On the surface of it, Trainspotting looks like an anti-drug movie, showing the detrimental and frivolous parts of indulging in a drug habit. It is easy to mistake it for that. After all, the lead character, Renton, is a drug addict. The script is laid out to follow his struggles to get out of it. Each character is connected to his quitting or remission.
However, it wouldn't have been credited as one of the best films from Europe of all time if the movie doesn't have different layers, ones that are harder to understand and easy to miss.
On deeper level lies subtle psychological and sociological disturbances that affect the youth of Scotland. The title of the movie, Trainspotting, refers to the habit of sitting by a rail track and watching trains go by, a common activity of wasting time, reinforces this theme of instability, loneliness, depravation and isolation among Scottish youth.
Trainspotting is primarily about people’s tendency to feel isolated and an outcast even when you move and live in the midst of millions. It is about isolation tackled in many levels. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is suffering from a sense of loss of identity and rebels against the prevailing emotion by using drugs to escape that reality. He isolates himself from the mainstream society by refusing to do things that ordinary people would do for survival such as having a job and owning materials things to assist them in their daily life. On a higher level, the movie also explores the isolation that "normality" brings to those who seek to be different or who are simply different. It also talks about the isolation that addiction can bring to those who choose drugs and the lifestyle that comes with it.
This article will explore the different levels of isolation that people can feel despite the being surrounded by millions of people. Specifically, this article will understand how the director explored each level people's consciousness through the use of methaphors such as ‘hiking the great outdoors’ and degrading ironic statements about their own race to heighten the sense of isolation that people can feel.
The ‘Great Outdoors’ Sets the Context
Trainspotting takes us through the lives of a group of Scottish drug addicts, who differ on many aspects but are bound together by their addiction. The movie starts with a statement made by the main protagonist about choosing to own or do things that are socially constructed as normal or ordinary. Renton states:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television…But why would I want to do a thing like that?
The last line was a clear expression of disdain towards the social convention, a conscious choice to disconnect from things that are owned and utilized by the mainstream society. Mark’s suggestion to take a trip to the “outdoors” was a methaphor towards making an attempt to blend and be a part of the ‘normal’ society. However, Mark’s refusal to conform to social norms disqualifies him to lead the group in their quest to give conventions a try. He lacked the spirit and the willingness to blend in.
Feeling like an Outcast Just as When He is Trying to Blend In
Renton finally decides to quit drugs and is forced to face the beautiful outdoors. The withdrawal forces Renton to reexamine the different facets of the society he is trying to be a part. This reexamination, as in all the observations he males on different subjects, he makes an observation with a wide perspective. He stated:
I hate being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the fucking low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English, but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs and all the fresh air in the world will not make any fucking difference.
Renton feels that his race naturally makes him inferior. However, in order to understand this statement, it is important to delve into Scotland’s history past and its current state of affairs. According to a survey done Andy Wightman, two thirds of the land in Scotland, is privately owned by just 1,000 individuals. Most of those individuals are British, which would seem to denote the feeling of being colonized that Mark Renton exhibited when he made that statement.
According to Alastair Macintosh, the level of depravation experienced by Scottish people is not limited to land ownership, it also extends to the social fabric of the community. This history of social injustice goes all the way back to the 16th century, when a decree was passed by King James I, called the Statutes of Iona. This Act declared that Clan chiefs would send their eldest sons to schools in the Lowlands. There, they would be taught by Protestants to read, write and speak in English fluently. The Act also prohibited the bearing of arms and drunken revelry.
According to Kenneth Mac Kinnon “When the Act, called the Statutes of Iona, was passed in 1609, the high point of Gaelic society and culture was coming to an end. This act prohibited many things normal to Gaelic culture. In particular, the traveling of vagabonds. This was the name given by the Government to the Bards and Musicians who traveled freely between Ireland and Scotland, from one great house to another, praising the Chiefs who were the very substance of Gaelic society.” This law was later followed by Act of Proscription, which outlawed the Tartan, Kilt, and freedom of assembly and the use of bagpipes. According to Alastair Macintosh (1997), “They destroyed the soul of indigenous society whilst leaving outward authority structures intact. In colonizing minds, the way was cleared to colonize the land and to manipulate the people into tools of Empire building abroad.” This history of Scotland would be the best reason to explain Mark Renton’s sense of victimization and hopelessness. The only way he can deal with this circumstance is to reject his Scottish heritage and go into a self derogatory rant.
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