Flashback Film Friends is a series in which a Jezebel staffer watches a movie she or he has seen a million times, with a staffer who has never seen it once. Then they discuss—just like friends.
Oh it’s such a perfect day... to discuss Danny Boyle’s international smash Trainspotting, which hit the ground running in 1996, as it is also the release date of Boyle’s nostalgia-drenched Trainspotting sequel, T2 Trainspotting. I loved this movie when it came out, and I’ve continued to love it over the years. Like Heathers and Halloween, it’s a movie that I’m always aware that I love, but upon watching it am always shocked by just how deep that love goes. It has the best flat-out pacing I’ve ever seen on film. Its excitement remains contagious and its witty dialogue charms as hard as it ever did.
Granted, this movie hit me when I had far more capacity for falling in love with a movie and being dazzled by self-conscious coolness. To test if Trainspotting holds up or if you had to be there, we decided to look back on this movie through the lens of an enthusiast (me) as well as someone who hadn’t watched the film before this week, my brilliant colleague Clover Hope. What follows is our discussion as to whether Trainspotting deserves its classic status.
RICH: A big part of Trainspotting’s appeal was its alignment with Britpop—in 1996, it arrived at the arguable creative peak of ‘90s popular British rock. Trainspotting committed to film a lot of the working-class themes and disaffected but leisurely spirit of the music, and its soundtrack was populated with icons of the scene like Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream, and Elastica, as well as adjacent electronic acts like Underworld and Bedrock, and some forebears like New Order and Iggy Pop. I wonder if you had any relationship to Britpop or its influences, and if that mattered at all to you when watching this movie, 21 years later.
CLOVER: I did not have a relationship with Britpop growing up, and I was around 13 when this movie came out. I’d never even heard of Trainspotting until I saw the trailer for the sequel floating around. I also wasn’t aware that the soundtrack was so revered, so it’s funny that I noticed, while watching, how much the music felt seamlessly part of the narrative (at some points, it felt like watching a thread of music videos). I started Shazam-ing songs I didn’t recognize (Ice MC, “Think About the Way”) and it made me reminisce about how movie soundtracks were so integral to the ’90s (there are so many good ones that I still listen to from that era). Also, I have to mention that I mistakenly started watching this movie without subtitles and was completely lost; I had to turn them on.
R: I definitely started watching this on repeat when VHS was still the home-video medium of choice, and in my recollection my DVD didn’t have a subtitle options. So when I watched the Blu-ray recently, which did come with subs, it really was like wearing glasses for the first time: “Ohhh, he’s saying, ‘Fuckin’ biscuit-arsed.’” This is an unapologetically Scottish movie, and if you aren’t attuned to the accent, you’ll miss a lot. That would be a shame, because the dialogue is almost uniformly brilliant and dryly hilarious and the movie moves at a rush. In fact, though there are so many things I love about this movie, it is the pacing that I admire the most. I’ve just never experienced a movie that makes time zip by the way Trainspotting does. Did that stick out to you? And, hey, did you actually like this movie?
C: Haha, there’s also the fact that the thick Scottish (regional?) accents varied by character. I did really like the movie and especially the pacing. The narration kind of hooked me right away and felt like reading a novel out loud. I found the writing to be succinct and “pretty” in many parts. Like, it flowed. I was actually surprised that the narration didn’t feel excessive, which can happen with coming of age movies. So many quotables—“I chose not to choose life” is one I wrote down and the phrase “junkie limbo,” which I thought accurately described the journey of these characters. The opening in particular was also just really great at explaining the toxic allure of drugs. The story gives you a “why” right away and then you’re like, okay what are they gonna do?
R: “There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
I agree about the illustration of the toxic allure of drugs, and I think Trainspotting set a benchmark in the depiction of drugs on screen. Instead of pathologizing its addict characters in its representation of their drug use, it humanizes them by exploring why anyone would want to do heroin in the first place. Because it operates on empathy, it’s been accused of glamorizing the drug. (Most notably in the U.S. by Bob Dole, who was running for president at the time.)
That wasn’t my experience, though. If anything, this movie hammered home the message that I should never try the stuff, precisely because I’d rather not know what I’m missing. (And also I don’t want to be implicated in the death of a baby via negligence.) There is a sort of irreverent tone throughout, though: Speed is fodder for a humorous setup (it made the 2004 unveiling of the Faces of Meth campaign all the more shocking) and Renton sleeping with an underage girl is of no major concern to neither her nor her parents, who merely regard him suspiciously when he shows up in their dining room the morning after. There’s a real lack of the kind of caution such a movie would be expected to exercise today, I think. I wonder how dated the movie scanned to you.
C: It reminded me of another cautionary adolescent film, Kids. There’s definitely a recklessness to their actions, and I wonder if some of the narrative choices would fly today (I doubt it). The baby scene was really startling. I SCREAMED throughout the toilet scene, it was so gross. And yeah, there’s an overall flippant way in which Mark responds to what’s happening around him. I partly took that as a reflection of how numbing drugs can be, especially over time. And considering how extremely anxious I am and how much of a scaredycat I was growing up, seeing this movie back then would’ve totally turned me off to trying heroin or even prescription drugs. Some of the criticism was probably the typical overreacting adult; the idea that if kids even see people doing drugs, they’re going to want to do it. The way drugs were depicted here, though, was as a crutch and temporary pleasure that inevitably caused destruction. At least, that’s how I felt as an adult watching it, but who knows what my teen mind would’ve been thinking. Oh,“heroin has personality” was another good line.
R: I love this exchange:
Mother Superior: Would sir care for a starter? Some garlic bread perhaps?
Renton: No thank you. I’ll proceed directly to the intravenous injection of hard drugs, please.
Rewatching this movie for the... mmm, 25th time (?), it struck me how I’ve internalized some of it. There’s a scene where Sickboy and Renton are in the park discussing Sickboy’s “unifying theory of life”: “At one point you’ve got it and then you lose it and then it’s gone forever.” Without really realizing its source, I’ve applied this to so many artists I’ve admired and worried about what its inevitability means for my own creativity. I mean, if Prince can lose it (he barely made an album worth listening to during the last two decades of his life after releasing a good 10-year stream of unmissable music), anybody can.
It’s funny, though, the way Danny Boyle plays off this idea—Sickboy cites Lou Reed’s post-Velvet Underground work as “shite” and then we hear “Perfect Day” used so movingly during Renton’s overdose scene. Boyle points his irreverence at his own material—that is what makes Trainspotting so tonally distinct. No matter how serious the movie gets, no matter how grave its scenarios, it’s never too far from smirking. (Take the scene where Renton prepares to kick heroin the first time and an instrumental version of “Habanera” from Carmen plays in the background, providing almost mocking levity.) I feel like that always smirking/almost smirking attitude rubbed off on me as well.
C: I remember kids saying “shite” instead of “shit” being a thing in middle school or around then. Was that a thing?
R: It was definitely a thing amongst me and my friends, who were all obsessed with this movie, its soundtrack, Irvine Welsh’s book that inspired it, and equating British with cool.
C: I watched this with my boyfriend who’d already seen the movie years ago and he commented on how visually it “looks dirty,” in a good way, and he mentioned that David Fincher named Trainspotting as an inspiration for Fight Club (typical MAN). It’s intentionally grimy, which aesthetically fits the subject and maybe was also a reflection of the masculine obsession with dirt and body fluids as a source of humor and grotesque. I thought the surreality was effective, too. Mark tripping out and seeing visions of the dead baby on the ceiling… Him being pulled into the toilet and the drowning imagery. What did you think of it visually at first and did that change the more you rewatched it?
R: The picture definitely has that shot-through-a-cheesecloth quality of pre-digital British media. You know, I don’t know if the invention at hand impressed me then nearly as much as it does now. Boyle’s willingness to go visually surreal to emphasize his characters’ emotional states (Renton sinking into the carpet well past where the floor should be during his overdose is another example) is so seamless it’s easy to take for granted. Movies just don’t have their characters diving into a toilet to fetch opium suppositories only to find an ocean’s worth of water as an ambient Brian Eno track plays. This really adds to the feeling that anything in this movie is possible and underscores the unending sense of play at hand. Trainspotting is, above everything else, an incredibly fun time.
Is that all it is, though? Do you think you’ll take anything away from this movie (I sure did but my brain was much younger and more absorbent when I first watched)? Or is it just a cinematic thundercrack, a blast of fun that’s over when it’s over?
C: Right, after it was over I was like, okay it’s over. Lol. But then I remembered the sequel is coming out and thought, well, where can they take this story? And will it be good or worth it? (I will most likely see T2.) I just don’t feel like I ever want a reunion of characters from iconic movies in my childhood. As for takeaways, there’s no lingering theme that I’m thinking about, though I’m always interested in looking at the vices people seek to escape a dark reality. And I’ve been thinking about how the narration was so poetic. But I can’t say I relate to the desire to do hard drugs, and even as a teen I was so scared of what they would do to me. I do keep replaying in my mind all those “Drugs are bad, don’t do drugs” commercials from my youth.
R: It’s heartening to read that you’re choosing life, Clover. I’m not sure that I would have been so impacted by this movie if it didn’t hit me when it did (at age 17), but as I’ve continued to watch this movie over the years, more and more has stuck out to me. I used to think these characters were so cool and now their terrible regard for humanity (that of strangers, each other’s, and their own) makes them decidedly less admirable. I also think it’s fascinating that they’re so wrapped up in nostalgia, constantly calling back to pop culture of old. Are they stuck in the past because drugs have arrested their development or made it impossible to keep up with the times or merely as a refuge from the moment-intensifying rush of heroin? Or are they just classicist snobs? It’s a hard call to make, but it’s an idea explored very thoroughly and effectively in T2. But I’d say that all of the nostalgia in the first movie is part of why it’s aged so well (you look back on the characters looking back) and why this movie resonates, as immediately as ever.