The Most Beautiful Fraud: Trainspotting
“I understand that about twenty years ago, you were interested in trainspotting.”
“Well, what’s that got to do with my bloody music?”
Trainspotting turned up in a pile of undiscarded DVDs the other day, and I gave it another whirl. It’s hard to imagine it’s been 15 years since it took the indie-cinema world by storm, and even harder to believe that my opinion about it has changed so little since I first saw it on a Chicago big screen.
‘Style vs. substance’ and the inevitable ‘triumph’ of the former over the latter is a much-discussed phenomenon in modern culture; critics who have very little conception of the meaning of either word are fond of using the cliché to describe anything that strikes them as slightly too flashy, calculated or outside the realm of familiar aesthetic form. Since the phrase (inherently a rather serviceable one) has been reduced to meaninglessness by constant over- and misuse, it saddened me to have to call it into play when talking about Trainspotting.
It had a lot going against it from the start: it was insanely popular amongst the British hipstertariat and their American counterparts (both of whom are renowned for embracing cultural production of dubious quality if it wears their clothes and portrays itself at odds with ‘mainstream’ values); it was based on a largely unreadable novel by a youngish writer who spent a great deal of time simultaneously decrying critical interpretations of his work and posing for fashion shoots in glossy magazines, a la Henry Rollins; and it inspired a flood of questionable subsidiary product lines, including a stage play, a photo book, a bestselling soundtrack and, worst of all, a ‘fashion collection’ of “Funky Junkie” clothing, available at the sort of store that the protagonists of the film would be pitched out of.
On its surface the tale of young Mark Renton and his junk-shooting pals in mopey industrial Edinburgh, Trainspotting follows its anti-hero as he goes through several attempts to kick the habit with varying degrees of success, enjoys a number of comical, pastoral and sexual misadventures with his Euro-Friendsy set of skin-poppers, and eventually gets clean just in time to score in a big drug deal (described as a ‘scam, although it consists of a series of simple purchases and then a rather unbelievable theft). The standard critical line was that the film was an alternately harrowing and absurdly comic look at heroin addiction; slightly wiser critics pegged it as a cleverly tricked-out buddy flick. But even this misses the real origins of the movie: it was really nothing more than a 1960s-style heist movie of the Ocean’s Eleven mode, with heroin substituted for diamonds, Scots burrs for hipster argot and blaring rave music for big band jazz-pop.
Admittedly, the take-the-money-and-fun genre was simple entertainment cranked out for jaded middle American tastes and therefore had zero artistic merit, but neither did it have far-reaching aesthetic pretensions which caused it to fall flat on its pockmarked face the way Trainspotting repeatedly did. Trying for absurdity, it gave us scatological slapstick that wouldn’t be out of place in a SNL-alum vehicle; trying for wit, it gave us incessant pop-cult in-jokes in the Tarantino vein; trying for irony, it gave us cheap twists like the newbie-junkie getting a fatal dose of AIDS while inveterate dope fiend Renton gets off Scot-free; trying for horror-show psychedelia, it gave us a jaw-droppingly clumsy, awful hallucination sequence featuring a self-consciously hip mélange of snide flash-edited pronouncements from Renton’s near and dear while a Hasbro Baby-Go-Walkies doll crawls mechanically on the ceiling, menacing the withdrawal-stricken hero with its uncanny impersonation of the centerpiece of a really bad student film. The scenes that are meant to be poignant (the death of the baby, the funeral of Tommy Football) instead seem forced or downright silly. The much-ballyhooed structure of the film doesn’t seem to care where it goes, and neither does the screenwriter.
The so-called technical triumphs of the movie were of a sort that impressed naïve American critics and inexperienced filmgoers when Natural Born Killers came out; like that excrescent Oliver Stone abortion, Trainspotting‘s techniques seemed daring and sophisticated to those who rarely watched foreign or experimental films and didn’t appreciate that jump cuts, out-of-sequence narrative, unusual segues, flashy sound editing and rhythmic pacing had been used to much greater effect as far back as the 1940s, or that skilled technical filmmakers know that it’s the judicious and sparing use of visual pyrotechnics that work, not piling them on to the point of sensory overload. Even Quentin Tarantino knows the value of a nice simple two-shot.
Much has been made of the film’s treatment of addiction — several critics at the time embarrassed themselves by saying that the movie treat junk-sickness ‘realistically’ and didn’t ‘glamorize’ its effects when discussing its ‘unflinching treatment of the drug culture. In fact, however, Trainspotting was ambivalent at best in its treatment of heroin addiction. To be fair, the junk is a MacGuffin — a backdrop on which to hang the guid-ole-lads antics of its protagonists and to add color to the heist that forms its end piece. Two of the main characters didn’t take heroin at all, and the protagonist is smugly triumphant about his eventual conquering the habit. As far as its refusal to tamper with the harsh realities of addiction, well, there’s an awful lot of carrying on about how great the kick is; the main troika of needle-druggers are awfully happy and carefree; and the worst thing that happens to our hero as a result of his withdrawal is that he has to have an embarrassingly hokey hallucination.
The implicit criticism of everyday life, so vital to modern art and so frequently referred to in the more insightful essays on Trainspotting, was so shallow and unexplored that any attempt by the filmmakers to capitalize on it as part of the movie’s rapidly flagging place in history seemed nothing more than crass intellectual opportunism. The characters in the film rejected the world of work not out of any theoretical or even hedonistic basis, but simply because they were junked-up losers without drive or energy. Their non-heroin-related conversations inevitably revolve around consumerism. Renton’s final escape from the world of unprofitable junk-sickness comes when he rips off Begbie for a pile of cash and heads for the Continent, spewing out with an awfully faint irony a litany of the goods and comforts he foolishly rejected in his younger days.
It wasn’t without its redeeming features, after multiple viewings. The acting was of a fairly high quality; the cast was easy on the eyes; the conceit of pacing the film with a disjointed, untraceable chronology wasn’t entirely unsuccessful; and certainly, many people would argue that it’s better to fail by overreaching than to succeed by mediocrity. But then again, pandering is pandering, whether you’re doing it with a transvestite frat-boy in Sorority Girls or a flash-cut triple-fuck in Trainspotting.
Trainspotting, by the way, is a stultifyingly dull British pastime which consists of watching trains go by, seeing if you can catch the number on the engine and then writing it down in a little book. I’m not suggesting that trainspotting is more interesting than Trainspotting, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.