Live and Let Die

Reviews of the latest films.
July 23 1996 3:30 AM

Live and Let Die

No, Trainspotting doesn't glamorize the junkie life. It just makes it sound reasonable.

Trainspotting

Directed by Danny Boyle

Miramax.

No, Trainspotting doesn't glamorize the junkie life. It just makes it sound reasonable.

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By Michael Wood

(1,421 words; posted Monday, July 22; to be composted Monday, July 29)

Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting, had his actors prepare by watching older movies: Goodfellas, The Hustler, The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange. You can see the relevance of all of these films to a tale of buddies, crime, horror, drink, drugs, and pool-playing--to name a few of the film's preoccupations--but Trainspotting comes closest to A Clockwork Orange. There, the thuggish young Alex was brainwashed into conforming to a law-abiding world, and his conversion seemed like a loss. Here, young Mark, a delinquent Scotsman played with bullying charm by Ewan McGregor, finally becomes one of us, and nothing could be more repellent.

Mark Renton starts out fiercely scornful, reciting a staccato litany of what he supposes to be our choices: "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. ... Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments." These phrases are spoken in voice-over as he and an accomplice race down a street, pursued by store detectives. Mark ends the movie by saying: "I'm going to be just like you." We see him at first in faint silhouette at a distance, crossing Waterloo Bridge in London; then he comes toward us, his face blurring until we see only the haze of a nasty grin on his distorted features.

Trainspotting is a desolate, fast, funny, scary film, and it takes more risks than any recent film. It is set in the anonymous suburbs of Edinburgh, among a group of junkies and boozers who speak a brand of Scottish English that sounds like some entirely imaginary language put through a voice scrambler. It's not that non-Scots can't understand it if they put their minds to it. (I gather the film has been dubbed for its American release.) It's that the Scottishness rattles at you; you hear the nation more than you hear the words, which is part of the hectic allure. There are subtitles at one point, but they're actually a joke about the speakers being in a noisy club, unable to catch each other's speech. The rest of the time, you take what you can get: snatches of sentences here and there, a dialogue on the merits of that Scottish role model, Sean Connery ("I would say, in those days, he was a muscular actor, in every sense, with all the presence of someone like Cooper or Lancaster"), and Mark's ceaseless patter in voice-over.

The film is already a huge success in Britain. It is based on the novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, and is the work of the producer-director-writer team (Andrew Macdonald-Boyle-John Hodge) that made Shallow Grave. The novel is really a collection of linked short stories, packed with wonderfully impenetrable Scottish lines. It has its sentimental moments, but it is funny as well as bleak, and creates a world that's hard to forget. The film streamlines the novel, but it is never sentimental. It alternates effectively between high style (a job interview arranged to look like your nightmares rather than your sense of probability, a descent into a filthy toilet that turns into an underwater scene from the work of Jacques Cousteau, or, indeed, Sean Connery) and closely photographed horror (the disgusting, rat-ridden tips when these people live, the same toilet before Mark begins his descent, a place that looks like the last, spilling outhouse in hell).

Like the novel, the movie recounts a series of inconclusive adventures, but centers them on Mark. He scores, shoots up, renounces heroin, applies for a job, goes clubbing, finds a girl, narrowly escapes prison, tests negative for HIV, returns to heroin, moves to London--then back to Edinburgh, gets involved in a big money drug deal. One of Mark's cronies is an immeasurably violent drunkard who is always getting into blood-spattering brawls. Up to the end, Mark has no sense that he could ever abandon this man. "Yeah, the guy's a psycho," Mark says, "but it's true, he's a mate as well, so what can you do?" But then he rips off his friends by taking all the cash from the drug deal. He pretends he can't justify this to himself, but he knows, and we know, what he has done. Betrayal is his only form of escape. There's no freedom like that of fully burned bridges.

What holds the film together, though, is not Mark's voice or character or dilemma, or even the episodic story line, but the powerful sense of an inhabited world, more vivid even than that of the novel, and a question about this world: Does it resemble ours, or doesn't it? The characters are without recognizable virtues, and neither they nor the movie asks us to like them. But they are full of energy and underplayed wit, endlessly picking themselves up off the filthy floor, and represent a living, complicated anti-culture, an angry mirror of muffled respectability. Sick Boy, an addict with elegance, is the expert on Sean Connery. Spud is the awkward loser every group needs to have. Allison is almost nothing but her habit and her neglected baby. Tommy is the straight guy who turns to drugs when his girl leaves him. Mark utters a long hymn to the British National Health Service and the array of drugs it makes available, ending, "Fuck it, we would have injected Vitamin C if only they'd made it illegal." Asked if he is not proud to be Scottish he replies, "I hate being Scottish. ... Some people hate the English, but I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can't even pick a decent culture to be colonized by." There's a backhand love of Scotland lurking in the diatribe, and Mark and his mates care enough about the country they despise to get angry about it. They are not victims. Their messed-up lives are all their own. Are they glamorized? I don't think so. But they are not freaks or aliens. They have their varieties of dignity.

W>hen Mark asks, "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?" it is, in context, a great line, not because heroin is as good as a reason, but because in this movie, the clean world has no reasons at all. The older generation--parents, judges, employers, crooks--is pointless--permissive and amiable at best, but dim and mechanical in general, dedicated to a zombie existence that can't compare with the joys of shooting up. Even AIDS is half-courted as a "real" death preferable to the long false life of the living dead. The movie does show us the horrors of bulging veins, weeping track marks, a dead baby, an AIDS death. The error of this way of life is underscored: "Pile misery upon misery, heap it up on a spoon and dissolve it with a drop of bile, then squirt it into a stinking purulent vein, and do it all over again. Keep on going ... propelling ourselves with longing towards the day it would all go wrong." The moral is not that junkies can't be judged, but that they can't be judged seriously by those outside the life, since in the film's terms we have nothing to offer these characters. All we've got is the job and the mortgage and the family and bingo.

The title: "Trainspotting" is a solitary pastime followed by British males of all ages. It involves jotting down the numbers of all the railway engines you see, and seeing as many as possible. In British minds, it's associated with the image of an anorak-wrapped nerd all alone in the rain, caught up in the only excitement he has found in life. In the novel, Mark and a friend enter an abandoned railway station in the Edinburgh suburb of Leith. An old drunk asks them if they are trainspotting, and cackles at his own wit. I guess we are meant to believe that they about as far from trainspotting as anyone can get, although Irvine Welsh is quoted in TheNew Yorker as saying he thinks trainspotting is also a form of addiction. The title is another of the movie's risks, and a good indication of its style, for it does not include this episode, and makes no reference to trainspotting at all. The title means: This is the film of an already famous novel. And also: what's in a name?

Michael Wood is the author of The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction and a professor of English at Princeton.

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