Do we really want to go back?

Trainspotting is the great film of the 1990s counterculture, its decade’s Easy Rider or Rebel Without a Cause. The tone poem about heroin addiction, friendship and the idiocy of youth among the Scottish working class arrived in the United States in the summer of 1996 laden by the weight of a Miramax publicity juggernaut, the massive popularity of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name and a burgeoning moral panic. Mothers and politicians were ringing their hands over a new heroin epidemic that had either been presaged or revealed by the heroin chic of Kate Moss and James King.

Opportunistic pundits argued that Trainspotting glamourized heroin, while people who had actually seen the film argued that it did just the opposite by providing us with some of the most indelible images of drugged degradation and sorrow in Western culture. The film catapulted to fame its stars Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly McDonald and especially Ewan McGregor while announcing Danny Boyle as one of the great directors of the era. The film is a wildly imaginative kaleidoscope of music cues, tableaus and postmodern pastiche; it’s beautiful, horrifying, hilarious and deeply sad.

Why on earth would you make a sequel? It would seem like a bad idea: the first film was too iconic, the stakes would be too high. Welsh wrote a sequel called Porno and Boyle and Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodges almost made it in the mid-2000s, but Boyle has said, rather bluntly, that “it felt really not-good-enough, so we abandoned it.” Welsh’s story was an uninspired caper, and Boyle felt they were only making it for the money. After ten years pondering, Hodges and Boyle came up with something that was neither silly nor cynical. T2 Trainspotting is an inspired meditation on the very personal experiences of guilt and nostalgia and the culturohistorical problems of alienation and the ravages of capitalism.

Twenty years after the end of Trainspotting, after he stole the proceeds of a heroin deal from two of his friends, Renton (McGregor) returns to Edinburgh. He’s there to reconnect with his family and Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon, also known as Sick Boy (Miller). Renton had secretly given Spud his fair share of £4,000 (which Spud promptly shot up his arm), but he’d stiffed both Simon and their sociopathic compatriot Begbie (Carlyle). Renton arrives just in time to stop a despondent Spud from committing suicide, and when he finds Simon, who has traded heroin for cocaine, the two have a vicious, but slapstick, barroom brawl, and Renton gives him the money he’d stolen.

Along with Simon’s arch, wise-beyond-her years girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Renton, Spud and Simon revisit their friendship under the backdrop of the collapse of Edinburgh’s council houses and encroaching gentrification. Simon is secretly planning to betray Renton at some point as revenge, but when Begbie shows up, escaped from jail and struggling to connect with his son, he protects his friend with a complicated lie. Eventually, the schemes, lies, drugs and their various levels of competence at dealing with the modern legitimate world collide in a mess that seems quite fitting for our antiheroes.

T2 could not possibly be what Trainspotting was: a revelation, a representation of the zeitgeist. But in jettisoning Welsh’s parochial nihilism, Boyle and Hodges have made a movie about something much bigger than addiction and loyalty. They are bemoaning both the isolation of our hyper-mediated, deeply shallow culture and our nostalgic yearning for a past that never really existed. In giving us more complex versions of these famous characters – even Begbie’s behavior gets sympathetically explained – their plights seem more like our plights and thus more moving and more upsetting.

Renton’s revision of his classic “Choose Life” monologue that opened the previous film is a sublime and devastating ode to the loneliness and hopelessness of late capitalism. In having characters revisit the locations of many of the first film’s scenes while also strolling through the ruins of the British welfare state, the film both embraces and mocks its characters’ nostalgia. The characters do it, too: Simon snidely derides Renton’s too-fond memories of their youth in one of the film’s darkest moments. I felt implicated, too. Hodges and Boyle seem to be criticizing the audience for trying to rekindle its romance with Trainspotting and 1996. Do we really want to go back?

T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by John Hodge
Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

We assume she’s not human, but we don’t know what she is


There are a large number of people who will go to see Under the Skin simply because they heard that there was a great deal of nudity in it. Of particular importance, Scarlett Johansson, the famous and curvaceous blonde actress many men (and women) fantasize about, is particularly naked, the first time she was gone full frontal on film. This is of note, I guess, because, especially in the United State, nudity is taboo and actresses who are willing to be nude on film are often looked down upon (while actors who do it are considered brave). Johansson did not go nude for a blockbuster Hollywood film, but, rather, for art, which should get her a pass from our nation of prudes. I have a feeling that the pervs that go to see Under the Skin won’t give it a pass, because they will likely be mystified – unless the pervs enjoy difficult, ponderous art films. I’m not a perv, but I do love that type of film, and director Jonathan Glazer has made an indelible, hypnotic masterpiece of an art film with Under the Skin.

The film begins with a clear signal that the viewer is not going to be coddled as they are with populist Hollywood movies. After spare white credits, the screen in black for a long moment as a low drone sounds. Finally a white dot appears, then a bright star, then swirling colors and abstract images while the soundtrack crackles and beeps and Scarlett Johansson’s voice is heard making various phonetic sounds: e, ah, oh, and so on. This goes on for a while, and it’s as beautiful as it is perplexing. Finally, we see the dark (Scottish, as it turns out) countryside and a speeding motorcycle turning through a curvy road. The cyclist stops, run downs an embankment, and then returns, a dead woman flung over his shoulder. He puts the body in the back of a parked white van and zooms away. Suddenly, we see a vast space of white light; a naked woman (Johansson) pulls the clothes off of the dead woman and dresses herself in them.

Next, we watch her driving the van around Edinburgh, stalking men. After she finds a man who is alone, has no one expecting him and no family, she seduces him. Each time, she drives him to an abandoned building, which she enters first. As he follows her, they are both suddenly in a space as black as the clothes-change space was white. She undresses, beckoning to the man, and he walks towards her, removing his clothes, piece by a piece. When he is completely naked (and often erect), the blackness envelops him until he is gone. She puts her clothes back on and looks for another man.

We assume she’s not human, but we don’t know what she is. We are never told why she is killing these men, how she is doing it, who the helpful motorcyclist is, or why she expresses no emotion as the men (or any others) die. However, something does happen to her after she picks up a disfigured man with plans to send him, like the others, to the black goo. (That man is played by Adam Pearson, who actually has neurofibromatosis, which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on his face.) She seems to develop introspection, and this leads her deep into the Scottish countryside, the motorcyclist in pursuit.

If all of this sounds rather odd, it is. That the film offers no explanation as to the motivation or origin of Johannson’s character or her motorcyclist pal and barely provides signals of her transformation in the third act. The audience needs to do a lot of work to piece things together, and this is often the hallmark of what we call “art films.” Sometimes, I think, this abstraction becomes pretentious, but other times, like in Under the Skin, the abstraction is what makes the art. I don’t think too many people would argue that any semi-skilled actress could have done Johansson’s part, but Johansson’s fame was needed to bring in audiences. Once there, they can witness Glazer’s sublime use of the Scottish landscapes, Mica Levi’s truly haunting score, and our own expectations of science fiction to create one of the most original major films in some time.

Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Pearson, and Michael Moreland
Rated R