A strange new sport popped up among film reviewers and cultural commentators in the mid 1990s. It is a sport devoted to what I call spotting the moral centre of a movie.
Basically, this refers to the way people feel compelled to cleanly sort out a bunch of films on the basis of whether or not they have a moral centre, i.e., display a moral conscience. Of course, most of these films are about various kinds of extreme behaviour: usually violence and murder, perverse or illicit sex – but also crime, drug taking, sometimes abuse of political power, or the mass deception of the public via the media. In other words, all kinds of outlaw behaviour, immoral or amoral codes of behaviour, often attached to their own darkly romantic subcultures or ghettos. This covers a wide sweep of films, from Tarantino and Oliver Stone through to fascinated documentaries about serial killers and misanthropic, jet black comedies like To Die For (1995), or the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).
Before you can get into an argument about whether any of these films has or does not have a moral centre, there has to be some kind of primal, founding ambiguity in it. In other words, there's some kind of thrill or kick to all this sex, drugs, crime and rock'n'roll – a thrill for the fictional characters, and also (very importantly) a thrill for the audience. And then, as a spin-off effect or emotion, some kind of unease generated by that thrill. That's where the qualms and the moral centres start creeping into the discussion.
So, in the often too-easy game of spot-the-moral-centre, the quick division usually goes like this: Pulp Fiction (1994) has a moral centre, but Natural Born Killers (1994) does not; Heavenly Creatures (1994) has a moral centre, but Killing Zoe (1994), no way. Goodfellas (1990) has a moral centre, but some trashy B movie from your local video store on the same topic probably doesn't. And it happens with literature, too, of course: Primo Levi showed us that he has a moral centre but, by crikey, Helen Darville/Demidenko certainly lost touch with hers. And then, back at the movies, there are the borderline cases that cause much confusion and consternation and splitting of hairs, like Bad Lieutenant (1992) or Romper Stomper (1992). These are the cases that, personally, I really warm to – because I have trouble finding the moral centre of just about anything.
I'm very suspicious about the baptising of good, moral movies, as if somehow this lets us all off the hook. The game of the moral centre has me remembering the old days when illicit, thrill-kill gangster movies with James Cagney were deemed morally OK if the gangster was shot dead in the street in the final scene, and if, as a result, a neon sign supposedly flashed in everyone's mind blaring 'you see, crime doesn't pay'. Of course, we all know that this delivery of morality at the finishing gate of a movie was often just a ploy, a way to secretly have the kicks, but also legitimately, publicly disavow them. B movies or exploitation movies have known that trick virtually since the dawn of cinema.
Trainspotting is the second feature from the team that made Shallow Grave (1995). It's a confronting portrait of a group of heroin users down and out in Edinburgh and London. There's not much sentimentality here; it's not much of a lament for poor unfortunates who hit the skids through drug abuse. Trainspotting makes another, supposedly tough and gritty film about drug addiction, the rather poor adaptation of Jim Carroll's autobiographical The Basketball Diaries (1995), look all pained, maudlin and preachy. What's amazing and memorable about Trainspotting is its high-energy verve. It is completely unafraid of admitting to the thrill of what it shows – even when that thrill gets very tawdry and disgusting. In many respects, it is a proudly, defiantly amoral film in its attitude toward every unlawful behaviour.
Because of its feeling for the amoral thrill of it all, Trainspotting is also extraordinarily funny – side-splitting and mind-boggling in about equal measure. It immerses us in a fringe subculture where outsize characters will do absolutely anything for their next hit. These people collectively ride the alternating highs and lows of desperate poverty and ecstatic sensation. We see everything from their most brilliant scams to their most putrid defecations – and the putrid side of that equation strikes me as very, very British. Indeed, the intense joy of this film, for me, comes from the way it stages a spontaneous, shotgun marriage between the American cinema of Scorsese/Tarantino, and a certain kind of downbeat, tough British sensibility that I've slowly come to appreciate: a sensibility comprised of anger and cynicism, nihilistic humour and an immature delight in showing every mucky sin of the flesh.
Trainspotting seems to me to be a part of a tradition in cinema that has never quite been recognised as such. I call it the cinema of sensation. Movies about drug taking, its highs and lows, have a virtually kingly place in this cinema of sensation, even when they are totally inauthentic or un-lifelike fantasies. Bad Lieutenant and Pulp Fiction are certainly part of the cinema of sensation. For me, Francis Coppola's sublime Rumble Fish (1983) captures the mood of this kind of cinema best. Rumble Fish enters the hazy head of its intoxicated hero and proceeds to cruise along, alternating violent, harsh sensations with cool, dreamy ones. In this internal, drifting fantasy world, all firm moral values become strangely warped and relative – and that, too, can feel a blessing for filmgoers, a liberation from all the normal standards and moral centres.
Trainspotting is, literally, a sensational film – a film of sensations. It is more a collection of sensations than it is a narrative film with a conventional plot. In place of a plot, there is a succession of events and situations constructed in an intensely cyclical way. This cycle mimics the life-rhythm of its anti-heroes, who are always swearing off drugs but getting back on them. Like in some of Scorsese's films, this is a rhythm of compulsion – of compulsive obsession. And one of the very few doubts I have about Trainspotting is that this cyclical form is incredibly hard to sustain in a feature film; it runs the risk of tiresome repetition, and the energy level certainly drops by the time the gang of central characters locate for the second time in London.
A few commentators, including the novelist and ex-drug addict Will Self, have asked the burning moral question of Trainspotting: is it an irresponsible, totally romanticised, insidiously persuasive advertisement for unbridled heroin use? Well, I'd say, pretty obviously not; the story has deliberately sober, depressing and tragic aspects – even though I'd have to say that these more serious, moral elements are not half as vividly realised as all the thrill-seeking stuff. On the other hand, maybe I can agree with Self and some of the opponents of this film to this extent: Trainspotting is indeed among the scummiest, grungiest, most exhilarating valentines to life on the edge that the cinema of sensation has ever delivered. That's the energy of the film, and also its dark, punk-influenced political point.
What Trainspotting shows you is that the choice between life in the toilet and the sedated world of normal life really isn't much of a choice at all.
© Adrian Martin August 1996