T2 Trainspotting: Running Back To Your Past. (Film Review & Personal Essay)

Last Saturday night, I embarked on a journey back into time. Sadly, it didn’t involve a DeLorean going 88 miles per hour, nor any other impressive, complex device with bits of wire hanging everywhere and a dramatic cloud of vapour with flashing lights, either. I saw the sequel to Trainspotting with two friends from my high school days.

It’s original incarnation was released in 1996, the same year that saw no less than two Tom Cruise blockbusters and two films about alien invasions.  While half of society was shouting out the Jerry Maguire catchphrase; “Show me the money”, for many others, it was actually quite refreshing to see a film that featured “The worst toilet in Scotland”.   Trainspotting would become a counter culture phenomenon.

For my friends and I, the film would become a part of our lives, the same way Star Wars did for so many. We would recite lines of dialogue verbatim.  As young adults during that all too brief, glorious era before the age of serious commitments; before real jobs, real relationships, mortgages, children – the dark humoured film reflected our own struggles with accepting impending reality.  For the post industrial, post rave generation, it encapsulated what counter culture represented; a rejection of consumerism and a life sentence of rigid, suburban mediocrity, all over a blistering punk and electronica soundtrack.  The trademark orange and white Helvetica lettered poster would find itself inside messy bedrooms and cramped, shared living spaces all over the world for an entire legion of self-identifying misfits.

“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose DSY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, stucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
– Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting.

Fast forward twenty years later. I sit in the back of a darkened downtown cinema between two friends whom I have known since facial hair and underarm deodorant became a thing that I first had to deal with.  Like the characters in the film, we’ve since grown up, gotten a little more serious. All of us have left the city we grew up in, all of us somehow eventually found our way back. Marriages, births and deaths, we’ve all since struggled with.

When I was about thirteen years old, I went to Canada’s Wonderland, a popular theme park just North of Toronto. It was the same year a ride called “The Bat” opened to the public for the first time. The ride featured a 74.8 Km/hour ride… backwards. It was my first roller coaster ride. It would also be my last.  As I watch T2, all of the intensity of the first film comes flooding back to me like that first nauseating roller coaster ride going backwards at full tilt.

It’s standard fare to water down the memories of things, to single out the good times, and leave the rest behind. I forgot how fast, how colourful and how hard this Danny Boyle joy ride went.  The menacing violence of Begbie.  The scheming darkness of Sick Boy.  The sad, quiet desperation of Spud.  Overall though, the pace of the sequel was somewhat tamer, perhaps a result of how the characters have aged. Things slow down. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When you get older, it’s inevitable that you take a few moments to look back at what’s happened. There’s communal comfort in revisiting old shows, movies and music.  Like the warm, seductive glow of a living room television set seen through a front window from the sidewalk on a winter night, nostalgia beckons during uncertain times.  You click on a link on Facebook to a song on Youtube that you and your friends once danced to in crowded nightclub dance floors, or jumped up and down on living room rugs at house parties at 3AM.  Today, we listen to the same song wearing headphones in solitary office cubicles or inside kitchens while cooking supper for newborns.

There’s also somewhat of a danger to nostalgia too. “Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here,” says Sick Boy, to Renton, after a memorial of their dead friend Tommy. “You’re a tourist in your own youth.”  I wonder if that’s a dig at the character, the audience or a playful self-reference to it’s writer, Irvine Welsh.  I think of social media obituaries and collective memorials, our obsession for the past that all seem rosier and comforting than present day realities.  I think of  Frank Zappa‘s take on nostalgia often. I worry sometimes that it may kill us one day.

While Zappa may have been referencing the death of society, Renton’s return to his home town of Edinburgh is a return to his own past, which presented a very clear, inherent risk to himself.  A past mired in criminality and harrowing addiction. Within the confines of his childhood bedroom, wallpaper still lined with colourful locomotives, he fingers through his old vinyl collection. Places a record on his JVC hi fi system.  He drops the needle on the opening track, only to yank it off after the opening smash of drums, like a bomb technician defusing an explosive at the last moment.  Music is the conduit to our past lives; both good and bad.  The song played for only a half second, but it’s origin was unmistakable.

When the house lights overhead come back on and the final credits roll, we roll out too. We shuffle several blocks West while comparing our takes on the sequel. Our views differed slightly, as they should; for what is friendship without spirited debate?  We climb up stairs inside an old haunt off the outskirts of Toronto’s posh Yorkville district.

Like nearly all remaining pubs in Toronto, this one has been renovated to remove the traditional, often stained, red faux velvet and dark wood panelled seating. The smell of cigarette smoke is long gone, without a trace. The interior rooms are now well lit. The menu is extensive, with a complicated array of fruit accented ales and stouts. Gentrification may have yet to set in on Sick Boy’s derelict pub in Leith, but it has hit almost the entirety of this city with the force of an atomic bomb comprised of expensive artisanal cheese and gluten free dessert.

We sit at the table off to the side of the entrance and gaze out at the crowd. Most are just above the age of majority.  They all seem so shiny and healthy.  A silver earring dangles off a woman’s ear lobe in my line of sight. The light catches it at just the right angle and I think of starlight shimmering and glowing across a darkened sky.  We raise our pint glasses, look at each other for a moment, before looking out at the crowd again.

It was like looking back across time. We had somehow become the ghosts of Christmas future.

The next morning, I am on my couch, nursing the physical effects of last evening’s reunification.  I am reading an article on The Guardian‘s web site about a man that left everyone behind to live on his own for twenty years in the woods of Maine.  I think back on my past, through all of it’s trials, it’s tribulations and I think; I am lucky to have survived this life. And following that, I think; how lucky I am that my friendships have as well.

At the end of the film, Renton finds himself back inside his bedroom. This time he plays the song, and dances with wild abandon, alone.

But I would imagine – still thinking of his friends.


T2 Trainspotting is now playing in theatres across North America.

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