Tony makes a choice.
Choose a fucking bestseller in annoying Scottish dialect.
Choose a soundtrack that stays with you when you’re happy and you’re sad.
Choose Jonny Lee Miller before he had the cheekbones, and Robert Carlyle before The Full Monty. Choose the philosophy of cool degradation for the sake of the Perfect Day rush.
Choose heightened reality and fantastical weird shite, The Worst Toilet in Scotland and a baby on the ceiling.
Choose it all and cook it up in a dirty spoon, then inject it straight into your eyeballs for a two-hour blissful hit.
Choose a film. Choose Trainspotting.
You’ve heard all the rhetoric about Trainspotting a hundred times before. Most important British film of its generation; launch vehicle for junkie-chic and a handful of careers; the rebirth of punk in the movie format; excoriatingly honest peek into the lives of heroin addicts; dark as death black comedy with a grown-up twist on a youth drug scene, etc etc etc.
The thing is, it’s pretty much all true, so saying something new about Trainspotting twenty years on is difficult. Ultimately, it’s the movie you get if you cross A Clockwork Orange with Reservoir Dogs and Clerks, make it cool and Scottish and too philosophically coherent to be entirely real, and add heroin.
You know you want to watch a movie like that, right from the start.
A Clockwork Orange? Yes, distinctly – being the story of one man and his journey through a very particular world, through his narcotic-fuelled play in it, the violence, the thefts, the gang of ‘droogs’ committed to a single purpose, making their own hours, rejecting the structures of the society in which they nominally live – ‘I chose not to choose life’ – and through near-death to a new life on the other side of the story. Also, let’s not forget the best use of classical music in a movie to depict a grim situation since A Clockwork Orange, in The Worst Toilet In Scotland scene. It’s worth mentioning the focus Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge give to the movie, keeping Renton as the narrator throughout (as with Alex in Clockwork Orange), because in Irvine Welsh’s novel, the narratorial duties shift relatively frequently between the main characters. The movie version also cuts some memorable scenes from the book, that would make Trainspotting a flabbier narrative of Renton’s journey. Renton and Alex also both live with their disapproving, increasingly despairing working class parents, conveying similar lessons of the triggers of social deprivation and a need to feel something spectacular for their different addictions.
And just in case you think we’re overplaying the debt Trainspotting owes A Clockwork Orange, compare and contrast the bar scenes for their design aesthetic.
There’s a real sense in which heroin in Trainspotting the movie is the ‘moloko’ of A Clockwork Orange – milk with knives in – spurring on the action to its inevitable conclusions.
Reservoir Dogs? Less so than A Clockwork Orange, but the distinctness of each of the characters on whom we focus – Renton, SickBoy, Spud, Begbie, Tommy, Diane - feels familiar from the early Tarantino movies. That though is notsomuch one movie mimicking the feel and qualities of another; that sharp, witty, stark delineation of character is simply what really good writing looked like in the 90s. It’s as original in Irvine Welsh’s novels as it is in Tarantino’s movies, and in both cases, it helped inform the future of popular entertainment. In pure geekery terms, it was a movement that would also include Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer the year after Trainspotting came out, and Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing just two years later to close out the decade. Sharp, almost fiercely delineated characterisation and dialogue was the distilled mood of the mid-to-late 90s, and it’s become what we expect of the best of stories now in any medium. You could argue it’s why the likes of House of Cards and Game of Thrones have become so successful today: they still service a need we learned in the mid-to-late 90s for those sharp characters, saying witty, almost accidentally profound things to one another. Trainspotting is absolutely drenched in that spirit. Right from the opening scene – Renton, running, to the backdrop of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, and reciting that semi-poetical list of things to choose, while clearly disdaining to choose any of them – Trainspotting anchors you in characters and makes you want to watch to the very end. And towards the end, the Reservoir Dogs feeling comes back to inform what you’re watching as our would-be, almost destined-to-be failures find a way of clawing some dignity, some money, some sense of control over their own destiny out of a world that wants to deny them even their right to exist.
Clerks? Yes, in terms of the crushing ordinariness of it all, the mundanity of the lives of our junkie-poets and their ability to assess that awful mundanity as their main reason for pursuing their dedicated heroin addictions. The fact that the cast was all young, all relatively new on the scene, gave the whole thing a visceral believability even in spite of a couple of stylistic factors that should really play against that believability – notably the use of fantastical sequences like The Worst Toilet In Scotland, the screamingly effective cold turkey scene with the baby crawling along the ceiling, and the Perfect Day high, filmed as though Renton’s already in a velvet-lined coffin while the world moves around him.
The ending of the film takes us back to A Clockwork Orange, both in terms of the book and the film – Renton, breaking free of the shackles of his hometown and its expectations, his friends and their relentless capacity to fuck things up both for themselves and for everyone attached to them. Trainspotting ends with Renton, seemingly clean in spite of a couple of post-cold turkey hits, walking towards camera, promising that he’s going to be just like us, the presumed-clean viewer. And there it is again, that list of all the real and mythical markers of success in the ‘ordinary’ world – job, career, family, fucking big television, washing machines, cars, compact disc players…
Renton promises us that, even after all we’ve seen: his sincere heroin addiction; The Worst Toilet In Scotland; the death of the baby; the death of Tommy; the big skag deal; Begbie going down; the double-crossing of his mates, he’s going to be the same as each and every one of us, staying clean and choosing life. It’s the movie’s final moment of dark humour, that this young man, almost born to lose and born to die, is going to make it to the straight side of society and be ‘one of us,’ but it’s also the film’s great thread of hope. Certainly, he’s had to play the odds to get it, shaft his friends, walk away from everything he’s known and face appalling consequences if he ever goes back, but even for someone like Renton, there is a path to ‘normality’ on the other side of heroin addiction, if you can manage not to die on the way.
Trainspotting, when it burst onto the screen, made the names of Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Danny Boyle, while doing no harm at all to the careers of Robert Carlyle, Shirley Henderson and Irvine Welsh himself. It broke the mould of conversations about drugs in the UK, replacing the blanket prudery of ‘Just Say No’ with a harsh, honest look at the lives of people who instead said yes, as an escape from the drudgery, the crushing boredom and the lack of hope that otherwise defined their lives. It’s still a must-watch movie twenty years on, and it will still be a must-watch movie thirty years from now. Its combination of pace, career-making performances, energetic directorial vision and technique and a philosophical, brutal, realistic and yet blackly comedic approach to storytelling put it up there in the halls of the all-time classics.
Choose Trainspotting. Choose it today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk