::: Adam Dobson
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, Choose a f—king big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose a three piece suit on hire purchased in a range of f—king fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the f—k you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing f—king junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f—ked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose a future. Choose life . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
The 1996 film opens, famously, with a series of postulated choices—variables, essentially, in the delineation of identity and opposition. Significant here is the tone in which these options are delivered—it might be considered the rhetorical voice of society, a playful exposition of the pressure placed on individuals to make the “correct” choices, to conform to expectation.rainspotting presents an ostensible image of fractured society.
As such, the introduction might be read as contributing to the formation of two narrative constructs: that of “normality”—or at least that considered “normality” by prevailing ideology—and that of “subnormality,” the remainder. In its uncompromising rejection of the former, the commentary of Ewan McGregor’s Renton roots him thoroughly in the latter.
We see this division alluded to on a number of occasions. In the nightclub, for example, Renton quickly notices how the “successful” separate themselves from the “unsuccessful”—the former group embracing their newly-found partners and the latter nodding their heads sheepishly. “Success” is, however, more often linked with boredom and absurdity—with the easy life, with game-shows and bingo; “failure,” despite its inherent misery and hardship, is shown to be exhilarating: a knife-edge. The tension inherent in this opposition is offered, arguably, as a reason for the behavioural patterns depicted; “what people forget is the sheer pleasure of it,” as Renton confesses.
We might describe the group of friends, united by failure, as classic anti-heroes; as characters with whom we sympathise despite the horrors they commit. It is a reading underpinned by nihilism, and one can’t help but recall the Zarathustrian “Table of Values” expounded by Nietzsche. The existence of different subcultures, defined by values which may completely contradict those of other groups, accords with a wider postmodern refutation of absolutes. These subcultures operate because the world around them is open to interpretation, and if an interpretation is justified, it is arguably as valid as one which directly opposes it.
The imposition of a universal set of values, like that of the law, for example, is a product of power—and, liberally speaking, an injustice. Renton notes that his mother, on tranquillisers, “is, in her own socially acceptable way, also a drug addict.” Because these particular characters’ choice of lifestyle conflict with that of the dominant order, they are marginalised—forced to live in squalor and filth. This is something signified in the mise-en-scene: theirs is a world of repugnant toilets; of splattered walls, doors and floors; of soiled bed-sheets; of buckets for “urine,” “vomittus” and “faeces.”
Fittingly, there is an equally strong argument to the contrary. Begbie proves an unreliable narrator, yet appears to act without conscience or consequence; Sick Boy, portrayed early on as a closet philosopher, is rendered mute after the death of his son. Some things are above and beyond words. Similarly, despite its apparent emphasis on the relationship between power and subjectivity, the film does pronounce ultimate ethical judgements, as I will describe in a moment.
Trainspotting essentially refuses to make up its mind. At the film’s close, Renton’s betrayal of his friends is completely rationalised away. Were his claims to a “fresh start” in any way convincing, we might consider it a utilitarian “good”; unfortunately, it is an event preceded by a number of sincerely intended “final hits” which were quickly succeeded, and there is little to suggest otherwise here. We are therefore denied the satisfaction of resolution.
“Pain” might be considered a central theme in Trainspotting. Every single occasion where the characters’ emotions are tried, to the merest degree, is followed by the consumption of a drug. The consistency with which this is the case becomes almost comic. The drug may very well be heroin, as it is—embarrassingly if not monstrously—after the baby is discovered dead in its cot; indeed, after Sick Boy pleads with Renton to respond in a human fashion, to face up to and articulate the horror before him, “cooking up” is all he can come up with. But there are a multitude of examples, often more subtle. Tommy increases the amount of Smack he uses to numb his worsening headaches, a binge prompted by the breakdown of his relationship; following his overdose, Renton’s parents fumble for cigarettes in the back of a taxi; Spud’s incarceration is followed by a round of stiff drinks; a night of simultaneous misadventure precedes a wholesale return to junkie-hell.
“The streets are awash with drugs for unhappiness and pain,” it is conceded; “we pile misery upon misery, heat it up on a spoon and dissolve it.”
It would seem that palliation is futile, and ignoring the reality of bad situation does not even come close to circumventing it. Perhaps this is where we find a meaning for the film’s title: a train, hurtling towards you at lethal speed, cannot be diverted from its tracks; you have to acknowledge it, and get out of the way. Averting your eyes is no solution.
But such assumption of responsibility is conspicuously absent in Trainspotting; far more common is the transferral of blame and guilt. Begbie, most notably, is never accountable for his actions; when a “killer hangover” prevents him playing a competitive game of pool, he viciously assaults a stranger for “putting him off.” Additionally, Spud’s mother is verbally abused when her son is caught stealing, blame being transferred to his upbringing; when the baby dies, Renton’s voice stutters nervously, “it wasn’t mine,” a delivery which suggests a conscience being brought clumsily under control.
In what is arguably the film’s most memorable scene, however, Renton is forced to face up to his guilt in what is best described as a “parade of sin.” Fittingly, this occurs as he sweats the heroin out of his system. We see Diane in her school uniform, Tommy literally sliding away into the abyss, and Spud rattling his chains.
So, with impending-disaster duly noted, all that remains is to jump clear; Trainspotting provides something of a critique of inertia. This is a story very much in the Oedipal tradition, following the same Oedipal logic we see operating in cinematic-narrative elsewhere. Trainspotting walks, ostensibly, the rites de passage linking individualistic assertion in the first instance, and ultimate symbolic-assimilation in the second. As the film progresses, even the game-shows begin to speak sense: a surreal example being Dale Winton’s quiz on the pathology of the HIV virus.
Renton, then, makes the necessary change: he leaves his parental home—even his parental city. His past is shown to haunt him, and before long the whole cast of miscreants reappear on his doorstep. It provides an interesting extension to the debate on the “freedom of the individual” to which the film has aspired: there is no escaping the past—the past informs the present and, as such, shapes the future. How free is the individual, if we concede to behavioural determinism? And, if choices on the high-street can be predicted according to, for example, class, gender, education, and origin, can they really qualify as free choices? The characters are perhaps shown as being “unfree,” as they are being forced to make a choice—“a job,” a “career,” a “big television”; to act otherwise is to choose death. Heroin represents this misnomer—it is the unmade choice, the solidification of a philosophical abstraction. Significantly, heroin never actually kills any of the characters—only its accompanying consequences.
To summarise, then, Trainspotting examines the tension caused by segregation and the demands of citizenship, and as such explains social problems as the denial of this tension. Denial is shown only to exacerbate the problems.