The other night some friends and I went to a midnight screening of Trainspotting at Nitehawk cinema in Brooklyn. I first saw the movie as a freshman at UCLA, back in 1996. I had read the book over the summer while attending a program for young artists at Cal Arts called California Summer School for the Arts, so I was disappointed when I realized the scene with the pregnant woman was cut and events were changed. I was especially queasy when I watched two of the famous scenes in the movie: when Ewan McGregor’s character Renton climbs in to the toilet to fish out his suppositories, and when the dead baby climbs across the ceiling.
What I didn’t understand back then is how movies differ from books. Danny Boyle adapted the book into something more cinematic while remaining very loyal to the spirit of the book; in truth, he couldn’t have done it better than the author, Irvine Welsh, himself. I was like a Twilight fan who criticized the film because—I don’t know—Edward Cullen’s bangs weren’t cut the right way.
When, in fact, translating a narrative into a new medium generally means using the most interesting aspects of that new medium. To have a completely loyal adaptation without doing anything new would be bizarre. Boyle—young Danny Boyle—added a layer of humor and editorial pizzazz that redefined a genre 20 years ago, when he made drug use subjective. How he depicted heroin use in the film was, in many ways, unprecedented.
Weed had been used as an anchor for humor in the past: the campfire scene with Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Cheech and Chong, the Spicoli scenes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It wasn’t until Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (which is next on the late-night slate over at Nitehawk, if you’re in the Brooklyn area) that heroin use was depicted with comic undertones. Matt Dillon’s character is so hilarious yet so confident with his dope wisdom and superstitions: “Diane was my wife. I loved her, and she loved dope. So we made a good couple,” or “Hats. OK? Hats. If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like you'll never see me again. I'm gone.”
Drugstore Cowboy made it so movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Pulp Fiction, and Requiem for a Dream could depict heavy drug use without having to explicitly punish the characters for their indiscretions. If the characters did fall into some ill fate of poverty or death, it wouldn’t necessarily be because of the moralistic narrative that “drugs are bad.” Drug use is mainstream; it’s familiar and comfortable. Denis Johnson's book Jesus’ Son survives solely on its brilliant writing rather than its unflinching depiction of the muzzy drug life of its protagonist, Fuckhead. We’ve seen stoners become heroes in Pineapple Express; and even though the implied moral of the film is that weed is bad and leads to trouble, the characters are so lovable that they were a billboard for a weed-filled lifestyle.
Sexual content and sexual addiction are the latest to undergo this transformation in movies, and Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac _is proof that the subject is becoming less taboo in mainstream commercial venues. Steve McQueen’s _Shame opened the subject to new depths. The title of the film shows McQueen’s efforts to be earnest and somewhat moralistic, which is sometimes necessary to forge new ground on explicit subjects. It’s like a disclaimer at the beginning of an old gangster movie saying, "Hey, we don’t condone this violence," so they could actually relish the violence. The film at least made the open discussion of sexual excesses more acceptable—even if the conversation revolved around Fassbender’s dick flopping against his thighs as he walked past the camera in a completely unnecessary shot. (I should say a shot unnecessary to the plot, but one that explicitly points to sex and sex addiction.) The famous dick shot warned the audience: Hey, listen, this movie is going to get down; get ready for raw material. I would argue that it’s the equivalent of a close-up of a needle entering a vein in the pre-Godfather Al Pacino venture, Panic in Needle Park: T_his shit is real, and we’re going there._ The dick shot also left the audience wondering, Will we see Fassbender naked? It was a good move, but in the end, the size of Fassbender turned it into something completely useless, the equivalent of a nude selfie showing of the Dirk Diggler–size member.
It’s for all these reasons that I could laugh at Nymphomaniac, because the genre shifted from moral depictions to freedom to satire. The fact that it could be funny while engaging such a subject shows that we are stepping into a new age of sex in film. I also just wanted to say how funny it was.