It’s 2006; I’m seventeen. I drive to Blockbuster and walk along the shelves stacked with DVD sleeves. I know the inventory well enough that the usual titles and cover art jump out at me: The Silence of the Lambs and its moth-on-mouth collage; Ghost World and its two female protagonists locked in a sort of quizzical defiance; American Beauty and its naked lady lying on a bed of rose petals. It’s just a couple of years before Blockbuster will implode, and the maddening process of selection isn’t that much different than scrolling through Netflix today and seeing the same titles over and over again.
Finally, a movie that I haven’t seen before appeals to my particular mood at that moment, and after flipping over the cover to read the synopsis—the equivalent of warily hovering over the title on the screen—I slip it under my arm and take it to the counter to pay for a rental. Tonight that movie is Trainspotting.
I make the eight-minute drive home and, saying “hey” to my parents, go to the kitchen to find a snack, then head upstairs to what we call the loft. The wide-open third floor of our house, it acts as a private screening room for myself, my sister, and my brother. All of us school ourselves in cinema up there, most often in solitude. I turn off the lights and slip in the DVD, getting comfortable with my snack and a blanket. For the next hour and a half, I give myself over to the movie.
The visuals impress me; the frenetic pacing leaves me a bit cold; the details of drug use double my store of knowledge on the subject. Once the credits roll I’m not hooked, so to speak, but I’m satisfied to identify the roots of Trainspotting’s gloriously dirty reputation.
Danny Boyle’s film belongs in a category that might aptly be called the “basement film,” which is just a dumb thing I made up but could also be a real thing that actually exists. Ignoring the fact that I watched it alone in a glorified attic, Trainspotting is the type of movie that a group of kids watches in somebody’s dirty basement. It instantly appeals to young minds eager to shrug off childhood innocence and move on to more “adult” content. For you and your fellow teens, taking in the sex, drugs, and irreverent philosophizing onscreen is a bit like taking a hit of the heroin itself.
What else belongs in this category? Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs. Fight Club. The Boondock Saints. A Clockwork Orange. The Usual Suspects. Snatch. Overwhelmingly violent and male, and of varying quality, these movies also flashy and confident, crafted from boundary-pushing dialogue and editing that’s meant to disorient. They have swagger; it’s easy to fall under their spell. Waking Life, Donnie Darko, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are also examples of basement movies, for reasons that feel pretty much intuitive. They, along with their more violent counterparts, open up doors to language, senses of time, and imagery that’s wonderfully inventive and thrillingly flexible. They expand your artistic vocabulary, allowing you to vocalize, for the first time, something you appreciated about a film, not just in a film. They launch you on a catapult back to the video store [well, the Internet], eager to find more. What’s next? It’s suddenly a craving that needs satisfying. Maybe you work your way through more Tarantino, more Fincher. You watch GoodFellas and then Scarface. Then you watch the original Scarface. Then you watch Chinatown. That leads you to Rosemary’s Baby. You watch Knife in the Water. L’avventura. Blow-Up. Truffaut. Godard. Fellini. Haneke. The Seventh Continent. The Seventh Seal. Seven Samurai. More Kurosawa. David Lynch. The Coen brothers. Lars von Trier. Sofia Coppola and Francis Ford.
And that’s just the beginning.
While I don’t love Trainspotting, I appreciate it for its scene-by-scene vigor. It throws itself at you, content to leave you picking up the pieces. Danny Boyle obviously relishes the revulsion it frequently inspires. Most important, it’s a must-see for the budding cinephile, because it bends your mind in fruitful ways, even if you move on and grow out of it after. Here’s hoping that once Hollywood ends its love affair with sequels and reboots, it finds a way to nurture another generation of upstart young directors—directors who connect to the young people hanging out in somebody’s basement, thoroughly bored and ready to be impressed.