The lads are back. 20 years later, with the weariness and apathy that came with age, and a whole new time-relevant monologue brilliantly dribbled out by Mark Renton (again 1). More drinks, more drugs, more sex, more pearls of wisdom, Trainspotting 2‘s 20 year wait saw the film’s fans take a trip down memory lane, only this time in a trailer going 100 kilometres an hour in reverse. Just what the hell was about the 1996 cult-hit that we decided to carry along with us all this while?
Trainspotting wasn’t so much a film, but like an instruction manual. One that guided you through the happenings of a very real and fractured society.
“Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.”
It isn’t all that difficult to understand either; a bunch of friends get together, smoking, snorting, and injecting anything and everything illegal to escape the turmoil and ennui of real life and the accompanying conformations of expectations. Their journey to their next high, though, is where all the fun really is. And the cinematography with that tummy-churning buildup to The Worst Toilet in Scotland was the one time I categorically felt disgust.
Renton, played by the voice of the film, Ewan McGregor, tutors his set-up for his drug escapade, mirrored to cinematic excellence with the soundtrack of Georges Bizet’s Carmem-Habanera. Nailing his doors shut, Renton starts laying out ten tins of tomato soup, eight of mushroom, a tub of vanilla ice-cream (smart), a bottle of milk, vitamins, and of course, pornography. Bodily necessities were also taken care of; a bucket each for urine, feces, and vomiting. Next, a television. For entertainment purposes. Now all that lacked, were the drugs.
Breaking the wood and nails off the door to get back out on a pick-up for drugs, he gets suppositories, and they don’t go down well with the after-effects of his last heroin high fading away. Renton had to go for one of those life-saving shits we’ve all had that could cause a riot scene in a toilet.
He stumbles his way into a dingy betting joint that reeked of cigarette smoke and old men’s mustaches, and his next bit of narration comes into very important play.
“I fantasize about a massive pristine convenience. Brilliant gold taps, virginal white marble, a seat carved from ebony, a cistern full of Chanel no.5, and a flunky handing me pieces of raw silk toilet roll. But under the circumstances I’ll settle for anywhere.”
The Worst Toilet in Scotland, with a hopeless flickering light just outside of it for good measure. And it looked hideous. It looked like a warzone with shit dripping down cracklines on ceilings. It was dirty, it was miserable, it was cruel, and it was inhabitant. Only one of the urinals remained and it was layered in an explosion of fecal matter and while the sink was in plain sight, clean water hadn’t reached it since ever.
The cubicle Renton finds hadn’t heard a prayer in its life. This was the closest anyone would get to getting a whiff off a movie scene through the protection of screens. Renton waited, contemplated, as most us would have, but when you have to go…
The actual shit that Renton finally had was glorious in its own right; we’ve all had one of those; with a glimmer of a smile resulting at the end of it all. But this wasn’t the end just yet. His suppositories were now bedrocked at the bottom of the metaphorical barrel, only this was a layercake of mucky matter that stood the test of both time and bowels.
Cinematography is obviously bloody important in a film as a collective process to get a point across to the audience, and we got the point; when you’re a junkie who’s forsaken everything holy, you’d go far lengths for your next fix. So Renton did.
Getting down on knees on the shit-sodden toilet floor, he dug through the refuse in the toilet bowl to find his drugs. What followed after was… peculiar.
The turmoil of his peripherals now were lost in a sea of blue water; not necessarily pure, mind, but it was a desperate improvement. He finds it, escapes the toilet, and shows up back in his apartment all soaked in shame and shit. Now; now Renton was ready.
There’s a lot more to Trainspotting, you should and do already know that, but how Danny Boyle and co. conjured up the sheer audacity to come up with a scene stitched to ghastly perfection will always be that one question I’d be fine not knowing the answer to. And perhaps that’s where laid the allure of Trainspotting; that little bit of happy and satisfaction after the monstrosity of society-escaping endeavors.
“Just a perfect day/ You made me forget myself/ I thought I was someone else/ Someone good”
Every generation has its all-encompassing voice. If you were coming-to-age in the post-Thatcherite cultural wasteland that was Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting would have been yours. Yet somehow, Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation is regarded as a timeless classic by many. Featuring Ewan McGregor’s manic monologuing over the disenchanted lives of his fellow chums, his is certainly a voice that’s resounded through the ages.
While Boyle might have gifted us with far too many iconic scenes, his singular genius may well have been distilled into the soundtrack alone. Set to Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, Renton’s overdose served as an outlandish turning point to curb a deterministic downward spiral that had already been set-off in the beginning. Renton balances precariously on a ledge, sways and leaps heroically into frame: we’re now in Mother Superior’s ‘establishment’, the décor sparse to say the least. Swanney is cooking up and the posh restaurant dialogue that ensues is comically jarring.
“Would sir care for a starter? Some garlic bread perhaps?”
“No, thank you. I’ll proceed directly to the intravenous injection of hard drugs, please.”
From here on out, its cinematic choreography at its finest. Aligning the delivery mechanism of the syringe to Renton’s shrinking pupils, we’re sucked into the realities of Renton (and by extension, his mates’) hopeless choices. While he might have made an executive decision to cop-out of the methadone programme (or what he calls “state-sponsored addiction”), the construction of the scene deftly sinks us six-feet under together with him. Wrought with bittersweet irony, Lou Reed’s wistful vocals score an idyllic portrait of everyday life 2 — the park, a zoo, the movies.
“Just a perfect day/ Drink sangria in the park/ And then later, when it gets dark/ We go home/ Just a perfect day/ Feed animals in the zoo/ Then later a movie, too/ And then home”
It’s an intimate song about a day spent with a lover, but we struggle with the juxtaposition in front of us as the camera stops taking on Renton’s perspective and we stop inhabiting his psyche. The scene is a jarring stab at urban realities, and as Lou Reed croons, we witness a crumbling council estate and the futility of an establishment that has failed its youths. For once, we don’t hallucinate with Renton, but instead, are forced to confront the grim realities he tries escaping. We watch as his drug dealer carefully wrangles his unconscious body down the stairs while an ambulance wails in the distance. A misdirection, clearly. As paramedics speed by his lifeless body, Swanney loads him on a cab, pausing only to tuck a tenner into his pocket. If all else fails, at least your dealer got your back, innit?
We’re all addicts of sorts, but why do we choose the drugs we choose? While Trainspotting might be one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of drug abuse around, calling it a film about drugs is as reductive as, say, calling Mad Men a show about advertisements. The film might chart, in the most uncompromisingly abject ways, the distances they’d foot and the depths they’d dive (literally) in order to score a hit; it might present, vividly, the ordeal of a post-high ditch, but you get a niggling sense that narcs aren’t really the issue here. A repository perhaps, but not the main dish. If you think this film makes skag look sexy, you’re missing the larger grotesque-ness of it all. As Renton rattles on about the list of our current afflictions (the career, the family, the fucking big television etc.) we’re reminded that 20 years ago, Trainspotting served as a cautionary tale on 21st century addiction. Clearly, nothing’s changed. Bring on T-2.