Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) [BFI #10]

I’m feeling good, I’m feeling oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time
[The Velvet Underground: I’m Waiting For The Man]

There are no reasons.  Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
[Mark Renton]

It’s been a week now that I’ve been trying to find a handle on Trainspotting.   It’s not all that hard to say what it is, although the answer is a complex one.  What’s more elusive is saying why it is.

We’re in Edinburgh, ancient royal capital of Scotland.  But this is not the tourist Edinburgh of shortbread, kilts and pipers on the castle ramparts; nor is it cultural, erudite Festival Edinburgh.  This is an altogether grittier place, the Edinburgh that lurks in unloved suburbs like Pilton and Craigmillar.  There’s a thread in British film that recurs over and again, where the festering sores behind the facade of popular icons and locations that make up the British myth.  We’ve seen it before already, in Brighton Rock.  Trainspotting, however, makes no concessions to the shiny side in the way that Brighton Rock lingers on the families enjoying the beach oblivious to the squalour behind the seafront.  There’s something else going on, because Trainspotting isn’t just, or even at all, a British film.  It’s an essentially Scottish film, a film that asserts a uniquely Scottish identity that denies and dissassociates itself from the tartan-packaged tourist version.  There is a healthy and distinctive school of Scottish film as we shall see in time.

In this Caledonian midden lives Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, dissatified child of oppressively Morningside parents and heroin addict.  In between raising the means to satisfy his habit by fair means or foul (it’s not clear if this involves living up to his nickname) Renton spends his days in the flat of his dealer along with his friends and fellow addicts; slow, amiable Spud, petty crook Sickboy and single mother Alison, whose baby is allowed to crawl at will around the filthy floor while the gang shoot up and check out of the everyday world.  Their oblivion, while it lasts, is as Alison orgasmically puts it “better than any meat injection”.   The cost of the fleeting moment of personal ecstasy and release is a frightening depth of personal degradation illustrated graphically with Renton plunging into his own diarrhoea in a squalid public lavatory to retrieve the fix which a sadistic supplier has given him in the form of a suppository.  Also around the edges of Renton’s circle are a pair on non-addicts, the explosively violent Begbie and the clean-cut athlete Tommy.  It’s when Renton steals Tommy’s home-made porn video as part of his attempt to go clean that such plot as there is kicks in, and things go horribly wrong for everybody, bearing in mind that they are in a pretty horrible place to begin with, except for Tommy, and he has a long way to fall .

Trainspotting is a deeply unpleasant film  That’s not to say it’s a bad film.  It isn’t; far from it.  It’s simply involved with deeply unpleasant issues.  It’s not hard to imagine being made as a documentary, one which would perhaps have received much acclaim in the colour supplements but would have struggled to reach an audience that needed to hear the message.  It isn’t that though.  Danny Boyle, who began his media career in television, makes effective use of television techniques especially those that developed from advertising and grew through the short music video.  The rapid-fire cutting, distortion and sudden shifts in place and time leave the senses reeling and while it’s not possible for one who has never used heroin to know completely what it’s like but the surreal world of the junkie comes to vivid life.  A deadly dance of destructively love, summed up by Doyle’s inspired use of the Habanẽra from Carmen: si je t’aime. prend garde à toi¹.  There’s even space in the darkness for a laugh or two (mainly at Begbie’s expense).  A documentary would have given food for thought, but as entertainment it hits the viewer right where it hurts.  Inevitably, on release it attracted accusations of glamourising drug abuse, but there’s nothing glamorous about these pathetic lives.

I haven’t said what kind of film Trainspotting is yet.  Well, I have said it’s a Scottish film.  It’s a horror film in a way, but it’s not the kind of horror film which takes the viewer on a fairground white-knuckle ride to set the endorphins flowing, it’s the horror that upsets and discombobulates, it’s what Brecht would have striven for and Barthes would have labelled jouissance.  It becomes  a heist film towards the end.  It’s a love story, with Renton’s under-age girlfriend being not only more mature than he is but the source of his ultimate redemption.  It’s a quest narrative, with Renton in search of release from his biochemical bondage.  Renton is at bottom a good-hearted soul and we can even find a spark of warmth in what is a very chilly film in hoping that he finally does escape for good.  Ultimately it’s a terrific and original piece of cinema which thoroughly deserves a place in the canon.

¹ If I love you, watch your step!

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Explore posts in the same categories: Antiheroes, British, Danny Boyle, Drugs, Scotland, Slice of Life

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