-by Roy Anker
To Drug or Not to Drug
Does Trainspotting invest heroin addiction with a hip seductiveness, or is it simply uncommonly honest about both the pleasures and the price of drugs?
Three Edinburgh boys, midtwenties working-class, like heroin a lot. They each have a habit, on-again, off-again. A few years of their story is recalled by the liveliest, Renton (Ewan McGregor), whose voiceover riffs convey his strangely winsome view of potent drugs in his unlovely life. The world according to Renton, which is the substance of Trainspotting, features his take on drugs, bourgeois life, and meaning in general, and it is Renton's voice that gives this episodic movie a kind of animating juice and coherence.
By any measure, Trainspotting is a bold flick: first, for its style, which has an in-your-face panache, and, second, for the view of addiction that the style serves up, a matter that gets murky fast and stays that way. For both reasons, but mostly for the ambiguities of "message," the film has gotten huge press, audiences, and fuss on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, a movie that makes junkiehood look defensible or hip is a rare departure, for we have had anti-addiction pics aplenty. And in the present climate of American politics, the question of how to read the film quickly becomes yet another spat in the culture feud.
Exactly where Trainspotting comes out on drug use is the big question, and it is not easy to answer because the film is at odds with itself. In midstream, it abruptly changes tone and direction while still sustaining its ambiguities to the last shot. The story starts with a plain giddy, almost wild infatuation with drugs. Cinematically that is pulled off by director Danny Boyle's kinetic camera and breakneck editing--a melange with kick, something of an urban Scot rap video.
The word critics repeatedly use to describe Trainspotting is "energy." Fren-zied or manic might be more like it: there are long stretches when the average shot lasts somewhere between one and three seconds. The viewer is whirled and pulled along, trying to figure out who's who, what's happening, and, in perhaps the biggest challenge, what's being said amid the thick, and often very scabrous, urban Scots dialect. Happily, the speeches of the thug Begbie (Robert Carlyle) never do come very clear.
Throughout, the view and voice belong to Renton, the poet-talker among his "mates," and gab he does on just about everything, with vitality, intelligence, hipness, and candor about himself and his world, as cracked and bleak as both may be. The opening voiceover aria (spoken while Renton the shoplifter runs from security guards) mocks the notion that one must "choose life." Instead, with abundant existential cheek, "I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reason? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin," which he takes not because he's stupid, but for its sheer intense pleasure: "Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you're nowhere near it." Moreover, says Renton, "a sincere and truthful junk habit" constitutes the simple life, a pure and single-minded alternative to the cloying worries of middle-class existence. All that counts is doping and resupply to dope again; all else is bother and dross.
It is not that Renton and his crowd embrace the usual apologetic for drug use. They do not deem themselves economically oppressed; to victimhood, they make no pretense. What pushes them to drugs is what these days passes for "life"--a pervasive ether of petty materialism, an evasive banality that our tawdry commercialism celebrates as the fullness of being. Renton cannot abide a life on the "couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing f-- - junk food in your mouth" only to rot "away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f-- - brats you have spawned to replace yourself."
Romance and marriage offer no more than rutting and bother. Nor is friendship all that it's cracked up to be. One of the group, Spud (Ewen Bremner), is a standard putz, aping coolness in laughable ways; another crony, a dapper fellow called Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), knows only, and obsessively, James Bond movies; and Begbie, a violence-tripping alcoholic, "does" people instead of drugs. For Renton, the "awful" part of being clean is having "to mix with my friends again in a state of full consciousness," for they remind him "so much of myself I could hardly bear to look at them." And family, well, while Renton's parents seem nice working-class folks, Mom is a clandestine pill-popper. And so it goes.
When all the boys get clean, more or less, they find themselves aimless and mightily "bored." Renton and Sick Boy amuse themselves with adolescent pranks. Or with women, and these encounters play as grotesquely comic mishaps. Or with excursions, such as a hike on the starkly empty Scottish mountainsides, which seem an apt symbol for the culture as a whole. So bland is this world that the boys make "a healthy, informed, democratic decision to get back on drugs as soon as possible." After all, heroin has got "great personality," says Sick Boy, just like the perfect James Bond heroine.
All this gets spelled out in the first half of the film, and it plays mostly as jaunty high-jinks comedy. Whenever Trainspotting approaches some realism about drugs, it promptly seems to undercut itself. In the film's most outrageous sequence, Renton has decided to kick skag by going cold turkey, except for one last opium slam to ease him down. All he can locate are a couple of suppositories, which he duly inserts. Before those take hold, the effects of his last heroin dose wear off, and that poses a problem. Heroin constipates, and on his walk home, Renton doubles over with bowel spasms, and without a toilet in sight. He ends up in a facility captioned "the worst toilet in Scotland," and the place really is a retching offense--ooze and offal swamp the floor and mold-green walls. Renton squats on the filthy rim, promptly evacuating only to remember too late the location of his last fix. Desperate, he kneels over the rim, gagging, thrusting his arm through the stool to find his lost treasure. Now that sequence is, to say the least, rather off-putting, and is oft cited as the evidence of the film's earnest opposition to drugs. See: this is what can happen to you, downright put you right in the toilet, swishing through excrement to find a fix. The scene is a jolt and a good one at that.
However, what follows subverts this feint toward realism. Unable to find his stash, Renton lowers his face to peer into the bowl, only to be followed by his torso and legs as he dives through into an ecstatic world of sewer where he finds his brightly shining pearls (of great price?). Perhaps here is mordant satire or prophetic metaphor, something about the ignominy or glory of addiction, but to audiences the toilet dive plays funny--first the wince and then the laugh. And in either case, what this means for the gist of the film remains wholly unclear. One sequence after another ends with the comic snipe that dilutes its power.
The second half of Trainspotting shifts in substance and style. Something of a plot emerges, the pace slackens, and Renton wises up (and so maybe do audiences). Compared to the first part, the second seems almost meditative. Scenes last long enough for audiences to absorb their thematic and emotional clout, and the gist of events is grim. The neglected baby of a woman junkie friend suddenly dies, Spud goes to prison, Sick Boy turns mean, a pal dies of AIDS, and Begbie goes even more nutsy violent. Renton has an ugly detox and finds a job in London renting flats. The group ends up together in a drug deal, and in the last minutes, Renton swipes the proceeds for himself, again a thief and on the run, quite as he was in the beginning.
So what's the difference, then, between the start and the finish? Mostly the drug scene has gone grim, exacting its slow, certain toll. As for the drugs themselves and their far-gone bliss, they retain all their original luster. It's the stuff that goes with the drugs that makes Renton light out for the middle class: his futile, no-win friends, thugs and slackers all; illness and early death; the endless predatory hustle of resupply; and always the gnawing emptiness, the unkillable anomie. Still, even with 14,000 quid in his pocket, leaving the scene is not a happy choice, for the alternative is not so hot. In the parting voiceover as he walks off with the loot, Renton asserts his desire to "choose life" by going straight and accomplishing essential moral change. Again irony subverts, and his vows end up a threat: "I am going to be just like you: the job, the family, the f-- - big television, the washing machine . . . dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisurewear . . . clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die." Et cetera.
Trainspotting is about drug use and, yes, in some small way labors to understand its appeal; but for novelist Irvine Welsh and screenwriter-physician John Hodge, who adapted Welsh's best-selling novel, more is at stake than just saying no or choosing life. The unsettling thing about Trainspotting is the questions that double back on mainstream culture's blithe nostrums about clean living. So we don't use drugs; now what?
Ultimately, like Renton, the viewer runs smack into the discomforting fact of the West's prevailing cultural depletion. After all, working-class taste differs little from glitterati indulgence. Trainspotting depicts the tragedy of a culture defined by sensate commercialism, a social enterprise that, in behalf of making a good profit, diverts and ultimately numbs the soul. And the horizon offers little else. The priapic James Bond takes us nowhere. That being the case, we all might just as well sit around and spot trains, for there is nothing else about to amuse or summon the withering heart.
Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 12