The Grim Seduction of Self-Destruction
Trainspotting changed my life. Twice. On a mid-summer day in 1996, I went to see "this crazy Scottish drug movie" with a friend who kept me in the know regarding certifiably cool stuff. We hadn't been seated long before Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" cut the darkness, pounding out a hot-pursuit rhythm in time with Ewan McGregor's spotted, angry face. His low-key, lyrical tirade of pro-drug/anti-establishment philosophy narrated Danny Boyle's colorful character-intro montage, and I was hooked.
Within twenty-four hours of leaving the theatre, I'd shaved my head. I got the Doc Martens a week later, and adopted the world's most offensively inept Scottish accent somewhere in between. Even at nineteen, I knew that a spiral of heroin, disease, and betrayal wasn't for me--but I reveled in the doomed muck of charismatic low-lives Renton (McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) just the same.
In their practically plot-free adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge fill every frame with colorful characters who yank us into a lucid reality with ill-defined walls. Renton's quest to retrieve opium suppositories from a blackened, backed-up toilet morphs into a tranquil deep-sea dive. Later, during cold-turkey confinement imposed by his parents, our narrator encounters a ghoulish, cooing dead baby and glimpses the AIDS-infected non-future of a straight-edge friend he'd reluctantly turned onto drugs.
Nearly twenty years on, the movie still resonates, still pulses with audacity--in both subject matter and in defiant, joyous zeal. A joyous drug movie? Absolutely. Boyle and company make circling the drain of wasted potential an alluring prospect, in keeping with the novel's sincere yet exploitive journey to the heart of disillusioned twentysomethings. Trainspotting's heroes and villains are one and the same, developmentally arrested precursors to the world-weary zombies we see on morning commutes or in the mirror--save for the illegality of their unrelenting addictions. Hodge reinforces Welsh's themes of ubiquitous chemical distraction: the tingling allure of sex; the therapeutic rush of good booze, bad food, and worse television; the adrenaline surge of a bar fight. In the film, as in real life, some conquer these diversions; some are conquered by them; others win minor victories, later succumbing to substitute vices.
Trainspotting changed me a second time a few weeks later, when I read Welsh's novel. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I struggled with the first chapter, off and on, for about three months. These aren't long chapters, either. But they're written in a poetic Scots patois so dense that the publisher, helpfully, included a glossary at the back of the book. I wanted so badly to access the author's wider world, but getting into a rhythm with all the "huvnae's", "wisnae's", and "likesay's" was almost impossible.
Until one day, when it wasn't.
I don't recall when or why the breakthrough happened, but I found a grip and boarded Welsh's wavelength. From then on, every other book, magazine article, and newspaper story seemed dull and unreadable to me--an affliction that continues to this day.* I plowed through the novel's three-hundred-and-forty-eight pages with the glee and ease of a painter finally getting the hang of brush-stroke variation.
The downside to enlightenment is, of course, revisiting pre-enlightenment delights. Subsequent viewings of Trainspotting felt incomplete--natural, since it's missing about a third of the novel's characters. That's not a slight against Boyle or Hodge: to fully capture the emotional and relational complexity of Welsh's skeevy Edinburgh would require at least three hours, and probably an HBO miniseries for maximum effect. Just as Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is like the director's cut of The Coen Brothers' film adaptation, so, too, is Welsh's novel a rich, expanded-universe treasure awaiting discovery by those who think Boyle's movie is tops.
It is tops, by the way, a visually and musically charged stab at capturing the deceptive glamour of drug culture. When Renton overdoses on smack half-way through the picture, he collapses onto a rug--then into the rug, as Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" kicks in. We follow his limp body from dealer Johnny Swan's (Peter Mullan) flat into a taxi and then to a hospital emergency room. Boyle frames much of this montage in a velvety vertical letterboxing, placing us squarely in the detached, helpless mind of a kid falling into his grave. Trainspotting is full of these indelible moments,** which is quite a feat for a movie that barely crosses the ninety-minute mark.
To this day, I've never done hard drugs (or soft drugs, whatever those are). I'm not saying Trainspotting had a PSA effect on my nerve, but it opened up my mind to horrors and happiness I'd never known existed. Boyle and Welsh altered my brain chemistry, setting off chain reactions of possibility and creativity that persist even as I climb the weary, settled-down steps towards middle-age. There are negative side effects, too: occasionally, I'll slip into that horrible accent. In darker moments, Ewan McGregor's line, "The truth is that I'm a bad person", plays on a loop over whatever self-doubt diatribes my inner monologue decides to spin.
But that's the mark of great art, isn't it? Better or worse, we're all one hit away from becoming lifetime fiends.
*No matter how gripping the content, I'm always a bit disappointed when I see read dialogue that begins with quotations, rather than an em dash.
**The finale, set to Underworld's "Born Slippy", is one of my favorite movie endings.