In Which We Choose Life
If Pulp Fiction was the bomb that blew up American cinema in the 90’s than Danny Boyle’s 1996 crime film Trainspotting is the reciprocating force from across the pond in Great Britain. In fact the two filmmakers had similar journeys to the big screen and cultural impact afterwards. Both Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting are sophomore efforts after smaller well regarded debuts, both were distributed by Miramax (Weinstein strikes again as he most in the history of Hollywood in the 90’s) and both are attuned to the world of criminal lowlifes, soundtracked with perfect needle drops and shot with electric verve.
Though their paths to success were similar, and their achievement and influence immense, Trainspotting is not Pulp Fiction, nor is Boyle anything like Tarantino. For the provocative resemblances Trainspotting is a much pricklier affair, a film whose hyper-kinetic style is used to embolden the bitter and damaged lives of its character. Pulp might have its shock of violence and torrent of bad words, but Trainspotting hits on something darker, grosser, and slightly fantastical.
Trainspotting follows a band of miscreant drug addicts, as they dilly about Edinburgh trying to make sense of their life. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is the quasi-head of his friend group, bumbling about as he tries and fails to kick his heroin habit. He’s joined by boisterous simpleton Spud (Ewen Bremmer), cool guy Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), non-addict live wire Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and schmuck Tommy (Kevin McKidd). As the film sprints through the ins and outs of the drug life the viewer is drawn into the luxury, but more importantly, the reprehensibility of the addiction.
For Trainspotting could be easily accused of indulging its characters. Using pyrotechnic style to entice the viewer into the low life world that these characters inhabit (presidential candidate Bob Dole did in fact do this). But such a view feels like a violent misreading of the film, or one that disconnects from what’s being presented after the first thirty or so minutes. Yes Boyle’s camera is an excited character on its own: roaming and spinning and flying through various environs, and yes some of the reflexive cool dialog matches what one would from an alluring honey trap. But these elements play like the high of heroin, spinning the viewer into euphoria before bringing down the disgusting and frightening day after.
This balance of high strung excitement and mordant aftermath is the tension that the movie thrives on. That each cinematic invention will be retaliated in a way both compelling and repulsive. Its also how Boyle avoids a movie about the joys of burning out in the face of the new millennium. The adage of the time was that nothing matters and its best to just throw it all away, and Trainspotting deliriously refutes the notion that the life of a layabout is one to reach for. Interested in, sure, but not a goal.
The famous monologue that bookends the field is an ironic joke in two ways. One is how it pillories the lives of the comfortably well off. The middle class and disaffected that are so often the targets of scorn in our humble series. But it’s also a joke at Mark’s expense. In the beginning its the high, the galloping drums of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life marching in the background. The world seems vivid at this moment, spontaneous, exciting, and free. But that’s just a veneer, for Renton has his routines, and he’s quickly plunged into them. Promising to give up heroin only to be back on the hook over and over again. He’s got a 9 to 5 job stealing and hustling to get his fix, and the goal is always the same: one more hit.
The bitter irony of the end, when he says he will “choose life” is that there’s no guarantee. Addiction is not a thing a bag of money will save you from, and the life ahead is as uncertain as the road behind.
Between these bookends Boyle bends and breaks the rules of reality to match the emotional ups and downs of the drug user. He effectively captures the remote despair of life being lost (both with the deaths of the baby in the flop house and Tommy), the and the frantic sweaty terror of going cold turkey (the sequence of Renton sweating it out in bed as his room contorts around him might be the film’s visual highlight). These moments not only ground, but repulse the viewer, needling them to wonder why someone would go through it all if this is the inevitable outcome.
And the answer is because these people have to, because of their addiction and social circumstance. Their world is small and disconcerting, and the only “mates” they can make is with one another. The fear and thrill and sadness is always with them, and they’re looking for an out that will probably never come. And this cycle, this grinding down, feels like an encapsulation and minor refutation of the themes of the time. That being stuck, down and out, may have minor glamours in the face of existential despair.It’s strong, and energetically, made point by Boyle, and is the reason he continues to be the standard bearer for British cinema in the intervening 24 years. Dropping out and fading way may have some exciting plunges, but your always going to bottom out in the end,
Odds and Ends
- Boyle’s influence has never really left the world of British cinema. See his smashing success (with the rather poor) Yesterday, and the continued workflow of fellow hyperstylist Guy Ritchie.
- I haven’t had the time to catch up with T2: Trainspotting, but from all reports its a pretty smart return to these characters.
- It’s no surprise the McGregor popped from his 90’s work with Boyle. He’s attractive, menacing, charismatic, and infinitely likable despite the grotesque circumstances he finds himself. And not for nothing he’s fucking hot as hell in this movie.
Next week, in the penultimate Millennial Malaise. What place is there in the new century for the already dated and bizarre Swordfish, find out.