent plastic sheeting, director Stephen Frears and gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey are shooting variations on a simple shot for the movie "High Fidelity" that will not make it into the final cut.

I've stood on this corner so many times, waiting for a light -- or my life -- to change. A few steps south, the front of another neighborhood tavern, The Rainbo Club, has been yanked out, and temporary, light-admitting glass windows shatter the accustomed lumpen facade. I'm sure Nelson Algren idolaters have trod this spot more than a couple of times, orienting themselves to the peregrinations of "The Man With A Golden Arm"'s Johnny Machine. There is only one constant: a particular Chicago latitude and longitude, and people living their lives and storytellers trying to freeze a moment in time.

Most creative sorts cherish their notions of what's authentic to their own time. But expectations ruin so many things: a critic's laments, blood pressure, relationships. And that is what "High Fidelity" does so well -- capturing not a moment in the impossible play of dozens of complex relationships within personal geographical confines, but about a boy. A boy who must choose to become a man. Girl by girl, hope by hope, breakup by breakup, he has to examine his life. "High Fidelity," although often a gorgeous series of snapshots of a world I know, is not about real estate: It's about real feelings.

The 33-year-old John Cusack and his partners, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, cherry-pick the best zingers from Nick Hornby's witty, London-set 1995 novel, and somehow have wound up with a universal story about embracing adulthood and the capacity for simple joy. Cusack plays Rob Gordon, an indolent record shop owner. His apocryphal store, Championship Vinyl, is in a storefront at Milwaukee Avenue and Honore, where he and two clerks duel each day to out-arcana each other about pop music. Cusack's portrait of a narcissistic Peter Pan is the story's center. Through Rob's fierce, coruscating self-examination, Cusack is as fearless as he's ever been. Rob is not a traditional, one-flaw-per-film romantic lead, but a complicated guy who painfully discovers that it is time to take baby steps into the future. He's just broken up with pert blond lawyer Laura (Danish-born Iben Hjejle) and is cycling through his "top five breakups of all time" (as well as his ace collection of vinyl).

Cusack has been the callow youth in all too many movies. But I think he's truly arrived in this role where he takes his lanky, still-boyish attributes and embodies a kind of contemporary everyschmo. Unlike in the film, I'm not a guy named Rob who's been dumped for a guy named Ray (and to the best of my knowledge, I've never been dumped for a guy named Rob), yet the details about male longing, ego and jealousy ring true. "High Fidelity" often cuts right to the quick, addressing questions about sexual anxiety ("I worried about my abilities as a lover") with disarming frankness and wit. "I miss her smell," Rob muses of Laura, "and the way she tastes." "High Fidelity" put me in a grand humor, and I found it stupendously true and right and real and hilarious.

Similarly, "High Fidelity" is no Wicker Park wannabe hipster movie, it's a deft charmer of a romantic comedy. No one involved seems to be straining to make the definitive statement that would be bona fide for future generations to understand a now that has already transformed into something else because of shifts in taste, age, ye olde demographics, city planning policies, rampant gentrifucking. It's too entertaining for that.

I talked to Cusack about "High Fidelity" last week in a suite in a Michigan Avenue luxury hotel, facing west, past the river, toward the true, material Wicker Park, obscured in the fuzzy haze of spring. There's a New York Times atop a neatly folded leather jacket. A green pack of American Spirits. We stake our respective slouches and go at it.

In a lot of movies, Chicago is indicated by second-unit shots of the John Hancock building, or everyone lives half a block from the rumble of the El. Yet "High Fidelity" is swell at capturing how a room looks and breathes, yet seldom feels like inside-joke nudge-nudge. "It was a huge job, a lot of location scouting," he says. "All the Brits, all of us said, we will not have that shot of the Playboy Building and the John Hancock north-to-south. We will not shoot on Lake Shore Drive. You. Can't. So we actually shot looking south-to-north from the University of Chicago." Shrugging a little, Cusack says, "I'm sure we're gonna piss somebody off."

Chicago's geography is often scrambled here, with little concern for the sort of spatial integrity at which Andy Davis ("The Fugitive") is adept, yet I didn't mind, because the film is about story, and most of it's drawn from Hornby. "It's all in the book," Cusack agreed. "The stuff that makes Nick's book universal and funny and painful is the male-female stuff, getting inside the circus of the male mind when he tries to look at himself, sort out his love life. All that stuff could be set in any advanced Western country. It probably wouldn't play in Iraq," he jokes. "But it could be set [like the book] in England, for sure, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, New York. Since I'm from Chicago, I just knew the geography from living here. I thought Chicago was going to be a character in the film, but not the central one."

Was there some generational, post-Boomer element that struck him, some kind of secondhand emotional autobiography? "I just think that it's fun to play the fool," he reflects. "Rob avoids responsibility, he's a nerd, he's self-involved. I mean, those are all fun comic things to play.

"On the other hand, the great thing about the character is that he's got a complete capacity for self-honesty. He's got this interior courage, too. So that contradiction, that reality, because I think that's the way a lot of people are, they just, they think and feel a lot of intense stuff and they never want to admit it out loud -- "

Because they don't find the person who can bring it out of them? "Or they don't have the courage to actualize it in their life, and that's the process of growing up in some way." Cusack stops, corrects himself. "Not growing up, that makes it sound like it's some coming-of-age story. No, it's the process of maturing -- actually owning what you think and feel and then actualizing it into your life. So I thought, that's great, and I thought there's also the oldest story in the book: There are people who are in their thirties and they want to behave like they did when they were 24, or 18. But 40 is right around the corner, and nobody wants to be that guy in the club who's 45 years old and is trying to pick up a 24-year-old girl. Nobody wakes up in the morning -- " Cusack snaps his fingers, "and goes, 'I can't wait to be that guy'. But then it gets real, because we have this problem. And the problem is, we want that first rush. We want to keep sustaining that rush when you see her the first ten times or twenty times or the first two months of a relationship."

Repetition and proximity. You get excited, you find ways to get closer. "Right. And our egos, the male ego, you can't fathom the fact that that's gonna fade, with no matter who it is. So we say, 'Well, that must not be reality, we must not have found the right girl yet.' Maybe it's her. And we keep going with these cycles. We sort of know it, but we can't do anything about it, 'Well, all right, okay, we'll deal with it later.' But we're 35, do we want to have kids? Do we want to settle down? We don't wanna be that guy. So you're playing with real bullets. I think that's some of the delicious stuff. I don't know a guy, whether you like the film or not, I don't know a guy who doesn't read that book who can't identify with Rob. So it must be a pretty potent piece of writing. It's funny and sad and weird."

I admitted I had been frightened by the extensive use of direct-address-to-camera in the early scenes. But, cannily, the device allows not only interior monologue drawn from the book, but it also permits many self-searching observations without having to incorporate a dramatic foil to tolerate Rob's confessions and confusion. We are the tolerant friend. "We had to find a way to get in the parts in the book that give you hope about Rob's future. There's a certain courage and honesty in all that stuff. We had to [put] that out," Cusack says. "Otherwise, you'd be watching, y'know, a real ass who's in denial and selfish and that's it. But that's not how people are. They're both. If you use direct address, it had better be the pure stuff. It's gotta be funny or it's gotta have some painful truth."

Cusack has been doing press for the film for a couple of weeks. "These days, for a lot of [interviewers], it's simple, it's like a movie is [comparable to meeting] a guy at a party, you talk to him for ten minutes and did you like him or not? Everything's reduced to like, or dislike, likable, unlikable. It's just amazing, you think, is that what criticism's come down to? Why don't I just put a camera up and tell you a few jokes?" He cites another refrain. "Some [interviewers] who've liked the film have said, 'Y'know, I really, really liked it, but I didn't like it as much as "Say Anything," y'know, because Rob was kind of a jerk.' And I think, 'OK, but do you know a lot of people who haven't fucked up a lot in their life? Do you know anyone? People want it to be a simple fantasy, a likable character. I like a movie like "Say Anything," but it's [not the only] kind of film. They talk as if Rob is unique in his failings. They're like, 'Why would you want to make a movie about someone like that? The one-percenters of the world?' Oh, is that the way it is? I go, 'I'm glad you liked the film, I'm sorry you thought he was a jerk. I thought he was kind of human.' It's very interesting."

We both pause for a breath, looking out the window from on high, looking west for a moment into the gentle haze on the horizon.


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