The Ingredience Series


It’s a story about choices.

The film opens with a voiceover by Ewan McGregor (in his stunning performance as Mark Renton), describing myriad choices available to us all: “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose sitting on the couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows.”

He then goes on to tell us that he and his friends have chosen none of these. Instead, they’ve chosen heroin -- which is a decidedly simpler choice for the shortsighted. Devote your life to only one thing, and all the others, with their trappings and downfalls, won’t concern you. Of course, the alternative benefits will elude you as well; apparently, that’s a chance some are willing to take.

Trainspotting, based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, is a kaleidoscopic sojourn with several youths -- Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Tommy -- who, for various reasons, choose to make heroin their life. Renton attempts to offer some explanation as to just what’s so great about the fruit of the poppy: “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite ... which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. Take the best sex you’ve had, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near it.”

Opinions vary on Trainspotting’s accuracy in depicting the junkie lifestyle. My limited experience around addicts indicates that their biggest threat to society lies in their inability or refusal to be responsible for anything, combined with mounting desperation as their supply of smack is exhausted. This is not to say they’re harmless; far from it. But it might better serve to move past feelings of revulsion or contempt, and consider addiction as a disturbing reflection on society as a whole and, to some extent, everyone’s concern. It is to the credit of all involved in the making of this film that the main characters, while not remotely enviable, elicit some sympathy and desire to learn from whence their demons sprang.

Furthering understanding of societal ills is, in part, about destroying myths, and Trainspotting takes on this task with grand irony. The story’s most volatile force is its lone smack-free principle character: Francis Begbie, who is no more successful than his junkie mates at controlling his own substance choice, alcohol. I was raised on countless television crime shows that perpetuated the image of the wild-eyed maniacal junkie versus the social drinker. With Begbie’s hair-trigger temper and unpredictable spurts of violence, Trainspotting stands that myth on its head.

The opening scenes are joie de vivre gone askance: quick cuts of running wild in the streets interspersed with reflections of ecstasy as the drug courses through veins ... complemented by Renton’s compelling narration and Iggy Pop’s anthem, “Lust for Life”. As we get acquainted with the ensemble, the story moves along at a brisk pace with vignettes that are by turn energetic, hilarious and repugnant. Spud’s job interview stands out, along with our glimpse of “the worst toilet in Scotland”. Sick Boy (looking anything but; what’s that handsome lad doing in a place like this) engages us with a soliloquy about James Bond as Renton gazes at him blearily across the cavernous room. We see Tommy, whose addiction appears to be physical fitness, contemplating a taste of heroin when his girlfriend finally leaves him after a mix-up involving one of the couple’s highly personal videos. And one and all share a growing concern over the accelerating psychopathic actions of the knife-wielding Begbie, their worries usually dispensed with, “but what can y’ do? After all, he’s a mate.”

Then something goes terribly, tragically wrong. And, as Renton tells us, “everything was going to be bad. And everything was going to be even worse than it was.”

We then pick up where the film began, except now we’re informed. It is no longer possible to reconcile the Beatle-esque romp with the lost, strident desperation that we now realize motivates the characters as they run for their lives. This montage coupled with the horrific truth is enhanced by the film’s rich soundtrack -- Blur’s “Sing”, a poignant, atmospheric melody that begs us to empathize or sympathize, to some extent, choice notwithstanding.

As Trainspotting progresses into a concocted drug scheme, Begbie’s violence compounds, along with Renton’s weariness of his lifestyle and companions. When he acts upon one more decision after some consideration, our responses are varied. Begbie pretty much gets what he deserves; Sick Boy will manage one way or another; the hapless Spud will go on just as he is -- amiable and doomed -- and we hope somehow, somewhere, he will get a break.  Our response to Renton’s choice is cautiously optimistic, combined with an uneasiness at the sentiments expressed in his final soliloquy as he crosses the bridge, hopeful smile and youthful features blurring into an unrecognizable mask that fills the screen.

Reviews for Trainspotting appear to split into two schools of thought: some believe it glamorizes heroin use. Others believe it’s unrealistic, that the reality is far more dismal. There is no glamour here. It boggles my mind that anyone could come away from it thinking, “that’s the life for me”. This is my standard response to films accused of celebrating antiheroes or violent lifestyle choices, from Bonnie and Clyde to The Panic in Needle Park to Pulp Fiction. Rather than blaming the movies, it might be better to ask, what is missing in society to lead an average movie patron of (presumably) reasonable intelligence to decide, for example, that Russian Roulette looks like a good idea after watching The Deerhunter? Solutions begin with increased understanding. Trainspotting may not be as hard-hitting as reality (and that’s fine with me), but it does shed some light on the issue of substance abuse. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that, while certain aspects of Welsh’s characters are somewhat appealing and even likeable, heroin addiction solves nothing. Like all avoidance tactics, it can only last for so long. Unlike some avoidance tactics, it has been proven to be deadly. Heads up, moviegoers - it’s a bad idea!

As for Begbie, his antics were almost enough to put me off alcohol for awhile. Almost. Then common sense returned, and I resumed my modest intake of red wine, several times a week. For medicinal purposes, of course.


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