Sunday 23 February 2020

High Fidelity

I went into High Fidelity without knowing much about this new adaptation and with a fleeting memory of both Nick Hornby’s novel and the 2000 film version starring John Cusack, which I must have read and watched around the time that I turned fourteen. This fact matters, because I used to love Hornby’s novels and identify with his protagonists, not as much as later with Douglas Coupland’s but quite a bit, which now in retrospect means that I spent my mid-teens shaping my identity around middle-aged Generation X protagonists and their views on the world, and struggle to fit into it. This makes 2020’s High Fidelity more interesting, because it remakes Rob into a Generation Y black woman (played fantastically by Zoë Kravitz), and has a whole meta-narrative about what the differences are between the old Rob and this new one. The third location change matters as well, from London to Chicago to Brooklyn, but I’m not familiar enough with any of these places to make sense of this beyond of what is explicitly said on the show. 

So, what is it like to watch an updated cover version of Hornby’s material as someone who is roughly the same age as Kravitz’ Rob, instead of seeing it with an at least 15-year time age difference? For one, it’s a loose cover. It takes bits and pieces, but adds enough original material to become its own thing. It obviously spends a lot of thought on how this story would unfold differently for a 30-year old woman in 2020 vs. for a 30-year old man 20 years ago. Kravitz’ Rob still relies on top-five-lists to organise her world and to keep track of things, but here, those lists provide less of a crystallised, set identity, a certainty of taste and experience, than they did for Cusack’s Rob. In fact, this High Fidelity unravels the idea of telling a set story about yourself and instead turns Rob into someone who isn’t very sure of anything, who is constantly seeking and trying to make sense. The best part of her project to discover her top-five-heartbreaks and figure out why they broke up with her isn’t really the curiosity of past relationships, but to see Rob changing and growing within them, sometimes lacking a clear fixed centre. It’s also about hearing the story from that missing second perspective, and sometimes learning that Rob’s telling of the story was skewed, that she lacked the insight into her partners to really understand the fullness of the story. One of her heartbreaks, Kat Monroe (Ivanna Sakhno) appears overwhelmingly elegant and unreachable in her memories of her, and that impression continues when she invites her to a party to catch up, which gives the appearances that the Instagram influencer has her whole life figured out, and exists in a world of luxury. Except, once everyone else leaves, it turns out that all of that is just pretence and a necessary façade, that this untouchable Kat struggles just as much as Rob does, but approaches things with more will and focus, which is also the reason why she ended up breaking up with her. 

The feeling emerges that Rob looks back on her own past with the impression that everyone else has things more figured out than she does (as someone who started to work in a struggling record shop, then bought that struggling record shop, then end of story). There is a darkness in her recent past, a traumatic break-up, that is slowly unveiled: a serious boyfriend (Mac, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir) proposed, and she didn’t know what to do with that. In the meantime, her brother and his partner are expecting their first child, and this life change later turns out to be an identity crisis for the brother as well, who doesn’t know what it means to no longer be the guy who is deeply involved in music and who goes out all night to do drugs with his friends (in the final scenes of an escalating episode of terrible decisions, Jackson decks a young hipster for ordering a sloe gin fizz at their local, an unexplained act of sudden aggression that ties in somehow with the background struggle of commercialisation vs. authenticity and everyone’s constant fear of being the gentrifier vs. fighting the gentrifiers). Part of Rob’s journey is realising that nobody really knows what they’re doing, and there is no safety in making lists anymore, because everything is constantly in flux. 

The greatest moment of the constant flux of 2020 (in a show that has very little explicit politics to speak of, which reminded me a lot of how High Maintenance approaches its time and place very intelligently without naming names) is when Rob and her two employees, Simon (a break-out David H. Holmes) and Cherise (same, Da'Vine Joy Randolph) debate whether to allow a customer to purchase a Michael Jackson record, and ask Rob to judge. In 2020, can Michael Jackson’s music be salvaged? And is it ethically sound to sell it to someone who isn’t even concerned about that question? This version of High Fidelity is great because that old version couldn’t realistically exist anymore, it seems like a fragment of the distant past, even though it only happened 20 years ago (also, I think maybe the answer is no). 

There’s Cherise, a passionate musician without any music to show for it, who spends the season trying to find other people to share that passion with – and unfortunately, she is too sidelined for us to really get a sense of how that works out for her, after being dismissed repeatedly for how she looks. This is as explicit as the show gets about race – Cherise, a black woman, writes a passionate description of what kind of music she loves, and is then dismissed because that description doesn’t match what white musicians assume when they look at her. I hope that a second season of this show gives her more space, because in comparison to the 2000 character played by Jack Black, there’s a lot more substance here to work with. 

The journey here is as unclear and complex as it was in Natasha Lyonne’s great Russian Doll. It happens in the quiet in-between places, in the companionship of Rob and her friends, or in that moment when Simon, who gets his own outstanding episode here, breaks his unhealthy patterns (his whole top-five-breakups is the same guy, who betrayed him over and over again until his inability to trust him led to a final breakup) to date someone who seems genuinely interested and open. It’s not a successful journey or one that leads to more understanding and insight necessarily, at least not for Rob. She keeps circling around Mac and his new fiancé, trying to figure out how people can be one thing in a relationship and then turn into separate, maybe not entirely recognisable people, after a breakup. She is so focused on that question of who she is without Mac and how Mac can be who he is without her that she messes up a potential new relationship with Clyde (Jake Lacy), who starts off as a Genuine Nice Guyⓣ but then maybe manages to outgrow that. They share a whole episode in which they share an adventure that has the same absurdities and randomness of a Broad City episode (and sometimes, that’s the closest show to this one, as much as the tone differs): an artist, played by Parker Posey, wants to revenge-sell her husband’s record collection for $20, and Rob spends the episode trying to figure out if the husband deserves it (he totally does, she still doesn’t do it, because it scares her that someone could just take that passion from him, I guess). Clyde, seeing that she is denying herself a unique (economic as well, it would probably mean a significant financial downfall) opportunity, steals a rare David Bowie record for her, even though he personally doesn’t understand the significance. 

And perhaps it’s not the right approach to try and detect a pattern here for Rob, from the initial breakup with Mac one year ago to the inevitable moment, drunk on a rooftop, where she has reverted to the same emotional state, with no progress. Rob keeps trying things to get over that relationship that fail, like figuring out why her past partners broke up with, like hooking up with young musician Liam (Thomas Doherty from Legacies, who thankfully gets to keep his Scottish accent here). It’s a great meta-moment, because Kravitz’ mother Lisa Bonnet played a similar role for Cusack’s Rob 20 years ago, but it’s also a reminder that Rob’s holding pattern is turning into a regression if the only way forward is travelling to Mexico City as a groupie for a Jeff Buckley knock-off 10 years younger than her.
And maybe this story is just playing out the question of how important shared interests really are, if the things people love really are more important than what they are and do. What does it say about Rob that she runs a struggling record shop in a gentrifying community in which the places she considers authentic New York are increasingly rare? She’s the centre here, which is a relief, because we’ve heard enough about Jake (the kind of guy who has a car in New York, and gets his shirts pressed, and spends countless hours in a gym) and Lily (who is into Froses, sunrises and puppies). It’s an interesting approach still because those two come out of this story with more background than 2000s Rob would have afforded them, who would have condemned their lives outright and ridiculed them beyond belief. Which is really an ultimately doomed move, as well, that does nothing to change anything – whereas Rob buying Cherise the guitar she wants, with which to begin her journey, does make a change. And what would have been the point of Rob becoming part of yet another couple, when she still doesn’t know who she is without the context of another person and a five-point list? 

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