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Wild Ride Of Heroin Addiction Is Substance Of ‘Trainspotting’

Fri., Feb. 21, 1997, midnight

My apologies to anyone who has been waiting for me to announce that the Scottish film “Trainspotting” has opened on video. By the time you read this, “Trainspotting” will have been out for some 10 days.

What can I say? I blew it. A fitting punishment would be to ban me to Scotland’s worst toilet - an observation that fans of the film will readily recognize.

For those of you who haven’t yet seen “Trainspotting,” trust me, getting stuck in that toilet would be worse than having to eat haggis for breakfast.

You’ll understand what I mean the moment you see the scene to which I’m referring. Equal parts grossness and hilarity, it’s a scene that represents the curious blend of high-tech/bottom-feeder filmmaking that made “Trainspotting” one of the most inventive - not to mention entertaining - films of 1996.

To be honest, though, I didn’t appreciate at first just how much quality there was in that blend. Seldom one to prefer quick cuts over content, I was at first puzzled by “Trainspotting.”

Here is what I wrote in my notebook after seeing it last June, on the closing night of the Seattle International Film Festival, with a sold-out house in Seattle’s venerable Egyptian Theatre:

“The hit of Great Britain cinema, this is a study of heroin users in Edinburgh. Actually, it’s about five friends - one a jock, one a stooge, one a psychopath, one a dealer and one simply an addict.

“But this film is not actually about anything except effect - it’s a film of ‘experience’ - and we’re talking one effective experience indeed.

“From the makers of ‘Shallow Grave’ (the 1994, not the 1987 version), it is all quick cuts and fantasy sequences and closeups and odd angles put together with a synth-pop pounding score that is, for much of the run, pure hypnosis.

“The acting by lead Ewan McGregor (the long-haired journalist in ‘Shallow Grave’) is superb: As the protagonist Renton, he’s a charming chameleon even when he betrays each one of his friends and elicits no sympathy at all.

“The problem is the script, which ultimately takes us nowhere - though it leaves us with something of a feeling like ‘Clockwork Orange’ in the end.

“Renton says he will become like us - say yes to life! - but, of course, he is being ironic. And what is the point of that? So, effects are what the film is about.”

Here, then, is a good argument against making snap judgments. For the very next morning, “Trainspotting” was still working on me - both stylistically and thematically. Gradually, I began to see that the film was about much more than merely effects.

And by the time the film was ready to play Spokane some two months later, I was feeling very different.

As I wrote then, “What Boyle shows you is the downside of heroin use. The sleazy drugs dens, the painful side-effects, the obligatory deaths (from AIDS, from neglect, from miscalculation, etc.), the paranoid nightmares.

“The problem for some people, though, is that Boyle’s shimmery filmmaking style tends to overshadow the negative aspects of heroic addiction. As in his previous (albeit minor) hit, ‘Shallow Grave,’ Boyle isn’t interested in simply following the lives of his characters. His method is to create a lively cinematic landscape - two parts Oliver Stone to one part Richard Lester - then throw in characters and watch them wallow.

“The result emphasizes style over substance, but not to the point of exclusion. For the message is there for all to plainly see: Heroin is a profound temptation, but it is the ultimate fatal attraction. If you continue to use it, sooner or later you will die….

“This triumph of ‘Trainspotting’ as experimental cinema is inherently what fuels the film’s controversy. For clearly some viewers are bound to be most impressed by what likely will disgust others, namely the film’s graphic depiction of the feel-good allure that makes drugs, especially heroin, attractive in the first place.

“But then many dangerous activities are dangerous - driving fast, rafting whitewater rivers, skydiving, hiking in Glacier Park, having unprotected sex and eating red meat to name just a few. The point of having a brain is to know when to say yes to danger and when to say no.

“‘Trainspotting’ isn’t just about helping us make such choices. It figures we can do that all by ourselves.

“While still enjoying the ride.”

You may agree - that is, of course, if you can find a copy to rent.



Rated R

Last Man Standing


Director Walter Hill adapts Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” to the American Southwest of the 1930s. And he substitutes Bruce Willis for Toshiro Mifune’s brooding samurai, with Willis portraying a hired gun willing to trade sides in a bootlegger’s war anytime it seems to fit his needs. But Hill, who has some talent, misses the sampan by taking his typical musk-heavy message to the limits. He ignores the fact that “Yojimbo” blended humor with its message of treachery, greed and the inevitability of violence. As for acting, in one small movement - reaching up into his dirty hair to scratch at some troublesome parasite - Toshiro Mifune displays more character development than Willis does in 100 minutes of grimacing. Rated R

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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