Choose a Fucking Big Television: Trainspotting and Me

I am an armchair traveler. I have never orchestrated a breakout from the doldrums that is my everyday existence. I’ve tagged along on family vacations and was always a willing participant in school-organized trips about town. I’ve sat idle in my North American cocoon, as my friends traipse about the globe. Doing, what is considered by some, mandatory globetrotting. And why not? We’re young, impressionable and bored and I can see why travelling, even to the most banal resort destination, can be a dream come true. But for me … I construct grand schemes in my mind and let them drift away – apathetic to adventure. I’m far keener to sit back and relax and take unprecedented journeys abroad through the usual arts and culture suspects. Television, films and books are a hermit’s saving grace. It’s not exactly a new excuse. Varying degrees of hermits, from spinsters to the Unabomber, have explained away their perpetual state of lonerdom with that fine argument of armchair travel. Either way … it’s allowed for some fanciful daydreaming. One day I’ll hop on a plane but right now my dvd collection will suit me just fine.

So let me preface my story with the simple fact that I have never been to Scotland (that is what my story, or whatever you want to call it, is about). Until I was fourteen years old I knew little to nothing of the highland country. My exposure to the Scots growing up, was limited to a couple of eccentric neighbours. The first were a couple from Glasgow, who blasted ABBA on a regular basis and had a son named Pomer, which I thought was ridiculous … the other was Moira who had a half painted house and grew corn in the patch dirt in her alleyway. It wasn’t until I was fourteen years old that I and a couple of friends happened across the screenplay for a notorious little picture about heroin addicts in Edinburgh in our school’s library. The bright orange block letters spelling out what was soon to become a gateway drug (pun slightly intended) to a fascinating new world of pop-culture.

It’s hard to explain what was so attractive about Trainspotting to my fourteen year old self in 2003. My friends and I “discovered” it far after its incendiary entrance on the cinematic world stage. It had its premiere at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival but we didn’t know, we didn’t particularly care about its pedigree. What was it exactly? On one level it was the grim, orange tinged, hyper-realistic surrealism of it all. Irving Welsh’s Edinburgh is like Alice’s trip to Wonderland. A place of frightening and epic proportions but nevertheless alluring. A place of afternoon swims down the worst toilet in Scotland and fisticuffs in a claustrophobic, nicotine infused bars instigated by sociopaths, nightclubbing and very literal heroin chic – all set to what remains one of the best soundtracks of all time…bar-none. From a purely stylistic standpoint it was mind-blowing.

But it was the words and the effortless coolness of the whole affair. It was the opening beat to “Lust For Life” as Renton and Spud ran helplessly down the high street, their converses pounding the sidewalk, and Ewan McGregor’s voice-over playing alongside Iggy Pop’s scraggly vocals: “Choose Life,” he says … “Choose a fucking big television,” his impish voice spitting out life advice as a montage of the players scrolls across the screen. Their drab, delusional excess was anything but glamorous but for some god-forsaken reason, the whip smart dialogue was enough to make this impressionable consumer of pop-culture swoon. Sickboy’s downward trajectory philosophy and kit stowed in his heel, Tommy’s naïveté, Spud’s erstwhile earnestness, Diane’s enviable sass, Begby’s deranged magnetism as a post-modern Falstaff and Renton’s staggering lack of commitment or moral compass. The film’s ability to swing with ease between brilliant dark comedy and devastating tragedy in a heartbeat is what had me glued to the screen.

The year that unfolded in the wake of watching Trainspotting opened doors unimagined to me a mere six months before. Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, British Cinema, Ewan McGregor and it simply goes without saying…Heroin. It became an inside joke. In a fit of focused fascination that only teenagers seem capable of, we would pretend to tie off in the hallways of our school and drew track marks on our arms. I became a self-proclaimed connoisseur of junkie movies … priding the gnawing realism of European films over the excess and melodrama of American drug films like Requiem, Pulp Fiction or Spun.

Trainspotting had become a security blanket of sorts. A film about a world suffocated by a strict social stratum, where it was far more likely for you to dwindle and wind up in the gutter then flourish. Even Renton’s pseudo-Cinderella story ending was attained through dubious means. How did that scathing social commentary become my deranged little brain’s equivalent to a stuffed animal? It was shocking to my fourteen year old eyes … but I just got it, appreciated it and as a very very very elitist teenager, who had far more loftier artistic cultural ambitions then my juvenile cohorts, I thought I was cool to have braved the surreal quasi-morality tale of the welfare denizens of urban Scotland.

My ardour for the place has hardly waned over the years but I no longer associate it exclusively with social rejects who bide their time dodging employment and debating the careers of Sean Connery and David Niven. It isn’t as much of the rabbit-hole as I once wished it to be though but there remains something so inscrutably vivacious and honest about the whole affair. And I often wonder what the movie is really about … is it about being Scottish? According to the film, “It’s SHIT being Scottish,” but I do find that hard to believe. But it’s more universal then we give it credit for. It’s not exactly, a hard egg to crack, I think Danny Boyle and company wanted to make a film that translated a intangible essence of a generational philosophy. It’s Renton’s monologues that bookend the film, it’s Spud’s look of horror when he sees the money being stolen, it’s Sickboy and Begby jumping out of a fucking cupboard at potential homeowners and Tommy dying from a broken heart more or less. It was vignettes of everyday absurd tragedy. It’s about anxieties riding high during the closing days of the millennium and attempts to answer that annoyingly omnipresent question of: where the hell do we go now? Six feet underground or do we stab that adrenaline shot into our arm and figure out our left from our right and keep on walking.

Trainspotting was a salve for my own: what the hell am I going to do with my life?! crises, that seem to get more frequent with every passing year. But at least I have one option in sorting out the mess that is now my post-collegial life. Get out of this armchair and move to Scotland…I just might find what I’m looking for.

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