High Fidelity: What is Love?

When did humans start to wonder about love? Pre-wheel? Post-fire? We’ll probably never know, so, new question. When did humans start to understand love? The answer to this one is very clear: not yet.


Which is not to say that we haven’t tried. People have been writing books, creating movies, and singing songs about every conceivable component of love for ages. And we, the consumers, take it in. We survey our worlds for definitions that apply to our morals, our senses, our current situations. Name a predicament, and there’s a musing about love that will fit right in. Which is great, because the human brain craves categories and organization and definitions for things; otherwise there would be no way to process the endless information that life gives us. But, admittedly, this compulsion to define everything leaves us a little bit wanting. Or at least that’s where it leaves me. Which of the world’s many definitions of love is “the one?”

When I read books or watch movies I write down the quotations that resonate with me. Often, they have to do with love. I’ll size up the story’s version of love and compare it to someone in my life, and if the two fit, it’s a miracle! Suddenly I understand my feelings toward this person; the author told me it was love, and I’m relieved that finally I know what this confusing, undefinable feeling is. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own definitions, of course. But, in truth, most of them haven’t come from my own life.

I recently watched High Fidelity (2000) for the first time. This film stars John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a record store owner who loves to categorize everything in life, from music to love. The movie begins with Rob breaking up with his serious girlfriend, Laura, and immediately listing the five worst breakups he’s ever had. We relive each of these breakups while experiencing the aftermath of his split with Laura as well as the ups and downs of his life as a record store owner/wannabe producer. Eventually, Rob and Laura get back together- not because of some romantic realization, and not because they missed each other so much they couldn’t handle it. Legitimately, Laura’s reason for getting back together with Rob: “I’m too tired not to be with you.”

What about all of the problems that caused them to fall apart in the first place? Not addressed. What about the cute, intriguing music reporter who catches Rob’s eye at his record store? Rob responds to this with the obvious move (not) of proposing to Laura. “Other women… they always seem really great because there’s never any problems… and then I come home, and you and I have real problems. I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist… But I don’t ever seem to get tired of you.”

To translate: “I do fantasize about other women. We do have problems. But I still want to be with you.”

Now, that’s unconventional.

high fidelityWhen I watch this movie, I want Laura to be the perfect girl (confession: I really don’t like her much). I want Rob to be genuinely sorry and to feel like she’s the only one. I want the two of them to have a passionate conversation about how they did have problems but that having each other is worth all of those things. I want them to embrace as the perfectly chosen, intensely meaningful song plays in the background. But why do I want that? Because it’s real life? Of course not. In real life people stay real, and problems as deeply engrained as Rob’s and Laura’s usually don’t go away just because they care or because they miss each other.

We all just want to make sense out of life, and Rob wants that too. That’s why he and his friends find ways to make lists for every situation: favorite music for a Monday, favorite songs about death. I do it too. I have lists of my favorite movie kisses and my favorite actors’ voices, because at the end of the day there is just so much to process in this world that we can’t handle it all. We try to understand all of this incoming information in order to make some kind of pattern out of it that we can apply to our lives, so that our lives can have some sense in them as well. But this movie shows us that as much as we try to organize, categorize, and define, we are not going to understand everything. And even if we do become an expert in some area (for Rob, it’s music) that doesn’t mean that the peace and harmony of that area will have anything to do with other parts of our lives.

When it comes to love, an area of life in which Rob admits that his “gut has shit for brains,” this notion of uncertainty is particularly apparent. Let’s remind ourselves again, Rob proposes to Laura because he doesn’t want to have to think about the possibility of other girls anymore. This is ridiculous, we might say. This isn’t real. These two are with each other out of convenience and nothing more. They are together because they don’t want to have to think about being with someone else. How can they stand this? Where is the purity of love?

And yet, they do seem happy. Who are we to impose upon them our definition of love? Which, by the way, is (at least for me) hugely influenced by movies, and unrealistic ones at that; this idea that love only counts when it’s 100% pure and chosen above all other things isn’t reality. It hurts to see this couple together simply because they didn’t much like being broken up and they didn’t want to have to deal with anyone else but each other. But what’s wrong with that, really, if it makes them happy? Is that definition of love- “I’m tired of everything else… but I don’t ever seem to get tired of you” any better than “to love is to suffer” or “love means never having to say you’re sorry?” Both of those definitions sound a bit disastrous to me as well. So, High Fidelity didn’t go along with the cinematically acceptable definitions of love. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Whether we like it or not, that probably makes it more right.

In high school, a highly philosophical friend lamented that there was no possible way to define love. I immediately wrote him off, believing that he just didn’t know how. Now, I may have to admit that he was right- with a qualifier. The issue is not that we can’t define love; it’s that there are so, so many ways to do it that they can’t all be right at the same time. High Fidelity serves as a totally glaring, completely necessary blemish on the face of romantic lessons learned from most movies by showing a love story that is dysfunctional, unreasonable, and possibly a bad idea in the most unromantic way. But it also gives the rest of us permission to have confusing and messed up relationships that don’t have fairytale endings. It gives us permission to not always understand our feelings or make the right choices. It gives us permission to be real.

John Cusack's iconic boombox scene in Say AnythingIt’s ironic that a film called High Fidelity features a relationship in which both partners sleep with other people through the course of the story, and in which the characters constantly discuss how much their number one passion- music- is full of both creators and consumers whom the characters see as total frauds. Where is the promised fidelity? I think I’ve solved the mystery. The fidelity in this movie is the fact that it refuses to be just another music-and-love movie (as much as we loved John Cusack’s iconic stereo on the shoulders moment in Say Anything). Its fidelity is not to love or to music or to film, although it teaches us a ton about all of these things. What we can learn most from this movie is that its Highest Fidelity is to nothing other than real life. Life is undefinable, unconventional, and imperfect- but it’s all we have, and High Fidelity celebrates that. To quote our good friend Rob Gordon, that’s “just good. Really good.”

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