Thursday, April 16, 2009

Karina M. Totah: Trainspotting's Playlist -- A Compilation of Subcultural Struggles

(Courtesy of Film Studies For Free recent Danny Boyle post... excerpt, for my students who are writing on the film I added a few clips from Youtube.)

Trainspotting's Playlist: A Compilation of Subcultural Struggles

Choose a big fucking noise

By Karina M. Totah
Bright Lights Film Journal


Choose text.

Drawing on the language of Trainspotting's original text, a novel by Irvine Welsh published in 1993, the movie adapted the distinctive phonetic Scottish dialect with which the novel is written. Often difficult to understand upon first reading, novel reviewer Jane Mendelsohn characterized the experience of the language as, "alienating at first, exhilarating once you get the hang of it, and finally poetic in its complications."5 Indeed, acclimatization to the language requires a reading out-loud of the typographical rendering in the mind's ear: "Ah wished tae fuck that ah wis in one ay they squads instead ay wi this auld cunt."6 The vernacular contains strong rhythms and poetic slang, contributing to its vocalization-prone style.7 A highly sonant book, even on the written page, Trainspotting the novel sets up an already audible framework for the filmmakers.

Choose a verse,

Welsh wrote in the style of James Kelman, a Scottish writer and winner of the Booker Prize; his language was quick and episodic utilizing profane language and free verse, as Harlan Kennedy put it. The many variances and jumps in the language, and its often poetry-like structure on the page, parallels the frozen frames, montage sequences and "fantastical visual punctuation" of the movie. Welsh willingly recognized the potential for an "unfaithful representation" of the text in the film adaptation; however, he considered the text to be dynamic and felt "the exciting part of it" was to note how, "it's going to change as it moves into a different medium." The looseness, loudness and inherent rhythms of the original language ease the tension of text-film adaptation and accentuate the aural cinematic product.

Choose a dialect,

The distinctive Scottish dialect signifies a stress on heritage. However, talk regarding Scotland in the movie (and novel) actively condemns and insults the national heritage. Tommy takes his mates for a walk through a classic Scottish landscape; Renton reacts by calling the Scots the, "lowest of the fucking low."11 Renton literally and metaphorically abandons symbolic Scottish geography and heritage through the course of Trainspotting. The film rejects the context of Scottish nationalistic/glorification films from within which it arises — Braveheart and Rob Roy. Trainspotting's producers took, as Harlan Kennedy of Film Comment phrases it, "the leftover stock footage [and] handed [it] back to the Scottish Tourist board."12 Dialect is the film's primary vehicle and simultaneous undertone to indicate heritage. Although Renton addresses Scotland directly only on one occasion, the distinctiveness of the argot and the difficulty in understanding the characters' speech continually reminds us of nationalistic differences and tensions. In addition, Renton's back-and-forth to London further emphasizes this element.

Choose a big fucking noise,

Despite its Scottish character, Trainspotting achieved transnational success. As reviewer Robert Morace indicates, the arresting opening sequence juxtaposes Renton's Scot diatribe with Iggy Pop's American drawl; establishing the inter- and intranational dynamics of the movie. The sequence also demonstrates the most pervasive quality of the film — the many layers of diegetic sound, or sound that exists within the film's narrative space. Sound in the backdrop of Trainspotting, unlike the "sounds of society" typical in British realist film — people talking, traffic passing by, machines working, dogs barking — are absent; instead, a "rushing, wind noise"14 replaces the noises of surrounding society and its members. Suggestive both of a type of surreal silence and constant motion, the wind noise plays an essential role in the film's kinetic, fast-paced energy. Only heard in full effect when all the film's other sounds disappear, the rushing sound comes directly preceding a realization. It appears as Renton strolls along before toppling over impending with diarrhea; after reading his girlfriend Diane's letter, hearing his doorbell buzz and understanding his friend Begbie's arrival; and as he knocks on his friend Tommy's door, confronting him AIDS-ridden. The sound of movement replaces silent thought while also propelling the narrative forward.

Choose material objects,

The "whooshing" sound denies the film of silence, highlighting its on-going rapid pace in addition to serving as a reminder of the noise ever-present in the world of overstimulated youth. Welsh, in writing his novel, acknowledged the condition of the youth, club-going culture who inhabited an overly-arousing environment of soundbites, music videos, advertisements, and computer graphics. Accordingly, Welsh felt the importance of writing in a style "to keep the pages turning, to keep the action moving, just like a DJ."15 The constant noise necessary to drive the story forward correlates with youth's lowered sensitivity to common din; yet Trainspotting chooses to deliberately amplify the sounds of objects in the everyday, material world. The exaggerated reverberations of cans opening, bags of chips ripping, trains whistling, bottles hitting tables, lights flickering, flies buzzing, drinks being slurped, doors locking and bolting (a double camera shot for emphasis), and water faucets dripping create a soundscape of increased volume and awareness of material objects. The film emphasizes material goods in order to explain, open, fill and cut scenes; the almost comical multiplication of their relative sonority shows the importance of such commodities in consumer culture. Further, the amplification of these sounds contributes to the disparity between the silence of society and the heightened sounds in Trainspotting's world. Here, sound in its contextual exaggeration represents the reduced focus of the rest of society in Trainspotting; Renton and his mates resign themselves to societal poverty and unemployment as norms and, in a sense, render society trivial. Society is not a relevant part of Renton's existence; it fades into the background exerting no influence, soundless. Further, the separation from society, demonstrated through relative volume, also emphasizes the characters' extreme individualism and self-containment relative to their environment. The exaggeration of material objects' noise serves a two-fold purpose: it highlights consumerism and the associated individualism of a capitalist, as well as separate youth culture.

To Read the Entire Essay

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