Friday, July 12, 2013
Favorite Films #10: Trainspotting
A Lust for the Dangerous Life in the Shithole of the World that is Scotland
“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life...
But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?”
These opening lines in the monologue of the film’s protagonist Mark Renton set against the music of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life where he and his friend Spud are running from the cops after a botched theft which then cuts to the many exploits of Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy all getting high on heroin with a few junkies and their supplier Swanney. It’s also shown in a montage in a small scene where Renton’s father berates his son for wasting his life away with that shit as the end of that opening sequence has Renton telling Swanney he’s off the junk in an attempt to get clean. Yet, why does he say those words in that monologue about not choosing life? Is it to defy the expectations of society or just give in the idea that there is no future in a place like Edinburgh, Scotland?
It’s among the many aspects into why Danny Boyle’s 1996 sophomore film Trainspotting is often cited as one of the best films from Great Britain. It’s a film that refuses to define itself into any genre as it’s a black-comedy with a bit of fantasy, horror, drama, and all sorts of things. Instead, it’s just a film about a group of guys living in Edinburgh where most of them are heroin addicts trying to cause trouble while one of their friends is a sociopath who isn’t addicted to drugs but rather addicted to violence. All of it is told from the perspective of Renton who is played by Ewan McGregor who lost 26 pounds and shaved his head for the part as he had previously appeared in Boyle’s debut film Shallow Grave two years earlier.
It was a film that came out in a very crucial period in Britain just as the age of British conservative rule was on its way out and would pave the way for the era of Tony Blair. It was also the same time that the world of British music was taking over through bands like Oasis, Blur, Supergrass, Pulp, and several others as there was this sense of nationalism that was emerging. Though the film represented a world that was disconnected from that new sense of excitement and still mired in a world where there hasn’t been much progress and are living off the scraps in the world of post-Thatcher conservatism. One notable scene that seems to represent that is where Kevin McKidd’s Tommy character is dragging Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy to the Scottish mountains after a bad moment with his girlfriend. Tommy tries to get everyone in a good mood by showing them the beauty of the landscape and asks, “isn’t it great to be Scottish?”
It is in that moment where Renton has this great monologue about the fallacies of being Scottish by saying, “It's SHITE being Scottish! We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONIZED by wankers. Can't even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We're ruled by effete arseholes. It's a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and ALL the fresh air in the world won't make any fucking difference!”
It plays to that sense of hopelessness into why Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy go into heroin addiction and Tommy would eventually join them after his relationship with Lizzie falls apart due to the fact that Renton stole a sex tape featuring Tommy and Lizzie and switched it with a football video which Tommy never knew about. While some of the elements of the film early on are comical in a dark way, it does play into the fact that Renton is wasting his life away as he and his mates are high on heroin. Yet, that opening sequence ends with Renton telling Swanney that he’s going to make an attempt to be clean which then leads to a sequence through his narration of how he attempts to be clean in all sorts of ways. Of course, it leads to moments where Renton’s attempt to be clean doesn’t go well as he calls a guy named Mikey Forrester for one more hit only to be given suppositories.
It then would follow into one of the most disgusting moments in the film to show how desperate Renton is eager to get clean where he finds himself in the worst toilet in all of Scotland. Covered in shit and is unable to flush, Renton has no choice to use it as he is no longer constipated and then has to go through the toilet to retrieve the suppositories as it then plays into a very strange scene of him swimming underwater with background music from Brian Eno.
The man who played Mikey Forrester is Irvine Welsh who wrote the novel for Trainspotting which was published in 1993. The book was set in the late 1980s where Forrester explored the world of heroin addiction in the era of Margaret Thatcher as young men do destructive things to feed their addictions as it had a narrative that wasn’t very straightforward though it was mostly told from Renton’s perspective while it was also told through other characters. The book was discovered by producer Andrew MacDonald who showed the story to Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in early 1994 during post-production for Boyle’s first film Shallow Grave. Eventually, the trio would approach Welsh to do a film adaptation of his novel as the film would be very different from Welsh’s book as Welsh would also get a chance to play a small role for the film.
By making the film be about Renton and his struggles with heroin, screenwriter John Hodge would create a story that had similarities to some of the great films of the past like Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. Particularly as Renton’s voice-over narration was filled with great detail into Renton’s struggles with heroin addiction as well as what goes in the mind of a heroin addict where they breaking the law is just a small thing. Particularly in a montage where Renton and his gang do whatever to get money to feed their addiction whether it’s trading medications with old people and other patients suffering from various diseases or to steal which includes a scene where Begbie assaults an American tourist for a festival in Edinburgh.
While the story was about Renton, Boyle and Hodge chose to make the story be more than just one man’s struggle as the film took the time to focus on Renton’s other mates in Sick Boy, Spud, Tommy, and Begbie. Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal as the very sly yet distrusting Sick Boy is full of charm where Miller exudes a man’s determination to make Renton feel like shit in their attempts to be clean just to show how degrading it is. One aspect of Miller’s role as Sick Boy that is fun is the way he spouts out theories on everything from Sean Connery to those who had it and lost it for good where he cites people like David Bowie and Lou Reed as examples.
Ewen Bremner’s performance as Spud is definitely just as interesting where even though he’s sort of a criminal that likes to steal. There’s an element of innocence in his character as a man that wants to do well in life as he blows a job interview as he’s on speed while there’s a very disgusting moment where he wakes up in his girlfriend’s bed all hungover and realized that he shit all over the bed. Bremner’s performance is definitely full of humor as a well-meaning individual but there’s also a sadness considering what happens to him in the opening moments of the film where it’s replayed again to showcase that he is sent to prison for a while adding to Renton’s guilt much later on in the film’s second act.
Kevin McKidd’s role as Tommy is another individual who would also play into the guilt that Renton would face in the film’s second act and later in the third as his character suffers a tragic fate. McKidd’s performance as Tommy is someone that has a unique development as a man that loves the music of Iggy Pop, works out a lot, and has a steady girlfriend. All of that changes when he loses a sex tape as his girlfriend dumps him as he goes to Renton to give him heroin to drown his sorrows. When Renton later visits him as Tommy is all alone and has succumbed to his addiction as he is also stricken with AIDS. It’s a moment that is sobering to see where Renton has cleaned up his act but is carrying the weight of guilt for his action as he starts to see his friend descend further where he would eventually die but not from AIDS nor heroin addiction but in a way that is strange but also disturbing.
Of the supporting characters that appear in the film, it’s Robert Carlyle’s Begbie that makes the biggest impression of the film. Begbie is a complete psychopath who doesn’t do drugs at all as his addiction is simply hurting people. A man who will pretty much hurt anyone if someone crosses him or annoys him in some little way. There’s an intensity in Carlyle’s performance as someone who is full of swagger and is definitely a guy where if he was in a battle royal. He’d be one of the last 10 men in that battle royal where he fights for survival as he brings fear to people including his own mates.
These people in Renton’s life would play into his decision in an attempt to try and kick his drug habit but various circumstances into the hopelessness that encounters Renton and his mates would eventually come with some dark moments. Notably the moment where one of their fellow addicts has found her baby dead as the one that was most affected by it was Sick Boy. After a botched theft that led to Renton and Spud’s arrest as the latter is sent to jail while the former goes to rehab. Renton is already consumed by guilt for his actions as he returns to Swanney, played with such charisma and care by Peter Mullan, for a fix that nearly becomes fatal as it’s accompanied by Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.
It’s a moment in the film where Danny Boyle creates this very mesmerizing moment where Renton’s near-death experience is presented from Renton’s point of view as if he’s nearly close to death. With the help of renowned cinematographer Brian Tufano and editor Masahiro Hirabuko, the scene has this feeling of death where it plays into that unique visual style that Boyle creates. Yet, he would top that scene with one of the scariest sequences involving Renton’s attempt to withdraw from heroin as all of his guilt comes to ahead in this disturbing dream sequence. With the music of Underworld throbbing in the background, Renton sees those like Tommy and Spud being put into their own fates while Begbie appears to warn him about using again while Sick Boy is sipping tea. Renton’s parents appear in a TV show yet it is the image of the dead baby crawling from the ceiling that is the most shocking moment.
In the lowest of lows where Renton has realized the damage he’s done with his addiction as well as the guilt he’s carrying over his actions. There would be one person that would steer him away into a new world in the form of an underage schoolgirl named Diane whom Renton met at a nightclub and later had sex with her only to realize the next morning that she’s underage. Played by Kelly McDonald in her film debut, Diane represents the sense of youth and newness that Renton needed. Though she’s only in a few scenes, she would be the one person in the film that finally told Renton that it’s time for a change as there’s a life outside of Scotland that is very different.
Taking Diane’s advice, the film’s third act is about Renton going to London where he reinvents himself as a man selling flats to people all over London. The tone of the film sort of changes but it is to emphasize this world where London is filled with a sense of excitement that is completely alien to the dreariness of Edinburgh. With a new home and a sense of purpose, Renton starts to enjoy this new life as well as the electronic music that is there as he feels like he’s part of something that is exciting. The only person he contacts from Scotland is Diane as she is happy about his new life as she also tells him about some of the changes that is happening at home where Spud has been released while Sick Boy has reinvented himself as a pimp and a drug pusher. Yet, the most startling news involves Begbie who had stolen jewels at a diamond store and is now a fugitive where Renton realizes that his past is coming back in all of the wrong ways.
Begbie’s arrival to London would trouble Renton as he is forced to get things for his mate like cigarettes and make bets for him as Sick Boy would also arrive to London taking advantage of Renton’s new life. It’s a moment in the film that is played for laughs but also to showcase that these two men in Renton’s life are trying to drag him down back to the pit of despair. Renton makes the decision to sell them an apartment just so he can have his home back but it’s only brief as he and his mates have to return to Scotland for Tommy’s funeral. Once again, that sense of dreariness occurs where Renton has already accepted his responsibility for what he’s done to Tommy yet Tommy’s death ended up being far more complicated and troubling as it involved toxoplasmosis from kitten shit. It is added with this brief moment of humor when the man telling Renton of Tommy’s death by telling “oh, the kitten is OK” as it plays to that warped sense of humor in the film.
Renton’s return to Scotland was only to attend Tommy’s funeral but Begbie and Sick Boy rope Renton back into the dark world of crime involving heroin that the two plan to sell in London but they need the money to buy it from Russian sailors. Renton wants no involvement but Begbie knows about Renton’s bank statement as Spud wants to be part of it only for the money as Renton reluctantly has to take heroin again to test its purity. It’s a moment in the film where that sense of darkness returns as the four travel back to London to make the biggest deal of their lives where they did succeed in getting 16,000 pounds for the sale of pure heroin.
Yet, greed would eventually come to play as it becomes a worse drug than anything else these characters have consumed as Renton knows that he can’t trust Begbie nor Sick Boy with the money as the former would kill all for that money while the latter would steal it for himself. The moment where Renton realizes that he can’t trust neither of them at all is at a pub where the four are celebrating where Begbie gets into a fight with a patron and accidentally cuts Spud’s hand as he demands Renton to give him the money. It’s a very chilling moment that is told in a great visual manner where the light blurs Begbie’s face a bit as he smokes a cigarette.
It would play into this ending where all four men are sleeping in a hotel room where they did the transaction as Renton steals the money as all of them but Spud are awake. Of course, Begbie’s reaction is unsurprising as he destroys the hotel room and is arrested while Spud and Sick Boy walk away and evade the police. For Renton, it’s a moment where he leaves behind the old life that he has. Though he says that he’s going to be like everyone else, is what he’s saying is true? Or is he going to be part of the new world in his own terms? At least someone in Renton’s old life will get something from Renton’s theft as Spud finds 2,000 pounds in Renton’s locker.
The film would make its premiere at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where not only would it steal the show despite not playing in competition for the Palme d’Or. Yet, it’s approach to promoting the film with its stylish posters was definitely off-the-wall considering the dark subject matter that it carried while its after party still remains legendary as far as many Cannes after parties are concerned. The film’s appearance at the festival wasn’t just a big deal for Danny Boyle and his collaborators but also for PolyGram Films as the film would give them another big international hit as the year sort of represented a peak for the company.
Though Danny Boyle would go on to make a wide range of films from the zombie-horror film 28 Days Later, the family drama Millions, the sci-fi film Sunshine, his 2008 Oscar-award winning film Slumdog Millionaire, the drama 127 Hours, and his most recent film in 2013’s noir-inspired film Trance. Trainspotting remains his crowning achievement where Total Film magazine named the film the fourth best film from Britain in 2004 as it would continue to pop up lists in best British films ever.
Helping the film cement its legacy is it’s music soundtrack that ranged from the 70s rock of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed to the Brit-Pop music of the times from acts like Pulp, Elastica, Blur, and Sleeper. It’s a soundtrack that captures the energy and the dark vibe of the film as it featured the art rock of Primal Scream, the ambient music of Brian Eno and Leftfield, and the pulsating electronic music of Bedrock and Underworld. It was the soundtrack that didn’t capture all of the complexities of the film but it resonated with what was happening in British music as it was OK to like indie and electronic music where it became common to see Ewan McGregor hanging out with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher where McGregor would sing an Oasis B-side in Boyle’s next film in the underrated romantic comedy A Life Less Ordinary.
It’s been more than fifteen years since the release of Trainspotting yet it’s a film that still holds up in terms of shock value, it’s off-kilter humor, drama, and energy. Part of the reason it appeals to an audience isn’t just because of its dark subject matter. It’s a film about friends rebelling against the status quo. It’s about having a good time no matter how dangerous it is. It’s about listening to Iggy Pop and playing football (not American football). It’s about life no matter how fucked up or how horrific it can be. While there’s rumors that Boyle could be making a sequel with the cast of the original which will be loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s sequel Porno. It’s obvious that it will never match the brilliance of Trainspotting but maybe Danny Boyle can do something with it. After all, choose Trainspotting. It’s a drug that is still worth taking and always manages to hold up.
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© thevoid99 2013