“The Lowest of the Low” Thoughts on ‘Trainspotting’ and Scottishness

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I’m currently working with a class on the Geography of Europe, focusing primarily on the self-proclaimed continent since 1945, the year author Ian Baruma famously touted as ‘Year Zero‘ in that part of the globe. Interesting enough, the United Kingdom, having been one of the decisive victors in WWII, have shied away from any real leadership role (at least, within Europe) since then. The Brits have always had a knack for getting in spats (on whatever scale) with their neighbors, often overshadowing Great Britain’s internal spats. In 2005, I had a conversation with my Londoner friend Dominic about what social and political life over there was like, as I had yet to visit.

“The Scottish don’t particularly like us,” he said, “but we really just don’t care.”

Considering how I had only lived, at this point in my life, well above the Mason-Dixon line, I likened this to a strange Antebellum-philia many American Southerners (and elsewhere, in whatever cases) feel, coupled with antagonism toward the North and allegedly analogous federal government. Of course, to compare the American Civil War with a Millennium of shifting feudal allegiances and stirring political stew in Northern Europe would be disingenuous. I would be interested in seeing the existing parallels drawn out, though.

At any rate, our work in the European Geography course inspired me to revisit one of my favorite movies of all time “Trainspotting.” For the uninitiated, WATCH IT. (Sorry… let me try this again:) For the uninitiated, it’s a screen adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel about a pack of junkies and their sociopathic mates trying to maintain in late-1980s Edinburgh. The dialogue is fantastic, Danny Boyle’s inventive film-making never fails to impress, and we get to see Ewan MacGregor (whose career it kick-started) deliver one of the most iconic speeches on the grim realities of Scottishness that the sunny 80’s pop of Altered Images and Orange Juice did not dig up. (NSFW)

It also has one of my favorite endings, replete with gritty morals about drug use. I am not going to include too many spoilers here, but for your own good, if you have not seen it yet, do NOT watch it while eating.

Here’s the part about music as conduit of “scottishness.” While ‘Trainspotting’ may be one of the great European films of the 1990’s due to excellent acting, writing, and directing, what really set this film apart culturally was the soundtrack. Madchester and Britpop had already leaked across the Atlantic by the time of the Soundtrack’s release (most presciently, randomly enough, in the forms of EMF’s song “Unbelievable” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” respectively), but this soundtrack was what crystallized the aesthetic that had developed over British popular music over the previous twenty years. It even included a couple of 70’s gems by American artists that nonetheless fit into the film perfectly (the scene where Renton overdoses to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” gets more harrowing upon every viewing). 

I wish I had more time to write and research about this, but for now, the album (which user ‘Hayley Mills’ has uploaded) should make a great soundtrack for this Monday afternoon. In case anybody is wondering, New Order’s “Temptation” remains my favorite song used in the film, though there are so many classics here.

Tune in later this week for a massive post about Eastern Tennessee and Country Music with special guest Shane Rhyne.

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