Back in Vue #4 – Trainspotting
Looking back, I’m not sure if I read Trainspotting before I watched it. I did both during the same long, boring summer immediately before starting university – my DVD box is printed in Dutch because I bought it on a dreadful (if appropriate) lads’ holiday in Amsterdam, and my paperback has a bi-coloured autograph because Irvine Welsh’s pen ran out about four seconds after I met him at a Guardian Book Club event the following spring. During Freshers Week I fell in with a rangy, drug-addled Scot who ended up being my best friend. Buckfast became my go-to early evening drink. And when I had a breakdown a few years later I obsessively read and reread Trainspotting, Porno and Filth, half drowning myself in the trials and tribulations of Rents, Spud, DS Bruce Robertson and the rest in what I can now see as an effort to put my own struggles in context. Trainspotting is, I think you’ll agree, a big deal for me – but until this week I’d never seen it in a cinema. Good old Vue, eh? Here, have a trailer.
Presumably because this week also featured the release of The Hangover Part Seriously Who Cares, I made up a full 20% of the audience for Monday night’s screening in Leicester Square – this is why we’re not allowed nice films, cinemagoing public of Great Britain. I did think director Danny Boyle’s spectacular achievement as architect of last year’s Olympic opening ceremony might have sparked a little more interest in what is OBVIOUSLY his best film (shut up, Dev Patel), but then again it was a Bank Holiday and that discount cider won’t drink itself. Ho hum.
Whatever the reasons, it meant I could gradually melt into my seat as the adverts washed over me, unprepared as ever for the sheer intoxicating immediacy of Trainspotting’s opening sequence. BAM. Renton pounds towards the audience, store detectives in hot pursuit, as Iggy Pop fills the speakers. BAM. He careers over the bonnet of a car, pausing to cackle at the stunned driver. BAM. The boys – Rents, Sick Boy, Begbie, Johnny, Spud – throw themselves into an energetic and inept game of five-a-side, intercut with Renton’s slow collapse in an empty bedsit. And tying the whole thing together, that extraordinary opening monologue, a virtuoso savaging of cultural expectations which plays out in perfect counterpoint to the raging music and frenetic action. “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television…” all the way through to “I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.” Although the onscreen Renton is unconscious by the time the last line flickers into your ears, I can always hear a smile in Ewan McGregor’s voice. “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Set in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Trainspotting follows the adventures of Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton (McGregor), Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson (Johnny Lee Miller), Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie’ (Robert Carlyle) and Tommy McKenzie (Kevin McKidd). Rents, Sick Boy and Spud are heroin addicts and Franco, while clean, is a violent sociopath. Tommy is perhaps the best of the lot, a keep-fit fan and devoted (well, devoted-ish) boyfriend – you already know things aren’t going to go well for him, don’t you?
John Hodge’s masterful script (God only knows how he condensed Welsh’s book, a non-linear riot of stream-of-consciousness rants in Scottish dialect, into ninety coherent minutes) plunges the viewer straight into the deranged intricacies of junkie life within seconds of the title screen. Rents is cooking up, dealer Johnny ‘Mother Superior’ Swann (so called on account of the length of his habit) is prancing around in a leather waistcoat and Sick Boy is holding forth on the relative merits of Thunderball and Goldfinger. When Renton comments on Sick Boy’s lack of moral fibre, Swanny points out that “he does know an awfay lot aboot Sean Connery.” “That’s hardly a substitute,” snaps Rents – but we can forgive him a little temper, the poor wee boy’s just decided to kick the smack.
To my mind, the great virtue of Trainspotting’s early scenes is to first make the boys’ situation seem curiously appealing and then to plunge the viewer into Renton’s catastrophic first attempt at getting clean. Despite his repeatedly dreadful behaviour, Rents manages to come across as a sympathetic character rather than an antihero – McGregor’s career-defining performance is imbued with such an arresting grace that his every move, whether it’s tying a belt around his arm to bring up a vein or diving into a toilet for a Pynchonesque underwater scene, seems worthy of emulation. This is a mental state that persists throughout the film, swelling into a full-on bout of sehnsucht – the best word I can find for the sensation of nostalgia for a place or a time that you never knew.
Something I’d never truly appreciated before seeing Trainspotting on the big screen was how well the soundtrack feeds into this perfectly defined world, which over the space of perhaps a year of Renton’s life goes from an anarchic, ill-structured disaster waiting to happen – appropriately soundtracked by raucous late-seventies punk – to a focused, laser-cut vision of the future throbbing with the synth of Underworld’s breakthrough track Born Slippy .NUXX, the song with which we finally bid him goodbye. He’s alone at the beginning, passing out in his room, and as he walks across a deserted London bridge he’s alone at the end, too – for all his friends, Renton is always the observer, watching with a mixture of longing and disdain from the corner of the room. Whether you’re watching Trainspotting with friends or on your own, you’ll be there with him – slumped against a wall with just a smouldering cigarette and a tight t-shirt to mask the essential vulnerability present in every one of we stupid, ephemeral little humans. It’s no wonder they all do so many drugs, frankly.
I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to see one of my favourite films in the cinema, and I’d recommend the experience to anyone – but I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever do again. After the first few scenes I found my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth and my hands going through small, repetitive motions; eventually, I realised that I’d never before watched Trainspotting in a situation which denied me intoxicants, should I want them. Watching the characters drink, smoke, snort and shoot anything they could find (“We would have injected Vitamin C if only they’d made it illegal”), I certainly did. The resulting parcel of low-grade cravings drove me half mad during the famously unnerving ‘Junkie Limbo’ scene, in which Renton hallucinates his way through skag withdrawal, and by the time we finally hit the credits I was shaking with tension, utterly drawn into the world of the film. As with any tragicomic piece of art, so much of the comedy comes from knowing that the tragedy doesn’t apply to you – and watching Trainspotting alone in the dark, adrift in a city of eight million souls, makes it all feel dangerously real. So go, watch it or rewatch it, but be prepared for the fact that even seventeen years on, Trainspotting’s emotional impact is second to none.