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From the Vaults: ‘Trainspotting’

By Tianxing V. Lan, Crimson Staff Writer

Just as rock and roll would be lackluster without the topless teens at music festivals, “Trainspotting” owes its charm largely to the cult surrounding it. For the believers, the film is some sort of 90s proletarian manifesto thrown into the face of a stupid century: Either you dig it and dance along to “Lust for Life,” or you are spoiled bourgeois scum and to hell with your phony attitude and your dental insurance. It is counterculture at its most triumphant, and the protagonists, who are too fast to live and too young to die, are fin-de-siècle Hamlets.

Kids of the 60s took it to the street, but kids of the 90s took it in the vein. It is not just because—as the old saying goes—the total onset of materialism paralysed the individual. Rather, all that the individual craved now was to be paralyzed. And while I first watched “Trainspotting” more than a decade after its release, I thought that I felt exactly the same as those young people. To me, everything in the film is a metaphor for my own situation: The drugs symbolize an escapism rooted in nihilism, the grown-ups embody a reality simultaneously alienating and intimidating, and the time (after the so-called “end of history” and before the turn of the millennium) and place (Scotland, a country that “can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by”) stand for the total marginalization that anyone with the wrong class or race is born into. While obscene by most social standards, what the protagonist Renton and his little group settle on seemed to me to be the natural, almost innocuous reaction to all these miseries. After all, they are not attempting to overthrow anything. All they want is to retreat into the void of heroin and discotheques, the world forgetting, by the world forgot. Don’t they at least have the right to that? They are not hurting anyone other than themselves….

Except it is not true. There’s no such thing as “choose not to choose,” because passive self-indulgence brings about active harm, and that is the part of the film that I didn’t understand until much later. The first encounter with the real world happens when Renton wakes up in Diane’s home and finds the disco queen from the night before now wearing a private school uniform and standing by her happily middle-class parents. The awkwardness only foreshadows the tragic deaths of Allison’s baby and Tommy, both due to the irresponsible behavior of the group. At these occasions, Renton, who usually seems so in control and carefree, who is so proud to be anti-everything, can only sit aside speechless and sheepishly cook up like real scum.

It may be inconvenient to think of one’s responsibilities and connections to a world that he doesn’t want to be part of, but they exist nevertheless. It is all too easy to blame everything on the rich people and act the working class hero, but that is just sheer cowardice. While Renton and his so-called friends prefer to think of themselves as forgotten children of the civilization, they are in fact its leeches. They desire to be marginalized, to be outcasts, so that they can be content not caring for anyone else. But there is nothing cool about it. There is nothing cool about hurting other people and ignoring one’s responsibilities, and calling it authenticity or subversiveness.

That is what I thought when I last watched “Trainspotting” a year ago, and this time I was skeptical of the film’s ending. The kids are easily given a second chance, through which Renton is able to escape even further, but where is he going to escape to? Even after he abandons the rest of group, he still has to decide between being society’s pest or its accomplice. The intrinsic self-contradictions of the alternative lifestyle still holds. Maybe that’s where film and reality differ. An open ending can be an integral part of a film, but in life you have to choose.

—Staff writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at

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