Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jeff Stiles: Trainspotting, or, Diacetylmorphine Hydrochloride and Absence of Meaningful Relationships

by Jeff Stiles
ENG 282

Billed as Britain's answer to Pulp Fiction and slathered with an exaggerated level of hype, Trainspotting was seemingly bred to be a success. Ivine Welsh's book-- not much more than a fast-paced, more accessible Burroughs or Selby, Jr. imitation-- had made a few small waves, apparently catching the eye of greedy movie producers. Welsh, fortunately, had the moral forthrightness to hold off until someone came along that could turn his work into a stylish, exciting film instead of the typical dark and miserable drug epic it so easily could be (thinking of Sid and Nancy, Drugstore Cowboy, and so on). When the partnership of Andrew MacDonald, Danny Boyle and John Hodge approached him, they were trusted with the task at hand, despite having only made one feature, the competent but forgettable Shallow Grave. As production began, the film started picking up buzz, and those involved with Trainspotting saw an opportunity to piggy-back on the success of the American Pulp Fiction, which had successfully introduced to the world a type of “cool” cinema; exciting, fast-paced, and gritty films, with enough action to satisfy the general public and enough stylish wit to charm the intellectual elite. A cynic might look at this, in hindsight, as nothing but a product, a facsimile of a trend that would be short-lived, as all trends are. Somehow, though, a piece of entertainment was released that delivered monetarily, as well as artistically.

The film's best aspects are stacked carefully, and the disturbance of any of them may have pushed it past the line of trendy, over-stylized indie hackwork it straddled. Fortunately, Boyle and company had succeeded in compiling a miraculous crew for the job; the tremendous cast, a colorful yet gritty visual style provided by Boyle and his talented director of photography, Brian Tufano (and, of course, the film's art department, costume designers, et al), and perhaps the most necessary element, the brief but powerful script by Hodge. The screenplay gutted the book of many of its ancillary characters and sub-plots, allowing for a much tighter focus on the theme most important to Trainspotting-- while the obvious point of the film may be an exploration of the effects of heroin, the true theme of the story is the use of the drug as both a substitute and deterrent for the meaningful camaraderie that human beings crave.

The principle cast of characters are a lowly, backstabbing, shitty group of people, constantly one dollar away from slicing each others throats, despite the fact that they are all, for the most part, inseparable best friends. The film's narrator and main character, Renton, speaks of his mates with mild disgust, a group of people who are only associated with each other now due to familiarity. The most telling dialogue is in the film's final scene, as Renton walks away with the money he stole from Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud.

“Now I've justified this to myself in all sorts of ways. It wasn't a big deal, just a minor betrayal. Or we'd outgrown each other, you know, that sort of thing. But let's face it, I ripped them off, my so called mates. But Begbie, I couldn't give a shit about him. And Sick Boy, well he'd done the same to me, if he'd only thought of it first.”

Renton goes on to admit guilt for ripping off the hopelessly naïve and comparatively innocent Spud, though the film does end with an uplifting glimpse of Spud discovering a portion of the money left for him after all. Spud, indeed, is the film's most sympathetic character, at times comedic relief, at times pathetically tragic. As the film begins, he is seen mostly as a goofy, dim-witted junkie. His antics include falling to the floor in a heroin-induced fit of giggles, shitting in his girlfriend's bed and flinging the crap all over the breakfast table, and showing up to a job interview hopped up on speed (a scene of solid, rapid-fire physical comedy by Ewan Bremner). Throughout, though, he's constantly berated by Begbie and portrayed as a cowardly, wiry drug addict. At the film's end, he is even seriously wounded by Begbie and refused a trip to the hospital, a refusal he apparently accepts with the integrity of an abused dog. Were it not for the narration that reveals a decent side to Renton, Spud would be the only redeemable person by the end of the film (except, perhaps, Diane, though considering her apparent knack for sleeping with random heroin addicts, she is probably on a Tommy-esque path to ruin).

The rest of the crew aren't quite so likable. The film's most relentlessly deplorable personalities are depicted by Sick Boy and Begbie, a smarmy chauvinist and violent psychopath, respectively. Sick Boy oozes a slimy kind of repulsiveness, clearly a distorted imitation of his idol James Bond, all the while engaging in cruel mind games with his friends (eg, quitting heroin just to prove he is more capable of doing it than Renton), conceiving of unscrupulous cash-grab schemes (the film's final drug deal, offering Diane a job as his prostitute), and, of course, shooting up copious amounts of heroin. Begbie (the film's protagonist, if there even is a human one) is booze-swilling, cigarette-devouring hypocrite, decrying the damage his friends are doing to their bodies with heroin. He is constantly on the verge of a violent assault and often, it seems, ruthlessly beats strangers in bars. To those near him, he is perhaps even more cruel-- he obviously needs to have control over his friends as badly as they need heroin in their veins, constantly intimidating them with threats of violence and his outrageous, loud outbursts.

Even Renton proves himself capable of deception, not only in the shady (yet justifiable) ripping-off of his best friends, but also in being responsible for the downfall of Tommy. Beginning the film as the story's only clean-cut, healthy character, Tommy devolves into a heroin/AIDS-addled corpse after a video of him having sex with his girlfriend is stolen by Renton, which in turn causes Tommy to be dumped, which in turn causes him to spiral into a depression, which in turn causes him to seek comfort in heroin, which is supplied to him by Renton for money to perpetuate his own heroin habit. Before all this, though, Renton and his friends also commit acts of petty criminality-- stealing prescription slips from his doctor, stealing a television from a nursing home, helping Begbie corner and beat an unassuming American tourist.

It's no stretch to assume that these characters would despise each other and themselves, and the few glimpses of actual generosity or friendship that we see-- Renton leaving Spud some money, the celebratory drinks shared upon completion of the final heist (a party that ends horribly, of course)-- are maybe the saddest parts of the film. These men, unable to communicate or show any real affection, turn to their artificial methods of coping (heroin, for the most part, but also explosive fits of rage and alcohol for Begbie). The film's ending, though, is uplifting, in that we see Renton not only attempting to shed his heroin habit, but also, perhaps more damaging, the people he had been surrounding himself with.

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