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'Trainspotting': Junk Culture
Film Tracks Heroin's Menacing AllureBy Alona Wartofsky
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 21, 1996
What is train-spotting, anyway?
It's a curiously pointless British hobby whose practitioners watch trains, keeping meticulous track of their engine numbers and arrival and departure times.
And it is only symbolically related to the British multimedia phenomenon of "Trainspotting."
Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel was a literary sensation, hotly debated for its harrowing and dark-humored depiction of a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts. Written in Scottish dialect and street slang, "Trainspotting" was championed by soccer fanzines, passed around prisons and prized by drug addicts. "Trainspotting" the play soon followed, first in Edinburgh, then in London.
"Trainspotting" the movie, just as controversial as the book, is expected to gross more than $20 million in Britain, more than any other domestic film ever -- except for the comparatively frivolous "Four Weddings and a Funeral." The equivalent, says "Trainspotting" director Danny Boyle, "would be about $90 million in America."
Compared to the bounty earned by such Hollywood blockbusters as "Independence Day" and "Twister," of course, "Trainspotting" is a little movie. Still, Variety calls "Trainspotting" a "sure bet," and hip film scenesters are hyping it as this summer's "Pulp Fiction."
The filmmakers themselves aren't so sure that "Trainspotting" will be a hit in the United States. "I can't quite see it myself, really," says Boyle, who recently scrutinized a sample of Americans celebrating the Fourth of July in Utah. "These people, the sense of them wanting to belong is [expletive] overwhelming. And this film is about people who don't want to belong."
But one thing is certain. "Trainspotting" is going to be talked about until we're all sick of it. Though the film doesn't open until Friday, American press and television have been raising the specter of "heroin chic" for weeks. (See Fashion, Page F3.)
"Trainspotting" is not the first movie about heroin -- we've seen mainlining on the big screen many times before. So why the hubbub? Well, if there is one thing Americans don't want mixed with heroin, it's ambiguity. And what the filmmakers slap in our faces are both the grim realities of life at the tip of a needle and a freewheeling, pop-music-fueled glorification of the addicts' smack-happy existence.
There's enough to justify "Trainspotting's" notoriety in its first 10 minutes. The film's provocative opening sequence depicts two young men -- antihero Mark Renton and his friend Spud -- racing through city streets, pursued by two store detectives. Renton's voice-over begins:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a [expletive] 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 . . .
As the litany of consumer-society options goes on, we see Renton lying on a floor in a heroin stupor.
But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?
Even though the filmmakers contend that "Trainspotting" is ultimately an anti-drug movie, you are probably not going to find yourself sitting next to Bob Dole if you go.
Renton's narration continues: People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that [expletive], which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it . . . . Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere near it.
The film's heroin addicts are essentially likable. They're attractive. Charismatic. And witty: They call one character Mother Superior "on account of the length of his habit."
Boyle readily admits that "Trainspotting" glamorizes the drug life. "There's no doubt we wanted to," he says. "We wanted to capture the energy of what it is to be transgressive. And they're the ultimate transgressors -- heroin is the farthest out there. We wanted to do what the book does. You live inside it; part of that is the excitement and pleasure of drug-taking."
And yet, would-be heroin users can glean some interesting tips from "Trainspotting." Such as: Heroin impairs your ability to get an erection. And, perhaps worse: Heroin constipates you in a most unpleasant way.
Indeed, not all of what "Trainspotting" depicts is glamorous, and viewers will get a good look at the "misery and desperation and death" that Renton initially dismisses. One character is felled by AIDS. Another goes to prison, albeit briefly. A neglected baby is left to die in her crib. Renton overdoses and nearly dies; after that, he wishes he were dead as he suffers through a nightmarish withdrawal.
"I don't know how effective a film is in making people make decisions about stuff like this," says Boyle. "But if it is, then we'd argue that its impact by the end is very much quite an old-fashioned warning. It's more complex than the usual warnings, but it is a warning just the same.
"Hopefully, because of that complexity people trust it more. And if there is a message, people find that message more effective because of the honesty with which they've been addressed."
But some critics, including David Goodman of the Associated Press, argue that the film carries the destructive message that "it's not so terrible to do bad things, as long as they're carried off in a stylish, amusing way."
The idea that "Trainspotting" is in the vanguard of heroin chic is a notion that Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge find nauseating. "The heroin addicts we met in Glasgow know nothing about whether heroin is chic or not," says Hodge, a former physician. "Their reasons for taking it has absolutely nothing to do with what's going on amongst magazine editors in London.
"There is the huge bulk of heroin users, and then there's a minor fluctuation on top, and that's the high-society glitterati users, the pop-star addicts. And when they disappear, heroin disappears from the newspapers, but there's still that huge iceberg beneath the sea, people who have nothing to do with chic."
Still, Boyle says that the pervasiveness of drugs in Britain today shaped the film's approach to the subject. "Britain's awash with Ecstasy right now, to a massive degree. Movie audiences . . . are no longer complete innocents who have to be spoken to like they're in a nursery: `The boogeyman is out there, and he's called heroin,' " he says. "You have to speak to them like they know some of the experience."
Attacks on "Trainspotting" in England have been virulent. The London-based Prospect magazine ran a story headlined "Scotland the Sick," which dismissed the film as "repellent." Its writer lamented young, fashionably dressed audiences' enthusiasm for both the book and the film, mourning the loss of "the rough decency" of working-class culture.
"Personally I don't think it's worth getting worked up about," says Boyle. "These people getting worked up about it seem to think we're putting cyanide in the water supply."
For some, "Trainspotting" epitomizes the general coarsening of British culture. A Glasgow Herald writer dismissed the film as "juvenile," "inane," "asinine" and "puerile." And a Church of Scotland spokesman, the Rev. Bill Wallace, had this to say to the Daily Telegraph: "It is sad that this is the best filmmakers can turn their minds to."
"I disagree with that," says Hodge. "In some ways we live in a better, more open society in which other voices can make themselves heard, and working-class people are able to make statements about their lives. That may come across as confrontational and may present uncomfortable truths, but I don't think that's a coarsening of society. I think it's a major improvement."
Boyle defends the film's emphasis on things scatological by explaining that that's exactly how addicts are: "If you're a junkie, that's one of your big obsessions, your bodily functions -- which ones of them have stopped, which ones of them are out of control, which ones of them are normal," he says. "It's not just because the British are obsessed with it, which we are."
Some critics have also taken exception to the film's caustic tone, particularly that of a scene in which Renton rants about why he hates being Scottish: "We're the lowest of the [expletive] low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever [expletive] into civilization." Boyle and Hodge trace that kind of cynicism to an urban tradition dating back to World War I. "Rough working-class decency was buried in the fields of Northern France and Belgium," says Hodge, "slaughtered by upper-class generals."
"There's something about the spirit of these people. That's why you finish the book and you feel elated, even though you've been amongst junkies," Boyle explains. "The spirit resides in the sense of humor -- which, no matter how bad things come, this irreverent, insolent, arrogant, disrespectful sense of humor just knocks anything down."
"That's true of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also northern cities in general in Britain. You get it in Belfast too, where things are pretty bad. The sense of humor is shocking. When you're an outsider, you think, how can you laugh at that? Unbelievable. You retain your dignity through it, I think is one of the ways it works."
But what's wrong with Scotland? Why did Edinburgh have such a high incidence of heroin addiction during the '80s? "There's nothing wrong in Scotland that isn't wrong somewhere else in Britain or somewhere else in Europe," says Hodge. "Post-industrial decline . . . . Expectations in conflict with the practical realities of what's available in a shrinking, more competitive world. The macroeconomic problem filters down into people's lives, in which they are presented with a series of unattainable consumer options and lifestyle guides which are futile.
"People long for it not to be like that but it is like that," Hodge continues. "Mark Renton obviously longs for it not to be like that, but I'm afraid it is."
Before they made "Trainspotting" together, Boyle, 39, and Hodge, 31, collaborated with producer Andrew MacDonald on "Shallow Grave," last year's art house hit about the unraveling relationship between three roommates who conspire to bury the corpse of mate No. 4 so that they can keep his cash-filled suitcase.
Boyle was offered Hollywood directing gigs, but MacDonald had already given him and Hodge copies of "Trainspotting" to read. Hodge was initially horrified: The book is episodic -- a collection of linked short stories, really -- and emphasizes hard-to-film internal monologues. "It was," Hodge says, "a hard book to get started on."
Several brainstorming sessions later, the three decided to focus on Mark Renton (played by "Shallow Grave's" Ewan McGregor), the character who begins and ends Welsh's book.
Part of what makes Renton so compelling is his inscrutability; it's impossible to pinpoint the reasons for his addiction. Problems with family? School? Lack of career opportunities? "All these things are important, but they are not the essence of it," says Boyle. "The essence of it, and why you'll never get at it, is because it's hidden in there in this guy. It's completely intangible, and you can't quite get hold of it. He'll slip away from you. You'll think you'll define him and then he'll slip away."
Britain's Channel 4, which funded "Shallow Grave," came up with "Trainspotting's" $2.5 million budget.
How might "Trainspotting" have turned out if it had been made by Hollywood?
No dead baby. "You don't get dead babies in American movies," says Boyle. "Also, Renton would have reformed much more specifically, whereas it's very ambiguous at the moment whether he has reformed or not."
Hodge smirks. "He would have undergone personal growth."
Certainly, if "Trainspotting" was a product of Hollywood, it would not have included the film's soon-to-be-legendary toilet scene, which rivals Quentin Tarantino's ear-cutting horror in "Reservoir Dogs" as one of the grossest-ever movie moments. Suffice to say that Renton must probe the nether watery realms of "the worst toilet in Scotland" for opium suppositories he has inadvertently dropped there.
The scene quickly takes a turn for the fantastic. "We wanted to make a film that wasn't just a tribute to the book, but could stand alone as a piece of cinema," says Hodge. "You want to make use of those tools which are available to you in cinema -- visual surprise, juxtaposition -- because you cannot compete with the subtlety and nuances you can achieve when writing prose."
"Trainspotting" received a rating of "18" in England, roughly equivalent to the American R, which is the film's rating here. Boyle made two minor cuts to avoid an NC-17 rating, one from a sex scene, the other from a particularly graphic shooting-up sequence.
The trio's next film, a "romantic adventure" titled "A Life Less Ordinary," is being funded by 20th Century Fox, and Boyle insists that they are ready for Hollywood. He's amused by colleagues who work there and whine about the way they're treated. "It's quite laughable really, because they never say that they were paid a million dollars, or that they were part of a major entertainment business," he says. "You can't be stupid enough to think that these people are not going to want you to do the film the way they want it to be done. You borrow $40 million from somebody, you're not just gonna say, `Now [expletive] off please, just leave me alone will you?' "
Both "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" depict the disintegration of friendships, but Boyle would argue that there's a stronger link between the two. "The real energy in the films comes from the fact that the characters are masters of their own fate. They accept that responsibility in a good way and a bad way, and it gives [the films] great vitality."
" `Trainspotting' is full of life, full of vitality," he says. "The irony is that it's about heroin, which is about extinguishing life."
A `Trainspotting' Translator
Americans who read "Trainspotting" may have some trouble with its language. Sample dialogue: "Ah'll gie ye ma tie tae pit oan, n some speed. Buck ye up a bit, let ye sel yirself, ken?" (I'll give you my tie to put on and some speed. Buck you up a bit, let you sell yourself, you know?)
The filmmakers briefly considered subtitles for the movie's American release. Instead, they redubbed some sections, with the actors speaking in accents that are a bit less thick. The soundtrack was also remixed with the voices in front, which gives audiences a slightly better chance of discerning the dialogue over the noisy background music. Some -- but not all -- of the slang was replaced by dialogue Americans would understand. Here is a partial glossary:
Biscuit-arsed: A derogatory adjective referring to someone who is crumbly, not hard.
Giro: Welfare check. As in "your Giro's [expletive] finished." The bank that issues public assistance checks is the National Giro Bank.
Gadge: A harmless guy, a nerd. "[He] picks on this specky wee gadge at the bar."
Punter: An ordinary person who wants something -- such as, though not necessarily, heroin.
Doss: This one, according to Hodge, is "untranslatable"; it usually precedes an expletive and implies worthlessness.
Puff: Life. As in: "Here I was surrounded by my family and my so-called mates and I've never felt so alone, never in all my puff." (Think "puff" as in breath.)
Top yourself: Kill yourself. Once the pain of heroin withdrawal fades, Renton explains in the film, "you feel so [expletive] low, you'll want to [expletive] top yourself."
Humpty: Upset and irritable. "If I'd known you were going to get so humpty about it, I wouldn't have bothered." Where does this one come from? Humpty Dumpty's mood following his great fall.