Trainspotting feels familiar, [mostly] in a good way. Its postmodern verve—the insouciant approach to linear narrative, the abrupt forays into subjective vision and stylistic effects, the hyperbolic pop-culture literacy of its protagonists—reminds one of the time when such flourishes were new and exciting. It brings to mind a lineage, or perhaps a network, of films from the 90s with a similar look and feel.
The influence of Quentin Tarantino, for example, is apparent: one can imagine that if Tarantino were to make a film about something as mundane as loser junkies failing to quit their vices, you imagine said junkies might spend a considerable amount of screen time arguing about Sean Connery. Closer to Trainspotting’s Scottish stomping grounds, one can see in the film the seeds of early Guy Ritchie fare like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels . Trainspotting even gives one a better idea of what Edgar Wright is lovingly mocking with the stylistic excesses in buddy comedies like Spaced [TV, 1999-2001] and Shaun of the Dead .
It seems to me, though, that the film from the era that Trainspotting has the most in common with is Fight Club . Both were adaptations by upstart auteurs [Danny Boyle and David Fincher, respectively] of acclaimed but relatively unknown novels about the disaffection bred by life in the globalized liberal order—an order that, in the immediate post-Cold War era, seemed comfortable, immutable, and very smug. Each story is also very explicitly about the state of masculinity in that order.
Consider Renton’s [Ewan McGregor’s] thesis statement, a version of which is delivered in voice over both at the beginning and the end of the film:
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 good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?
And here, a line from Tyler Durden [Brad Pitt in Fight Club]:
Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can’t think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? Do you read everything you’re supposed to read? Do you think everything you’re supposed to think? Buy what you’re told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive. If you don’t claim your humanity you will become a statistic.
Granted Durden’s appeal to an alternate lifestyle is couched much more in grandiose, existential language, but both films are clearly about characters who push back against commercialized, staid existence with extreme—some might say “abject”—expressions of their masculinity. In Trainspotting, it’s heroin and poop; in Fight Club, it’s fighting and blood. And in each, the protagonists’ rebellion against prescribed identities is presented with aesthetic and narrative novelty—appealing stylizations that bend reality into the shape of their protagonists’ embattled inner lives, along with not-entirely-linear story progression. [Although Fight Club, made three years later in the US, does so with the benefit of a Hollywood budget and digital effects.]
“Masculinity”—this is what these films have in common. Trainspotting, Fight Club, and many of the films from the era that can be grouped with them are often interpreted as either being about or being a response to a supposed crisis in masculinity, the retreat of a dominant masculine ego-ideal, the decline of fixed social ideals in general. This is not the first time this has been pointed out about Trainspotting, of course; even Boyle et al acknowledge that the series is about masculinity.
Trainspotting, like Fight Club, handles the topic with energy, humor, and biting sarcasm. Many of its heroin-addicted young men, though ostensibly opposed to the mainstream world, are clearly grotesque perversions of its archetypes and ideology: Sick Boy, the clever and self-interested capitalist [Johnny Lee Miller]; Begbie, the anti-hero’s raging id [Robert Carlyle]; Tommy, the failed jock [Kevin McKidd]. Our hero, Renton [Ewan McGregor] tries to manufacture a kind of rom-com meet-cute, only to have the trope deconstructed on the spot by Diane [Kelly MacDonald], the target of his advances, who nevertheless sleeps with him—and turns out to be an underage teenager.
Fight Club is controversial in many circles for its seeming fascist tendencies, its apparent belief in purification through violence and in a kind of violent, essential ur-masculinity repressed by neoliberal capitalism [represented, in a motif that charmingly dates film, by consumer catalogs]. Whether Fight Club, the book or the film, represents anti-capitalism of the left or right wing—or actually anti-capitalist in any way—is another discussion for another time; clearly its treatment of the topic is not unambiguous. This makes it easy to read, if one is so inclined, as an assertion of a reactionary kind of masculinity.
It’s much harder to read Trainspotting as something like a right-wing reclamation of a pre-modern masculinity—its model hews much more closely to punk than to caveman—but it shares with Fight Club that playful, postmodern tone that does make it easy to delight in the masculine excesses of its protagonists while ignoring—or even delighting in—the film’s clear sense of irony. [Irony, one might point out about our contemporary age, often no longer carries a subversive edge.] Many scenes skirt a thin line, showing abject-masculine acts with fun visual flair. For example, when Begbie casually tosses a beer glass over a railing and, after a freeze-frame, it lands on a woman’s head off-screen [only later do we see her bloodied face] what are we laughing at, and with whom are we identifying? In Fight Club, when Tyler Durden bares his muscles and demands to be punched, are we raising a skeptical eyebrow or feeling a rush of testeronic catharsis?
This ambivalence is why Trainspotting and Fight Club are sometimes—at the risk of sounding [especially] elitist—liked for the wrong reasons. To explain: what precipitates the so-called crisis of masculinity in these films is masculinity itself, masculinity as a social norm and the resentment it breeds. This is an important—even, depending on how it’s delivered, a feminist—topic. But there is inherent danger in imagining masculinity to be “in crisis”: masculinity is always allegedly in crisis. Maintaining the illusion that there is some crisis in the freedom of men to express their true masculinity has been the strategy of patriarchal culture for decades, if not well over a century. And while Trainspotting and Fight Club also treat their rebellious, repressed protagonists with a hefty dose of ironic distance, they might be easily appropriated by men who feel society has somehow turned against masculinity.
My perception is that, the considerable artistic merits and thematic complexity of Trainspotting and Fight Club aside, a kind of “’90s Macho Canon” grew up around them; usually, like Fight Club, mildly successful films that gained a [certain kind of] cult following on video. This theoretical canon would include films like the superficially similar Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and any number of Tarantino knock-offs. But in truth, one-note Guy Ritchie movies have little in common with Trainspotting or Fight Club beyond a general hyper-sylization and a willingness to approach the abject frankly.
In actuality, of course, no “correct” way of reading or categorizing a film, and no way to control the way people receive things. But that doesn’t preclude anyone from insisting that Trainspotting and Fight Club are better than a lot of their fans.