By Ben Owen
(Frequent Parabasis contributor Ben Owen needs no introductions around these parts, but I'm still very happy to have him as part of the adolescence issue. Here, he talks about addiction and the movies.)
There’s a bit early in Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead where he writes about how, when gearing up for battle prior to the 1990-91 Gulf War, the marines watched Vietnam movies—Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. He makes the point that although these films might seem to most viewers, and probably even to their directors, to be anti-war statements, to American soldiers they read only as pro-war, as celebrations of “the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills.”
Recently my girlfriend watched Trainspotting. She found it upsetting. I understood what she meant—there’s that dead baby crawling on the ceiling—but wanted to find out whether she’d felt any of the same thrill seeing it as I had 16 years ago, when I was 16. She hadn’t. In an attempt to explain why I’d felt that way, I began, as I sometimes do, to talk about the mid-to-late-90s in a quasi-mystical way. My girlfriend is eight years younger than me and grew up in a household that believed solidly in public television, and so with some regularity I take it upon myself to educate her about the fine cultural weave of 90s pop culture, when surface was depth. She bears this risible codger-hippy act with even humor, as I rant on about how music attained mathematical perfection in the 20 or so days between the release of This Is Hardcore and Mezzanine.
But I realized as I spoke that, while the various Hornbyisms I was reciting were true enough, if only of possible interest to other people who had personal attachment to all this crap, I was avoiding saying the main reason I’d liked Trainspotting, which was that it made addiction seem cool. Not that you could construe Trainspotting’s narrative as unambiguously pro-drug. Danny Boyle and the writer John Hodge show you the nasty costs of heroin addiction in the film’s slow, formless second half, when all the manic energy built up in the opening “Lust for Life” montage gets lost in overdose, Aids, and withdrawal. But like Swofford’s marines, I didn’t read it that way.
Not that I ever did heroin. I was generally too anxious, too dorky, and too rule-abiding to manage the complex set of codes required to buy drugs on the street (when I was 22 and briefly living in London, I went out with friends round Camden Lock and successfully negotiated the exchanged of £20 for what turned out to be a very tightly wrapped piece of cardboard). Alcohol was my first and my last. But at 16, the part of me that liked the clarifying warmth of a beer before my first class of the day found justifying myths where it could. The death and depravity in Trainspotting, the aggressive disillusion in Hunter Thompson, and the paranoid gloom in Tricky’s first couple of records helped, actually. Alcoholics and drug addicts obviously tend towards the self-annihilating, and in the first blush of love with alcohol, death seemed kind of romantic, a metaphor for the loss of self-consciousness that I, like most teenagers, longed for.
Things went the way they do. The metaphor didn’t remain enough of a metaphor, and the romance flaked away. I saw the way things were headed a bunch of times, in flashes, before they got bad. One flash came during that other heroin movie, Requiem for a Dream. I saw it on holiday in Buenos Aires in 2001. I can’t remember what I said about it at the time, but as a movie I don’t much like it. It’s honking, obvious, and relies on stereotypes. It plays like a nightmare PSA, but without the humor that might make that interesting. And yet, as a PSA, it was devastatingly effective. I left the theater feeling that I’d been told, directly, that I was going to die if I continued living my life the way I had been. The film’s logic was dumb cliché and, like some of the dumb cliché things that I would have to recognize about myself later, when I was forced to do so, true. It took me several drinks to feel okay with the warmth of the night.