Trainspotting (1996)

My Favorite Film; Trainspotting – Whenever I ask someone if they have seen this film I’m always genuinely surprised when the answer is no. I figured this movie starring Ewan McGregor was a staple for all of those coming to age. However, I stand corrected. There are so many folks who are yet to indulge in the cinematic glory which is Trainspotting that it nearly makes me nauseous. My hope is to explain why this film is a must-see for everyone and not just an anarchistic tale which glorifies hard drug use among a gang of junkies in 1980s Scotland.

… I will abstain from calling this my favorite film of all time but still …

Heroin, Punks and Iggy Pop

Developed from the 1993 novel of the same namesake by Irvine Welsh (If you are unfamiliar with Welsh’s work be sure to check out his amazing other works of art like Porno, Skag Boys and Acid House), Trainspotting follows around several junkies as they try to survive in Edinburgh. The movie starts, quite literally, like a shot to the arm. A maniacal looking Ewan McGregor flees the Police with co-star Ewen Bremner as Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life pumps jarringly loud from the mix. The high-level cinematography is apparent from this very first sequence. The angles and colors used match the insanity of this situation for the two young men. It is some of the best montage work you will ever see – And this is just the first 5 minutes!

My First Viewing

I’m not terribly sure how old I was when I first saw this film but either way I was way too young. I was old enough to understand what heroin addiction was but had no perspective on it. To me, it was just a bunch of wacky Scottish drunks running around doing crazy shit. I was most drawn in by ‘the brogue’.

Much like A Clockwork Orange (both the book and the movie), Trainspotting is purposefully written in a manner which makes no sense upon first watch/read. Whereas as Alex in Clockwork speaks like a Cockney brat stuck in the 1800s, Renton (McGregor) and his Trainspotting crew speak normally but their accents are so god damn thick it might as well not be English. The first time I saw this film I can confidently say I did not understand a maximum of more than 10 words Begbie (played masterfully by Robert Carlyle) said throughout. This lack of understanding dissipates quickly upon re-watching, but this relies on the viewers desire to do so. With that said, there’s little likelihood you will fail in re-watching this film if you are unfamiliar with it. I don’t believe I have ever seen a film which is more ‘re-watchable’ than Trainspotting.

My Obsession

After seeing this film for the first time and only understanding maybe half the dialogue I knew I was hooked.

This was going to be something that I watched over and over and over again. One reason I knew this is because I had no fucking clue what they were saying for half the run-time. Aside from that though, this film was obviously a keeper. It would take several viewings to absorb all of the content, dialogue and meaning of it all. This is not just a story about drugs. Drugs may ensnare the plot, but this film also infuses so much more then that cliched idea of an after-school special type of a movie. It deals with relationships, pop culture, politics, music, Sean Connery, sports, life in Scotland and so so much more.

To this day a Trainspotting poster of Rents’ ‘choose life’ speech sits on a wall in my living room. I remember buying it as a dumb College freshman at some lame campus poster sale. It was the only art, or decorations of any sort I had in my dorm. Who needs more when you’ve got Trainspotting, eh?

The Aesthetics

This being Danny Boyle’s second feature, after Shallow Grave (which starred several of the Trainspotting crew), the artistic Director’s use of color is masterful. The moment which stands out to me most in my favorite film is towards the beginning. Renton decides he’s going to kick junk. After barricading himself in his room he quickly escapes for one last score. His backup dealer screws him over. He is left with only suppositories. Begrudgingly taking them directly in front of his dealer (who is actually played by Irvine Welsh in a cameo capacity), Renton storms off. As he heads towards home he laments what the future holds for him, saying, “Heroin makes you constipated. I am no longer constipated.” He immediately doubles over in gastrointestinal distress.

The shot is what makes this tiny portion of the scene so memorable. It’s a medium shot with all the houses of Edinburgh colorfully arranged behind the pained pro(an?)tagonist. The contrast of the colorful drapes versus the bland ones represents so many things – The excitement of Renton’s prospective sobriety versus the bland future he knows it will default him towards. The emergency he is about to face as he walks versus the moderate feeling of decency he experienced beforehand. I could go on but will let you draw your own conclusions.


Aesthetics Continued

Only this film can move from a relatively pretty afternoon stroll in Scotland to one of the most viscerally repulsive scenes I’ve seen in the last twenty years. As Renton hunts for a bathroom he stumbles upon the ‘Worst Toilet in All of Scotland’. What happens next makes you want to turn away in disgust. Renton realizes as he poops that his suppositories are yet to melt. Without hesitation he wades into the s**t water to regain his precious opiates. The film quickly moves from disgusting to surreal when all of a sudden Renton descends all the way into the toilet, body and all. As he clutches to his suppositories he is saved, if only for a brief moment, in clear, crystal blue waters.

Wow. It’s a powerful moment. And it is shot in a way that became Boyle’s staple.

Cinematography at it’s Finest

Also, let’s not discount the beautiful craftsmanship behind one of the film’s more disturbing and unsettling scenes.

On lockdown at his parents’ flat in an attempt to stop heroin cold turkey, Renton begins to hallucinate. All sorts of classic mise èn scene sets a dour theme in regards to cinematography (overseen with the mastery of Brian Tufano). 

Influences and Admired filmmakers get a direct shout-out from Boyle.

Meanwhile, he still manages to create a wholly original idea simultaneously. Skewed angles and subtle use of a fisheye lens, in my mind’s eye, correlate directly to the canon of everyone’s favorite weirdo of an Auteur, Stanley Kubrick.

I know, I know. You’re saying, “Chuck, if I hear anyone else mention the ‘canon’ of Kubrick’s work one more time, I’m going to lose my mind.” However, in this example it’s so blatant it warrants mentioning. 

Renton’s heroin overdose is a monumental feat in all perspectives of fine art. It has stood the test of time and been parodied more times than I can even count. Not only is it beautifully shot, it makes Lou Reed’s Perfect Day take on an entirely different meaning from then on. Every time you listen to it, you will now see the perspective of the half conscious Renton dragged about from the shooting den, to a cabbie who rips him off, and eventually on a gurney in the hospital. Actually, writing this right now is making me envision the scene and I’m opening my Spotify right now …

“Underground Influences”

To dive a bit deeper towards the “underground” influences noticed; The vivid color schema used in Trainspotting is reminiscent of 70’s/80’s European classics as well. For example, Andrei Tarkovsky’s psychological classic, Stalker (1979), may be a trippy, ethereal visit to a place which may or may not be real. The beautiful cinematography is not only about imagery but thematic and the plot hinges on it. The image in Trainspotting, where a baby climbs across the ceiling, only to pull off a Poltergeist (1982), like effect where it’s head turns a complete 180 degrees. 

The Here and Now

It has been fun to grow up along with these actors’ careers. McGregor obviously took the route towards super-stardom. Both Jonny Lee Miller (who played the impeccably ridiculous Sick Boy) and Robert Carlyle have featured roles on syndicated network television shows. Kelly MacDonald is everywhere. I still chuckle when I see them in different roles, as I cannot help but imagine them in their Trainspotting garb. This is especially true of Carlyle who, humorously enough, plays the role of Rumplestiltskin on Once Upon a Time. Total mind-fuck. I can’t help but picture him holding a broken bottle or knife of some kind to Cinderella’s throat.

Speaking of the here and now – Trainspotting 2 certainly did not disappoint. Rife with inappropriateness, drug use and memorable banter, it held true to it’s predecessor’s themes and aesthetics. Waiting twenty years to film your sequel somehow magically panned out for Boyle. It’s also one hell of a ballsy move for a film so popular in the 90s within the U.K. To come back to such a masterpiece and try to glob more story on seems trite and possibly a mere attempt to cash-in. Not the case here. Boyle wasn’t seeking cash by taking A-list actors and making a film which was a sequel to a mainly ignorant American crowd. This is dedication. He knew in 1996 what he wanted to do, waited and delivered. That’s all. No ulterior motives. Just forward thinking.  

It’s difficult to write this article about my favorite film because what is there to say about this movie that won’t sound cliche? However, I find it important enough of a work to discuss here. What’s your favorite film? Please feel free to comment below and as always keep rockin’ and rollin’!