Friday, August 31, 2012

Trainspotting (1996)

UK, 94 minutes
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Irvine Welsh, John Hodge
Photography: Brian Tufano
Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Peter Mullan, Irvine Welsh, Susan Vidler, Pauline Lynch

I'm not normally one to use dictionary definitions as an opening, but in this case it's reasonably useful. Thus, "trainspotting," according to's 21st Century Lexicon: "n., the hobby of watching trains and noting their serial numbers, usu. for long periods of time; by extension, any hobby or obsession with a trivial pursuit." Trainspotting is not a movie about jotting down serial numbers of passing trains. The "hobby or obsession with a trivial pursuit" under the glass here is the acquisition and use of heroin. Why? As our humble narrator Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), a citizen of Edinburgh, Scotland, acknowledges early, after charting routes to that particular choice, "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"

As one of the great drug movies, Trainspotting is particularly good at the extremes—swiftly homing in on precise and persuasive reasons people use heroin, and doing that so effectively you might as well plan on a short period of wanting a hit yourself. And then of course there are the nightmare ends. Along the way it careens wildly, from unfortunate gross-out fest (at least one too many scenes involving human feces) to dazzling turns of fantasy to sublime soundtrack movie to deceptively casual morality plays embedded within a narrative arc borrowed from A Clockwork Orange and Drugstore Cowboy, where the people we like best start out bad, turn good, and then go bad again. Along the way it's all trainspotting: getting, using, and getting again, or as Renton says: "Pile misery upon misery, heap it up on a spoon and dissolve it with a drop of bile, then squirt it into a stinking, purulent vein, and do it all over again ... propelling ourselves with longing toward the day that it would all go wrong."

The sentiments paradoxically occur within an environment that is nonstop exuberant and energetic, blasts of color and squalor and washes of music, handheld shots and fast cuts, radiating energy in every frame, and there it is at its extremes. On the one hand, Trainspotting can be fairly likened to a series of consecutive music videos, although that underestimates the shrewd and economical ways it gets from one narrative point to the next (I don't know Irvine Welsh's novel, but John Hodge's screenplay is very good). I count five instantly iconic uses of terrific songs and imagery: "Lust for Life" and "Nightclubbing" by Iggy Pop, a cover of Blondie's "Atomic" by Sleeper, Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," and Elastica's "2.1." Other fragments by Blur, New Order, Primal Scream, and Pulp add to the lustrous texture.

On the other hand, underlying all the ongoing sensational sensations, there's a strong sense not just of the drama at hand, but also a mitigating perspective of the heroin addict's propensity to blow up the slightest inconvenience into its own massive drama. Thus, we get the requisite kicking scene, done up with a pulsing Underworld track, all perception gone all askitter, swirling tracking shots and expressionist angled views of the jail cell of Renton's bedroom at home, sweating it out in agony and oh by the way screaming a whole lot. But when a hallucination of a baby begins to crawl across the ceiling, stopping directly above Renton and making like Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist with a 180-degree head pivot, it recalls the picture's most starkly compelling dramatic moment, of just a few minutes' movie time earlier—a useful contrast.

Trainspotting has some great performances. Ewan McGregor convincingly occupies the life in this early breakthrough role for him. Ewen Bremner chips in his ubiquitously familiar yobby mug and physical comedy. Robert Carlyle is surprisingly good as Begbie, the larger-than-life sadist who won't touch heroin and seems to be hovering constantly on a psychotic break. Kelly Macdonald is charming and sexy in her first role, which she pulls off as much with her lilting accent as anything (as always, and I'm not implying that's a bad thing). Trainspotting is UK director Danny Boyle's second feature before he became the enigmatic commercial director behind A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, and Slumdog Millionaire. With 28 Days Later... and 127 Hours to support me, my sense is that his heart is closest to the youthful work. Certainly one gets a sense that it's primarily his energy and spirit driving the best of Trainspotting (though there is certainly some very fine editing here too).

I can't say exactly why I have a soft spot for the pro-heroin message—in this context, perhaps, because it's a good way to heighten contrasts. I know it's a highly addictive and dangerous drug. And certainly I know that romanticizing heroin addiction and all its trappings is little more than a cultural cliché now going back some ways—Pulp Fiction, Keith Richards, Lou Reed, William Burroughs, etc. Trainspotting is packed full with all the familiar clichés of detail: the kicking scene, the copping scene, the close-ups of injection, the nodding in squalor, the desperate petty crime, the selfishness on display. Nonetheless I fall for it like a pile of bricks. In Trainspotting, when the drug times are good they are very, very good. Not many other drug movies I know can sustain that so convincingly so long without applying a wash of moral scold and/or regret to hedge their bets.

Top 20 of 1996
This is a time when I was particularly in thrall to documentaries and to small indie stories, all pretty much reflected here. Paradise Lost willy-nilly includes all the subsequent documentaries by the producers that have followed on the subject, a vast, disturbing, fascinating, and even almost inspiring story. Fargo was always going to make this 20, but a recent look raised it up quite high. I have a sentimental attachment to Fly Away Home, which is a good kid's movie. I haven't seen Breaking the Waves in a long time. It made quite an impression, but I'm not sure it would stay so high as I have been more disenchanted with von Trier for awhile now. Crash and Irma Vep are infatuations that have held up. And so forth. Twister reawakened and affirmed my appreciation of tornado footage, which is only getting better all the time (the footage, I mean). I have hours of it and still peek in on the cable shows when I notice them.
1. Trainspotting
2. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
3. Fargo
4. Grace of My Heart
5. Secrets & Lies
6. Fly Away Home
7. Breaking the Waves
8. Crash
9. Irma Vep
10. When We Were Kings
11. Trees Lounge
12. Bound
13. The Daytrippers
14. Scream
15. Waiting for Guffman
16. Jerry Maguire
17. Children of the Revolution
18. Nenette et Boni
19. Twister
20. Manny & Lo

Didn't like so much: Basquiat, The English Patient, I Shot Andy Warhol, Lone Star, Sling Blade

Gaps: Goodbye South, Goodbye; Looking for Richard; Michael Collins; The Pillow Book; William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

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