In one of the last scenes of High Fidelity, John Cusack drinks a beer. Actually, he doesn't. And that's kind of the beauty of it. He treats a beer the way I don't think I've ever seen anyone treat a beer in a movie, before or since. That is to say, he treats his beer the way people treat their beers in real life. He doesn't take a single sip. For several seconds of screen time, he fiddles with a wedge of citrus sticking out of the beer’s mouth as he talks (a lime, I assumed for years, although the more I look at it, I think it looks more like a lemon—if so, maybe he's drinking a wheat beer, which would erase all doubt in my mind as to why he doesn't take a sip). It's always a problem getting that piece of fruit down into a bottle, and it's no easier for Cusack. He has no help from movie magic, no Beer Grip or Lemon Wrangler to get it down that narrow glass neck.
In the scene, Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, is supposed to be proposing to his girlfriend, Laura. Eventually, he manages to get the words out, but the display is just as awkward and excruciating to watch as his struggle with the lemon, his inability to reckon with his beer bottle. Once he does manage to jam the lemon down, you can see him wiping his fingers on the bar napkin that the bottle rests on, a dainty little gesture that seems wholly unnecessary, but perfectly captures Rob’s energy, his nervousness. The masterstroke of this little neurotic symphony is when Cusack begins peeling nervously at the label of his beer, pulling away at it tenderly like he's peeling loose skin from a sunburn. It's something we've seen a million times before, something we've done a million times before. It's so real, so minute, so perfectly observed that it becomes invisible. We miss it over and over again, despite having seen the movie dozens of times.
As he engages in the timeless neurotic struggle of what to do with one’s hands, he is simultaneously attempting a great romantic overture. Or at least, his version of one. He tells Laura that he’s sick of chasing women other based on the fantasy that they can offer him something new, exciting, and better than what he already has—a relationship whose painful and emotionally taxing complexities are chronicled throughout the movie. His big pitch is this, as he stares down at the bottle whose little nub we can see sticking up from outside the frame, as his hands worry over a label or a napkin or a piece of citrus that we can’t see: “I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist. And there are never really any surprises, and it never really…” (Here, Laura finishes his thought, giving him the word “Delivers”). “Delivers. Right. And I’m tired of it. And I’m tired of everything else, for that matter. But I don’t ever seem to get tired of you.” After the proposal, which rambles on for a few more minutes, Laura answers him incredulously. “That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard,” she jokes. She’s laughing at him (hey, he probably deserves it), she’s being sarcastic. But for me? It is.
My wife, Meagan, and I love this movie. It’s one of those that we can watch again and again without tiring of it, particularly when we’ve had a few cocktails or glasses of wine and our desires (for food, for movies) gravitate to the familiar, the comforting. Before that, we loved it separately. It was a movie that I discovered in 2001, not long after it came out. I was immediately attracted to its more obvious pleasures. As a high school student in the suburbs of Atlanta, I took immense satisfaction from laughing knowingly with my friends at the knocks on Green Day, picking out Stereolab on the soundtrack before the characters even mentioned it, spotting Sub Pop stickers and Pavement posters in the background. When we moved on to college, my friends and I were the sort of insufferable know-it-alls who would make fun of you for liking Interpol because they were derivative of Joy Division, despite the fact that we’d only listened to Joy Division for the first time last month. We loved High Fidelity, because we thought we were like the characters in the movie. Being in our mid-thirties, working in a record store and playing in a garage band didn’t seem like settling—it was something to aspire to. When Rob sets aside childish things, as it were, when he foregoes the hot redhead and the cool musician (played by Lisa Bonet, no less), choosing instead to settle down with the messier, more emotionally demanding Laura, it seemed like the ultimate cop out.
We’d watch the movie while drinking can after can of Steel Reserve beer on a Friday night, and we’d empathize with the early scenes: the unfettered male rage, the heartbreak. Rob screaming out the window at Laura, calling another ex-girlfriend a bitch, standing in the rain and shoving quarter after quarter into a payphone. In retrospect, my adolescent heartbreaks seem few in number, and rarely traumatic. At the time, they were what I based my identity on: the only semblance of real pain I could find in an upbringing that had been overwhelmingly comfortable. By the time High Fidelity ended, I’d be checked out. I didn’t think Rob belonged with this woman, this lawyer (so lame!) who’d broken faith with him. Never mind the laundry list of horrible things he’d done to her—Rob Gordon was a screen on which I could project my own idea of what love should be. Easy. Pleasurable. Painless.
John Cusack's other seminal romantic role is, of course, Say Anything…, a perfectly serviceable romantic comedy that inadvertently helped spawn a generation of men who would mistake stalking for a grand romantic gesture. Cusack's character, Loyd Dobler, is the quintessential romantic—he fixates on his love interest, Diane, precisely because she so perfectly embodies a fantasy. She's beautiful, brilliant, kind. At the end of the first scene, heedless of his friend’s warnings that the relationship is doomed, he jumps up and shouts his romantic manifesto: "I want to get hurt!"
Loyd, the warm-hearted misfit in the Clash t-shirt, helps Diane navigate the chaos of a high school kegger (Cusack doesn’t sip a beer here, either, which I think is meant to signify that he’s a gentleman, but always made me wonder why everyone isn’t calling him a NARC). Diane likes Loyd, but despite some fun times together, she dumps him. She’s headed for a prestigious fellowship in Europe that summer, and her father is pressuring her to ditch this gawky misfit, a kick boxer with no plans to go to college. What happens next is so iconic that it scarcely needs rehashing. Having unsuccessfully pursued Diane in hopes of getting her back, he makes one last grand gesture, standing outside her house with a boom box hoisted above his head, playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
I would like to make fun of this scene. There is so much I could try to find wrong with it. This absurd idea that all one needs is one grand romantic gesture to erase any number of practical, real world concerns that stand in a couple’s way. It’s absurd. But that’s not really what the scene is about, I’ve come to realize. Loyd Dobler, John Cusack, isn’t adding to that troublesome myth. What you see, if you watch his face closely in this scene, is vulnerability. As the camera slowly pans in on him, Gabriel moaning on about Ione Skye’s eyes, Cusack shifts the weight of the boom box in his arms (he’s scrawny, and the thing is obviously too heavy for him). There is no confidence in his face. He isn’t assured that this crazy gesture will work. That’s what’s so beautiful about the moment. Not that it’s romantic, but that it’s so desperate. He’s standing there, naked in his stupid, dorky trench coat. He doesn’t know if it’s going to work. Neither do we. Before we can find out, the music stops. The scene cuts to black.
Early in High Fidelity, Rob Gordon tells us his motto: it’s not what you are like, but what you like, that is more important in relationships. This was a motto that my friends and I embraced. Rob was a hero, and the ending, well, it was the kind of happy ending you have to tack on to make your romantic comedy work, but it wasn’t the important part. What was important was the rage, the lonely nights spent organizing records and writhing sleeplessly in the sheets by yourself. Like any good relationship, my relationship with High Fidelity has matured. When I was younger, I found it ridiculous that Rob would settle for this woman who wanted him to change, who wanted him to be different than he already was. She should see how cool he was, compliment his record collection, and love him. This was what I wanted out of a relationship.
When I slept with a friend of mine at my 20th birthday party, shit-faced on beer, wine, vodka, Smirnoff Ice, and Goldschlager, I had no idea that nine years later, I’d still be with her. I did not expect this single dumb mistake to become the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, to grow into the relationship that would define my life. In our first few years together, there were times when I would feel trapped. My freedom, it seemed, was gone. I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do anymore, and the idea was frightening. Maybe I was too young to have my life so tightly intertwined with someone else’s. I struggled with the compromises I felt like I was making—staying home when my friends were out drinking, not watching The Lord of the Rings as many times as I wanted to, not living my life as a series of opportunities to make stupid decisions.
What being with the same person for so long has taught me, is that loving someone is about opening yourself up to those changes. That's what a relationship is. Love means sharing yourself with another person. Yes. More than that, it means not being that person anymore. It means growth. Change. Pain. High Fidelity is a movie about that kind of growth, that willingness to be opened up, ripped apart, and put back together again, to come out on the other side better than you were before. It was Meagan who taught me to eat something that didn’t come in a box, and Meagan who taught me to drink something other than high gravity beer out of a can. With Meagan, I would learn about Sancerre and profiteroles and bell hooks and D.C. hardcore. But that’s what she likes. What matters, to me, is what she is like: someone who pushes me to be brave, to be strong. Someone who expects me to be the best man I can be, to challenge myself. She is in every word that I write. No number of drunken nights out with my stupid friends is worth that. (Although, thankfully, she’s down for those, too).
And it’s because of all this that John Cusack is my cinematic hero. An odd choice, perhaps, but for me, it’s not even close. Because he is open. He is raw. You will never see Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Wayne crying over their beers, looking down at the labels at loss for words. They are powerful, confident, rugged. They win by imposing their will on others. But there’s a reason that the women in their movies are cartoons at best, and scenery at worst. John Cusack is my hero because he lacks that baggage. He is all vulnerability, all open wounds and sharp edges. The truth is, I don’t respect strength. I don’t respect power. To be assured that you know what is best, that people should follow your lead? It’s a level of certainty that I’ll never understand. Give me, instead, a man without confidence. Give me a man whose struggle is how to hold his glass, how to find the right thing to say, how to feel. Give me a man who isn't so persuaded by his own mythology that he's lost all capacity for doubt, for pain, for fear. Give me John Cusack, his eyes darting down to his bottle, unsure what to say and how to say it, but knowing, somehow, that something is opening within him. Something is changing. Something is growing. Give me John Cusack, ready to fall in love. Ready to be hurt.