A couple of months ago, some of the other Recess editors and I sat down and watched High Fidelity, a movie I’ve probably seen at least half a dozen times since I rescued it from a Wal-Mart discount movie bin a few years ago. If you’ve ever seen High Fidelity, you know that it’s entirely quotable from beginning to end: the movie is narrated by Rob Gordon (John Cusack), a hyper-reflexive, misanthropic music snob who consistently doles out gems such as, “Liking both Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel is like supporting both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
There’s one quote of Rob’s in particular that I have carried around in my back pocket for a long time, and until recently, used it as a quasi-maxim for relationships—romantic, platonic, and that delicate hybrid beast that threatens our sanity. In one scene, Rob is at the bar with Marie de Salle (Lisa Bonet), a beautiful bohemian singer with the ability to turn a cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” into a religious experience. As he’s talking with Marie, the scene is spliced with Rob delivering the following wisdom: “A while back, Dick, Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the f*****g truth.” Then, the scene cuts back to Rob and Marie discovering their shared love of The Prisoner, a short-lived 1960’s cult TV show that is the perfect esoteric symbol for what Rob is trying to say.
On the surface, Rob’s philosophy makes a lot of sense. Out of the millions of albums, novels, paintings, etc. that have been produced, we choose to covet a small fraction and call them our favorites. And if someone else has likewise sifted through the same heap of artistic output and plucked a select few to be their favorites, doesn’t that mean something? At the very least, shouldn’t two people have an easier time talking to each other since you’ve already established a common ground?
Not necessarily, and it was only when re-watching High Fidelity and hearing Rob say those words that I realized how much I disagreed with that way of thinking. In Rob’s world, we all come with a deck of cultural cards we’ve collected over the years, ready to lay them on the table in hopes that someone will match our Dostoyevsky or Marc Chagall with their own collector’s edition. The more matches, the more compatibility, theoretically. But this is a dangerous way of thinking that, if anything, is antithetical to being card-carrying members of these exclusive clubs.
Deciding that a movie or book is your “favorite” is no light declaration—it’s a committed relationship that has been cultivated over a long period of time. With that comes a responsibility to defend, to praise, to explain the significance of that particular work. The danger lies in the fact that when we tell others about the “books, records, films” that we like, we are only presenting an end result that’s rendered meaningless without personal context. These cultural markers have merely become shallow inroads into forming relationships that we believe are based on substance, when really substance is the long and beaten path that’s often left untread. And to blanket this entire notion that people can be grouped together in this way, we’ve come up with a wildly superficial term to justify it all—“taste.”
If I told you that Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is my favorite book, what does that say about me? That I have “good taste”? “Bad taste”? Need to read more books? Taken by itself, it should say nothing. And if that happens to be your favorite book, too? Well, that may be even worse, because in so many interactions, we’re often blinded by the initial excitement of discovering a similar interest that we never dig deeper; we omit the second question that makes our likes and dislikes so powerful—“Why?”
For some reason, we are all too content to know that another person has the same tastes without wondering how they got there, as if they exist in a vacuum that’s removed from our life experiences. Rob’s philosophy is certainly convenient—if someone also likes Firefly and agrees that Dharma Bums is indeed the superior Kerouac novel, aren’t they a good person because you’re a good person and believe the same? And if not “good,” then at least “cool,” “fun,” or a dozen other vague adjectives? Inevitably, this fallacy is what keeps people at arms’ length when it should be the ideal opportunity to start a real conversation. Let’s not replace discussions about the role fiction plays in our lives with the empty conclusion that “Tolstoy rocks!”; don’t be complacent when someone calls Woody Allen a “genius,” even/especially if you think the same thing. Our likes and dislikes are certainly meant to bring people together, but they aren’t the be-all, end-all of compatibility. If that sounds obvious, it is. But if you don’t automatically like a person more when they reveal that they’ve actually seen The Prisoner, you’re a better person than I am.