Friday night, late August 1996: my friend Rachel and I settle into our seats in a packed cinema in one of Milwaukee’s hipper enclaves. Following some ads and previews, the lights dim and the din of the crowd suddenly dissipates. A beat or two of darkness. Then, with the force of a gunshot, Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” permeates the air as an image of two young men running furiously down a sidewalk, being chased by authority figures fills the screen. In a thick Scottish brogue, one of them kicks off a voiceover with the following, methodically recited litany:
Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers.
Instantaneously, the theatre’s energy has been corralled and transformed as if we were all watching A Hard Day’s Night or heck, even Star Wars for the first time.
While earning a Film Studies minor at Marquette University, I continued frequenting the suburban multiplexes of my youth like Budget Cinemas South (even though I no longer had a friend on the inside), various first-run Marcus Theatres (the predominant local chain) and occasional screenings at other isolated second-run movie houses—most notably, the then run-down Avalon Theater in Bay View, its ceiling dotted with peeling paint and twinkling neon stars (which my mother once confessed to me she thought were real as a child.)
I spent most of the summer preceding my undergraduate senior year viewing mainstream stuff like Mission: Impossible, The Craft, The Rock—essentially, anything my friends or roommates wanted to see. I still primarily thought of moviegoing as an opportunity to socialize, which is not to say I wasn’t affected by all the other stuff my film courses exposed me to. Earlier that year, I’d taken a Documentary class where I saw everything from Nanook of the North and Racetrack (a Frederick Wiseman cinema verité most notable for its uncensored, lengthy account of “stud service”) to charmingly quaint mid-60s surf doc The Endless Summer and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a recent, experimental, piecemeal portrait of the quirky Canadian classical pianist that stretched the boundaries of what a non-fiction film could contain.
Thus, a split emerged: movies I could see leisurely with other people vs. those I could watch in class or on my 19-inch TV at home (I wasn’t yet ready to venture off to the cinema on my own.) While mid-90s Milwaukee was certainly no beacon of film culture, there were a few outliers in the local exhibition landscape, i.e., places to see arthouse and foreign language cinema. Two of them were older theatres, both of which happened to be on the city’s East Side (my preferred hangout neighborhood) and about a ten-minute walk from each other; they were also part of the national Landmark Theaters chain, which happened to specialize in this stuff.
The more prestigious one was the Oriental, an enormous Art Deco movie palace dating back to 1927. About seventy years on, it had three screens, two of them smaller rooms carved out of the back of the original one. That main auditorium, however, was still glorious with over one thousand seats (and a balcony!), its interior done up in opulent East Indian décor. A sense of long-forgotten luxury encrusted the space, extending out into the equally grand lobby, all the way to the vintage ticket booth at the front door looking out at the sidewalk on Farwell Avenue (where, back in the early 80s, one night before a concert there, a member of The Pretenders spotted a gangly acoustic trio called The Violent Femmes busking on the sidewalk.)
Over the next twelve months, at the Oriental I’d see such Academy Award winning hits of the day as Shine and The English Patient, plus smaller, less celebrated fare like Cedric Klapisch’s Parisian drama When The Cat’s Away and Finn Taylor’s voyeurism-centered, American indie flick Dream With The Fishes (not to mention a few midnight screenings of that already old standby, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) I gradually learned to get over my fear of going to the movies alone. It’s imbedded in us at an early age, this idea of watching movies (and dining in restaurants and going to concerts and plays) as something you simply do with other people. And yet, movies in particular are ideal as a solitary activity: like going to church, they allow for but don’t technically require a companion.
Just a few blocks away, although somehow far enough to feel like it was on an entirely different planet, the Downer Theater predated the Oriental, having first opened in 1915. Coming from an era prior to that of the ridiculously opulent movie palaces, it was more of a utilitarian neighborhood place. Twinned in the early 90s, each of its theaters were narrow and rectangular, two sets of seats separated by a center aisle. And yet, cooler stuff often played the Downer, titles that were perhaps too small to open in the Oriental’s main auditorium and yet too big to be instantly relegated to its two carved-out rooms. I had gone to see Bullets Over Broadway at the Downer with my mom two years before and also Dead Man Walking earlier that year, but Trainspotting wasn’t something I’d ever drag her to.
Although we saw Trainspotting on a Friday, it wasn’t the film’s opening night. Rachel and I had talked about going for a few weeks and finally found a date when both of us were free. Still, the near-standing-room-only capacity of the audience felt like it could’ve been opening night. I easily picked up on the anticipation in the room, an electricity that I’ve felt perhaps a dozen times in a quarter-century of regular moviegoing since then. The crowd was mostly young, 20s and 30s if I had to guess. Being 21 myself, the film’s characters were mostly just a few years older even if Rachel and I (and most of the audience, I assume) had precious little in common with a bunch of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Beyond those fragments I can still recall of that first screening of Trainspotting, what an emotional roller coaster ride it must have been. If some films are more interior experiences where one has to put in the work to make sense of and ultimately connect with what transpires onscreen, this was nearly the opposite: a rapid-fire sensory overload of pop songs, jump cuts, humorous graphics (i.e., “The Filthiest Toilet in Scotland”), fantasy sequences, cheeky wordplay, situations both outrageous and painfully relatable, the greatest ecstasy you’ve ever known immediately followed by the direst pain you’ve ever felt, all related by a narrator who’s not always entirely, shall we say, reliable.
Despite what I said earlier about the cinema being a perfectly fine solitary activity, this was the sort of film practically made to be seen in a packed theater as a collective experience for the first time. Just over 90 minutes later (I used to think it was much longer than that for all the plot it jams into that average-sized frame), I left the Downer with Rachel positive about two things:
- This was the greatest movie I had ever seen, and
- I had to go out and buy the film’s soundtrack the next day. (Which I did! At The Exclusive Company (a local record store chain) on Farwell, six blocks away from the Oriental.)
I spent the following months thoroughly absorbing that soundtrack (I’ve already written about it in greater detail here.) The film likely played at the Downer long enough for me to go back and view it again, but I waited until mid-November, when I had the opportunity to see it on the cheap. Every Friday night, Marquette would screen popular films at its Varsity Theatre that had played in first-run houses usually within the preceding six months. Admission for students was a buck, maybe two. It was where I saw such hits of the day as Toy Story, the original Jumanji, Apollo 13 and Casino. When Trainspotting appeared on the schedule, I knew what I had to do. This time, I brought along another friend, Laura, with me.
Closer in size to the Oriental (but without the 1920s splendor), the Varsity was as jam-packed as the screening at the Downer, the audience (this time exclusively students) just as receptive and vocal to the film’s breakneck momentum. Laura became an instant convert, borrowing my copy of the soundtrack the next day. Over the rest of the school year, we rented it on VHS from Blockbuster multiple times; after I moved to Boston the following September, we more often than not watched my own VHS copy (purchased from one of those Columbia House-like “10 Movies for a Penny” deals) whenever I returned to the Midwest for a visit.
I must’ve seen Trainspotting more than a dozen times those three or four years after it was first released; I would not be surprised if I’ve seen it more often than any other movie, period (it’s at least up there with Monty Python and The Holy Grail and Young Frankenstein.) I finally got to see it in a cinema again in 2016 with a decidedly older crowd, a good portion of whom I’m guessing hadn’t seen it before (there were a few walkouts.) Viewing it again at home for this essay, I put the subtitles on to make sure I didn’t miss anything, which turned out a most redundant exercise as I found myself still able to recite all the dialogue save for a few words and phrases due to all those thick accents.
The film is simultaneously a tale seen through the lens of its main character, Mark Renton (a breakthrough role for an impossibly young and emaciated Ewan McGregor) and a now-definitive pop-art rendering of mid-90s UK youth culture. As Renton proceeds from careless junkie to half-hearted attempts at becoming clean to sudden relapse, withdrawal, aspirational reinvention and, well, not quite redemption (some old habits die hard), Trainspotting vividly depicts his world and the ultra-specific talismans he and his friends value: the classic cool of James Bond movies, the pre-punk swagger of addict icon Iggy Pop, the camaraderie (or not) of the local pub, the ecstatic promise of release (and casual sex) at a dance club and most of all, the “better than sex” high of hard drugs, chiefly heroin.
It’s not incorrect claiming that the film’s early scenes tend to glamorize the characters’ drug intake. The one-of-a-kind pleasure whenever someone shoots up is palpably seen and felt. Renton’s attempts at rationalizing it are acceptable at face value, particularly when he says that his mother, from whom he steals a bottle of Valium, “is, in her own domestic and socially acceptable way also a drug addict.” The film’s attitude towards drug use shifts only when it delves head-first into relaying its consequences, often in graphic, brutal detail— most horrifically, the discovery of flat mate Allison’s baby lying dead in its crib from the neglect of a group of junkies too far gone to properly take care of it. There’s also the sad case of Tommy, who turns to drugs after a romantic breakup and rapidly deteriorates into AIDS-related illness and death.
What remains relatively unique about the film’s rendering of addiction is in how it admits it’s often an endless cycle. Renton’s cold turkey attempt at withdrawal (aka “The Bedroom Scene”) is arguably just as horrifying as anything before it (particularly when the dead baby reappears crawling on the ceiling in his hallucinatory state.) Getting clean enables him to begin again as a real estate agent in London, but he can’t fully escape his past, as hometown mates Begbie, a violent drunk and then Sick Boy, a sketchy dealer/pimp show up at his door, expecting him to take them in (“He’s a psycho, but a mate, so what can you do?,” Renton says of Begbie as a means to rationalize this.) Along with the sweet but easily coerced Spud, the four stumble their way into a “scag deal”, reselling two kilograms of heroin they’ve managed to acquire for peanuts to big-time dealers at a higher price. Renton is called upon to try the heroin and test its legitimacy when he notes in voiceover, “This was to be my final hit, but let’s be clear about this. There’s final hits and final hits. What kind was this to be?”
Trainspotting doesn’t provide an easy answer to that question. In the end, realizing “So what can you do?” will only get one so far re: toxic mates, following the success of the deal, Renton absconds with all the money (though he leaves some behind for Spud in a security deposit box.) As he walks away from the scene of the crime, perfectly, exhilaratingly in time with Underworld’s “Born Slippy” on the soundtrack, he says, in voiceover:
The truth is that I’m a bad person. But that’s gonna change … Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and Choosing Life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m gonna be just like you.
He then reprises the litany of acceptable consumer goods from his voiceover at the film’s start (“The job, the family, the fucking big television…”), but something’s off. If you’re no longer taking him at face value (and you really shouldn’t be), you can detect the ever-so-slight smirk in his tone. For Trainspotting, a “final hit” isn’t a promise, not really; more like an aspiration, something we tell ourselves, almost automatically and out of obligation. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to “Choose Life”? The final shot, zooming into MacGregor’s smiling face until it blurs unto abstraction suggests this whole thing is not as easy as it looks.
I can’t help but feel I saw Trainspotting at exactly the right time. Had it come out five years earlier, it wouldn’t have been on my radar (I truly did not see an R-rated film until I was 18!) Had it appeared five years later when I was in my mid-late 20s, I might’ve dismissed its flash and cynicism or, at the very least, respected and admired it for its performances and skillfulness while feeling a little weary of its relentless, over-the-top artifice (which was exactly my reaction to Moulin Rouge! (also starring McGregor) when it came out in 2001.) However, as an adult recently of legal drinking age falling in love with film for the first time, Trainspotting had a seismic impact on my taste and perception of what the world had to offer to someone my age. Along with the Downer and the Oriental, it confirmed a growing sense of discord: I was getting ever closer to leaving those suburban multiplexes and my heretofore provincial worldview (mostly) behind.
Essay #4 of 24 Frames.
Go back to #3: To Live.
Go ahead to #5: All That Jazz.