GREAT MOVIES ESSAY: Trainspotting (1996)


One of the best British Films of the 90s: Trainspotting

One of the best British Films of the 90s: Trainspotting

Multiply the best orgasm you’ve ever had by 1000 and you still wouldn’t get anywhere near the intense pleasure that you’d get from a shot of heroine…

…well, according to junk-addict, Renton, anyway.

The year is 1996, and the media has caused shock-controversy by claiming that Danny Boyle’s masterwork glamorises drugs. A bold statement considering the fact in Trainspotting the following happens:

A drug-addict’s relationship is ruined and eventually dies, another addict drops a literal ‘bomb shell’ in a one-night-stand’s bed, a 14 year-old girl has sex with an adult, a baby dies due to being neglected, several punch-ups occur, a girl is glassed in the face with a pint-glass, men are hit with pool cues, people experience frightening hallucinations, and even after the baby dies, the addicts have to cope with the pain by shooting up again because they’re so dependent on heroine.

The power of Trainspotting is its ability to blend the darkly comic with the darkly disturbing – unfortunately for Danny Boyle, newspapers such as The Daily Mail latched on to the humour aspect of the film and sensationalised it in such a way as if to suggest that the film made heroine a laughing matter. Yet, the humour is there for a reason – not just to provide the light and dark shades of the film, but to give the piece a subtle satirical impact. The opening speech for example, Renton talks about all of the mundane aspects of life in an acidically funny list: “Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television…” – and at the end of the speech he juxtaposes all of this with: “Why would I want to do a thing like that. I chose not to choose life, but chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroine?” Here is the crux of the film: choose life or choose heroine? Which one can you get the most amount of pleasure from? And which one gives you more harm? The film refuses to answer, and merely presents the viewer with the situation. The beginning section of the movie uses fast paced camera movements and slick and inventive editing (“the worst toilet in Scotland” is dubbed over the toilet door) to match the indescribable, hyper-orgasmic feeling of being high on heroine. We are essentially posed the question of whether we would choose heroine, and the “choose life” monologue is directly asked to us, the viewer.

The worst toilet in Scotland...

The worst toilet in Scotland...

Another interesting aspect of Trainspotting is its love for pop-culture – and humorously blending pop-culture-induced dialogue in scenes where characters are injecting themselves with the hyper-orgasm-inducing drug known as heroine – Sick Boy discusses which Bond girl he prefers:

“Ursula Andress, the quintessential Bond girl. That’s what everyone says. The embodiment of his superiority over us. Beautiful, exotic, highly sexual and totally unavaiable to anyone apart from him. Shite. Let’s face it. She can shag one punter from Edinburgh, she’d shag the whole lot of us.”

Here we see some of the beautifully sharp dialogue in Trainspotting. Some would call it ‘Tarantino-esque’ as it isn’t related to the plot in any way, it is oozing with pop-culture, and is there for entertainment purposes rather than one of narrative purposes. This is what I like about Trainspotting. It never comes across as forcing its subject matter in our faces due to the fact that it can spend time referencing Bond films to develop characters, create realism, and to obviously entertain. This is played throughout the film, especially with Sick boy, most notably the section where Sick boy and Renton are out in the park, and Sick boy shoots a dog (which then proceeds to attack the owner quite viciously). As utterly irrelevant as some sections might be, this is part of the charm, of the film. Most films are very much narrative-driven based, and therefore come across as unrealistic, contrived or just plain cliche. Trainspotting will momentarily pause from the drugs and the violence to make a James Bond reference or an innuendo, if anything, that’s not just funny, but utterly refreshing.

The park scene in Trainspotting

The park scene in Trainspotting

As the film progresses, the humour is still there, but slowly deteriorates, to match the feelings of Renton. The most disturbing section of the film is when Renton is locked in his room. He has intensely surreal hallucinations: his room becomes narrower and keeps on stretching out He hides under the duvet, but doing so, the duvet turns into an endless cave, and to add to the disorientation and sheer confusion, he sees the baby that died near the beginning of the film climbing on the ceiling towards him. Disorientating music, slick visuals (and Dale Winton’s voice) are used in an oddly inventive manner to disturb us as an audience.

Trainspotting makes you terrified of babies...

Trainspotting makes you terrified of babies...

The great thing about Trainspotting is the sheer sense of speed it has, its narrative drives forward at a rapid pace – the opening sequence is a great example of this, as is the section where each individual character goes out looking for a one-night-stand: we intercut from one couple to the next, and so on – all of the dialogue links up in a slickly stylish manner. For example, Spud is talking about how his balls ‘feel like watermelons’, and we intercut between that and a bathroom scene with his girlfriend where she discusses how hilarious it is to her to starve her husband of sex. To add to this, when the girls and the boys meet up and they tell each other what they’ve been talking about they lie with stereotypical answers (“football!” and “shopping”) – here we see how the film is subtly mocking societies obsession with male/female roles and stereotypes in and out of relationships.

Overall, Trainspotting presents heroine as it is. It’s not for or against it, as Trainspotting – in my opinion – is about choosing life or not choosing life…


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