20 years ago, Mark Renton’s jailbait girlfriend Diane told him, “You’re not getting any younger, Mark. The world is changing, music is changing, even drugs are changing. You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop.”
“It’s Iggy Pop.”
“Whatever, I mean the guy’s dead anyway.”
Two decades later, Iggy Pop is still alive, and in that time, the young people he was irrelevant to aren’t young anymore. They’ve graduated high school, gotten jobs, gotten married, had children, become lawyers (at least in Diane’s case). Iggy Pop’s lecturing proponents, meanwhile, are still lecturing. They’re older and wiser, but are they still worth listening to when their lust for life has turned to general malaise?
If you’ll remember (and Trainspotting 2 seems designed strictly for those intimately familiar with the first), Trainspotting ended with Ewan MacGregor’s Mark Renton (the introspective, relatable junkie) ripping off his friends Sick Boy and Begbie (Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlysle, the Tragic Junkie and the Psychopath, respectively) of their £4,000 share of a drug deal (leaving a share for innocent Spud, the Pathetic Junkie, played by Ewan Bremmer). Mark walks off into the sunset with the £12,000, presumably to go live a better life somewhere, freed of his dead-end friends, freed of Scotland, and who knows, maybe even of heroin.
Watching the first Trainspotting 20 years later, it’s striking how little meaningful content there was. The gang argues pop culture, a la Clerks or Pulp Fiction, has artfully executed drug trips, a la every drug movie ever, and the everyday travails of Edinburgh junkies are given pizzazz with cheeky voiceover, MTV editing, and magical realism (The Worst Toilet in Scotland). Aside from being memorably gross (I can’t think of another film that contains two separate set pieces involving visible feces), more than anything, Trainspotting was a stylish middle finger (or a stylish two fingers, as it were), two hours of slickly-packaged disaffection with just enough of a happy ending that you didn’t leave the theater feeling just as depressed as its characters.
This isn’t entirely a criticism, by the way. Trainspotting effectively utilized punk rock’s MO (especially the openly commercial punk and grunge of the ’90s), where, with enough boldness, directness, and attitude, it doesn’t matter that you’re playing the same three-chord progression we’ve all heard a million times before. The most representative story arc is Tommy (played by Kevin McKidd, who would go on to achieve acting immortality with his portrayal of Lucius Vorenus in Rome), who was very close to being Where ’90s Tropes Go To Die. Tommy begins the movie as a clean-cut, jock teetotaler, but after Renton swipes his sex tape, it ruins Tommy’s relationship with Lizzy and he turns to heroin. (How often did a misplaced sex tape become a plot device in a ’90s movie? Well, besides Road Trip, Trainspotting, and Overnight Delivery, enough to have its own page on TV Tropes. In 2014 there was even a movie called Sex Tape. Remember that? Eh, sort of.)
Anyway, even though Tommy is the straight arrow non-junkie who was only pushed to heroin by his friends,he’s the one who ends up getting AIDS and dying young. So far, it’s basically every after-school drug special ever (using AIDS as a narrative punishment is a subject for another article). What makes Trainspotting special is the manner of death. Tommy doesn’t just slowly succumb to his disease to punish Renton for his sins and underscore life’s inherent unfairness. What gets Tommy in the end is toxoplasmosis. Apparently, we learn (through a friend telling Renton the story at Tommy’s funeral), Tommy had bought Lizzy a kitten in a misguided attempt at reconciliation, which didn’t work, leaving him stuck with the unwanted kitten, which shat and pissed up his apartment while he relapsed. Eventually, he died from the poisonous fumes. This arc is both Trainspotting in a nutshell and a fairly representative summation of Irvine Welsh as a novelist. It’s the same stylized cautionary tale as Requiem for a Dream, and umpteen other things, but funnier, and with more choking on shit fumes. Kind of the narrative equivalent of Kurt Cobain banging out the Three’s Company theme on an out-of-tune guitar while sneering. So hopelessly ’90s and yet so good.
Trainspotting 2, meanwhile, is Trainspotting‘s mirror image, full of insight and clever observations, but instead of ending with the possibility that Renton might go off to live a better life, he ends up stuck in purgatory, forced to relive the same stylized heroin nightmare for all eternity. Instead of a fashionable angry middle finger with just a kernel of hope, it’s a bit of clear-eyed, sobering self-reflection and social commentary, that’s nonetheless doomed, trapped inexorably up its own ass. It’s lost its sneer and so it’s depressing, like the ironic t-shirt you’re buried in.
I didn’t expect to care about how a group of ex-junkies were finding their place in the world, but that was actually the best part. Spud, after relapsing a few times and losing his kid, has become a home project junkie and aspiring writer, recounting tales from his drug past (the one we saw in Trainspotting — it makes sense that it’d make for a straightforward narrative since it already was one), literally exploiting his own youth. Renton is back from Amsterdam, where he’d fled 20 years ago with the gang’s cash and made a life. Only now his marriage is crumbling and his job is about to be outsourced. Which is how he gets caught up in a scheme with Sick Boy (Simon now) to bankroll a brothel with an EU loan.
There’s a scene in Trainspotting 2 that’s a pitch perfect update of the courtroom scene in the first film — the one where Renton tells the judge, “With God’s help, I’ll conquer this addiction.”
The judge is 85% sure Renton is full of shit, but he can’t call Renton on it, because if he does, he’ll betray his own full-of-shitness. In the updated version, Renton attempts to scam an EU loan with old newsreel footage of Scotland’s historic Leith waterfront, promising to return the now run down area to its glory days, and do exactly what the small business loans are designed to do. The loans mostly don’t and can’t return a lost past, but if the council denied Renton on those grounds, they’d expose the entire process for the farce it is.
It’s a beautiful scene, as is one where Renton and Simon bilk a Unionist pub where the patrons all want to live in an idealized past when Britain’s Catholics were rightfully suppressed.
And so it is Trainspotting 2 seems well conscious and critical of its own ‘member berries appeal. (God bless South Park for creating such a perfect shorthand for this phenomenon.) As Simon’s Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) teases them, “Where I come from, the past is something to forget.” And “you’re a tourist in your own youth.”
The depressing thing about Trainspotting 2 is that awareness never translates to agency. The pitfalls it’s all too conscious of are the same ones it falls right into. Begbie, who was probably the best character in the first, is to Trainspotting 2‘s narrative what he was to Renton’s character in the first — a figure from the past sucking it back into the Same Old Bullshit. In the first film, Begbie was a symbol.
Diane was right. The world is changing, music is changing, drugs are changing, even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me. It’s just a pity that no one told Begbie.
That voiceover, by the way, was a setup for a scene in which Begbie discovers that the bird he’s snogging (sorry) is actually a transvestite. Which, in true Trainspotting fashion, is cheeky fun but largely goes nowhere.
In the sequel, Begbie fills in some gaps from the first film — we learn about the time he met his father in an abandoned train station and find out what he was doing just before he glassed the lady at the bar (that scene makes no sense and I love it so much) — but he’s mostly lost all his social commentary. He’s become a plot device. He’s gone from commentary to callback. Recently escaped from prison (where he did 20 years for something), Begbie’s still angry at Renton over the £4,000 pounds! And he’s still having trouble getting it up for his wife! Who has apparently just been waiting for Begbie to come home this whole time and isn’t that surprised when he does!
For one thing, it’s a bad plot device, because it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Renton and Simon spend 20 minutes running from a murderous Begbie when, presumably, they could solve the entire problem with one phone call to the cops (who are already after Begbie, him being a fugitive and all). Even worse, it means the film’s trapped in the plot of the first, leaving its rather clever political implications (which the first never really had) to wither on the vine. And all for a series of seemingly pointless chase sequences.
Doing the same thing is never as fun the second time around. Likewise, Trainspotting 2‘s supposed centerpiece is a “choose life” rant, just like in the first. Only this time, it’s Renton, explaining “choose life” to Veronika over dinner, delivering an updated version. “Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and hope that someone, somewhere cares.”
It goes on and on, including some relevant bits, like “choose watching history repeat itself… choose the same for your kids, only worse…” but that part’s sort of drowned out by the hoary criticism of the danged kids glued to their danged phones. “When I were growin’ up, food were fer eatin’, not fer takin’ pictures, gaul dangit!”
In 1996, you could probably get away with such a thing, an overwrought rant that was slightly unfocused, back before we’d already heard rants like it umpteen times on the aforementioned social media. During the speech, someone in my screening audience kept clapping for it. He kept stopping and starting again, people around him trying to shush him down like the embarrassing dad he probably was.
Some things can’t just be repeated. It’s so much more pathetic to listen to an angry old man flip off the kids than it is to listen to an angry young man flip off the olds. Not because he’s old, because we’ll all, God willing, eventually be old. Iggy Pop will always be much older than me and he’ll always be much cooler. No, it’s pathetic because an angry young man yelling at his parents contains an inherent promise, however unbelievable, that things might be different someday. An angry dad yelling at his kids is impotent, someone shaking his fist at a world passing him by. And once a narrative no longer offers the possibility of change, it dies.