Trainspotting (1996) Directed by Danny Boyle

Nick :
Just as we finished watching Trainspotting last night, my twitter feed lit up with news that members of Blur and Oasis (with Paul Weller in tow) had performed together for the first time ever. Since those animosity days surrounding the Britpop wars between the two bands, this was a very cuddly, middle aged conclusion to a onetime nasty rock'n'roll feud. We've all moved on from the mid-1990's when the Union Jack was omni-present and presented as some vestige of cool. Looking back now – New Labor, Britpop and that sense of hope that surrounded those times has nowadays dissipated into an embarrassing memory of falsehood and shattered optimism. British flag waving has never seemed so disillusioned. Who would have thought that Blair would become a war mongering Tory sympathizer (Thatcher MKII)? Oasis, who won the Britpop war, would become a bargain bin favourite at jumble slaes, a band no one admits to liking now. Losers Blur (and especially Damon Albarn) have become an enduring British institution and arguably one of the most memorable UK bands ever. And Danny Boyle would direct the Olympic ceremony.

If there is one film that ties itself to this period (much more than Irvine Welsh's book does) – and specifically a moment of British youth culture of the time – then it's Trainspotting. Many a student dorm would have been furnished with a Trainspotting poster. After many years since watching this, it all came back to me. The semi-glamorous idealisation of heroin chic, the Britpop soundtrack peppered with some Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The juxtaposition of idealistic junkie humor and the grim reality of being an addict. Trainspotting HAS dated. It's actually hard to think that people took this film remotely seriously at the time. Looking back at Trainspotting you realize what a ludicrous character Begbie is –and how badly played he is by Robert Carlyle. It's worse than pantomime. Actually, all of Renton's (a passable Ewan McGregor) friends are so poorly scripted/developed they are left withering in this hollow film. As Trainspotting deals with drug addled cliché after cliché I'm shocked I used to rate this.

There are moments that still work. The opening scene (which has passed into folklore) still has a compelling energy, mainly thanks to Iggy's Lust For Life. Some of this film is funny in a very adolescent way. Boyle keeps the action moving and the energy levels high. But a film that wants to show the hard hitting Edinburgh drug scene of the time has a soft, made-for-TV underbelly and runs out of fizz with half an hour to go. Trainspotting has nothing left to say in the end other than 'conforming is probably best for you'. The film looks cheap, with little imagination on how it's been shot. I'm being hard on the film, but maybe it needs another 10 years distance from now before it starts to work again. Movies are like this. Boyle has gone onto win Oscars while McGregor got to be a Jedi Knight. Trainspotting wants to be Definitely Maybe, but we mostly get Be Here Now.

If my memory serves me right, I saw Trainspotting pretty soon after it came out. I was so impressed I also read the book. It's also possible, that I read the book first (with the movie poster on the cover) and saw the film later...In any case, I remember thinking that 'getting' Trainspotting was somehow important and almost crucial to my existence. Blaah, how melodramatic can life get when you are a teenager? I wish I could turn time back and tell my younger self to relax. I would add that this is really not an important movie to get, it's not that fantastic and if it makes you feel so bad and sad and lost, don't bloody well read the book too...

OK, too late (I wasted my time and now I'm here watching this masterpiece again), but at least this time Nick was kind enough to fastforward past the bit where the dead baby shows up in a hallucination and there's something sick about an eye (I'm not sure cause I didn't look that way).
Admittedly, Trainspotting was kind of laugh-out-loud funny a couple of times, but most of the time it just showed up the 1990s as not so cool, aesthetically pathetic and otherwise dull and depressing. Yes, Ewan was very skinny. But like I've said before to Nick, can he really claim that Britpop was such an amazing innovation? Is the 1990s really worth feeling all retromaniac about? And boy was it depressing to watch the depiction of drug addiction. It's just so sad.

Culturally it now seems that the 90s represented the last true huffs'n'puffs of the white male overload (for want of a better description right now). Since then movies, music and art in general have made a little bit more space for different colors, different takes on gender and sexuality and so on. Trainspotting  looks dated now and I can see clearly that I did not really have any one or anything to identify with in the film so no wonder it was such hard work growing up. As a cinema experience Trainspotting was very faulty and as social commentary it appears confused. Goodbye, I won't be watching you again.


  1. Erm, no the Union Flag was not everywhere in the 1990s. The Britpop war between Blur, Oasis and Pulp was record label engineered marketing, not a feud, which happily put a big line under the dreadful era of Indie of the early 1990s. You forget to mention that Blur gave up being creative and in fact turned into Chas and Dave what with their big house in the country and all of that. They also sold out and their music can be heard in British Gas TV commercials right now. So much for being an institution.

    The movie is something written (the script that is) by people who take e and coke and is their imagined version of what it is like to be a heroin addict. The film is not accurate, not meant to be accurate and nobody actually took it seriously when it came out. However the subject matter was actually quite terse for the time, it is a quite well-directed film, helped by some superb editing and a nice soundtrack. All of the characters play panto characters, Begbie the most and it works well because they are all 2D characterisations of people that don't exist. The Begbie character was actually quite shocking because the character is that of a jocose sociopath, more real than the others. The film has dated quite a lot, it is probably Boyle's best, but you don't compare it with anything exactly contemporary such as Nicolas Refn's Pusher which is a far darker and nastier film. Trainspotting is like On The Buses compared to that movie. I would like to see TS without the music track, it would be a lot like Play For Today in the 1970s, decidedly grim and the holes in the direction would start to show.

    Btw Tony Blair sold out and became a war-monger a mere two years into his time as PM with the humanitarian war in the Balkans that he helped to wage.

    1. re. the union jack: i recall covers of vanity fair, various music magazines, noel gallagher's UJ guitar at knebworth, morrissey draped in the flag at Madstock etc etc.. it was everywhere (certainly amongst the environs of pop culture). RE. Blur. They actually turned very quickly to a slacker US lo-fi/experimental sound as the britpop bubble burst (and left chas and dave behind) and made their best music then. I dont know if it's Boyle's best film, i dont think it's as sharp as Shallow Grave. As for Blair, we were all conned there (perhaps after years of tory rule?) Thanks for droppin in.Nick


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