Entrances, exits, running on the spot.
If I had the technological wherewithal I’d splice two strips of film together and they would serve to illustrate what I want to say perfectly. The two clips are the very end of Mike Leigh’s Naked and the start of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.
Naked ends with the central character, Johnny, rejecting the possibility of a return to Manchester and instead stealing his girlfriend’s money and limping out into the street. He sets off for god-knows-where and the camera slowly pulls away , leaving him behind, stranded in the middle of a long, darkening road. Renton, by contrast, leapfrogs the camera and sets all the carnivalesque colour and excitement of his film in motion.
This splicing together of the two films would serve to illustrate something that happened in the culture round 1995 and 1996. It became evident that the Tories were going to loose the next election, the British record, film and publishing industry decided it needed to re-assert itself in the face of American competition and the Labour party stopped being Socialist in any understandable sense.
We might take Johnny’s stumbling forward as the camera races on ahead of him and the static camera Renton springs over metaphorically. Renton wants, albeit temporarily, to be in this world, whereas Johnny can’t get out of his.
The future is moving too fast for Johnny. Truculent, intellectual, an autodidact, critical, with his apocalyptic fantasies and unhealthy lusts, Johnny is the last, embittered gasp of the angry Young Men of the Fifties and Sixties in a way, and he has no place in what is to come. That year’s model, is Renton, who jumps into and then effortlessly melts out of the film at the end.
Renton is pretty, personable, a cheeky smack addicted man-child. There may be a few superficial flashes of critique in Trainspotting but these are merely there to embellish the film’s claims to subcultural cool. The vision of the grim, driven outsider in Naked is transformed into the trendy, twenty-something lust-for–lifer. This is a part of the Rebranding of Britain, of getting London Swinging Again. In effect, Johnny gets a decent haircut and learns to love Sleeper, Primal Scream and the opportunities offered by the housing market.
Naked, as with many of Mike Leigh’s films, presents us with a detailed set of the preoccupations of the time.
There is of course the aforementioned paranoia and apocalyptic mysticism mixed in with nihilism and misogyny, a heady cocktail that has garnered the film the reputation of being a difficult watch. Johnny’s negativity, as emblematic of early Nineties despair, a consequence of the blocked impulse for change is often remarked upon, but there is also the question of his hope.
In a long central argument in the film Johnny speaks about the next stage of human development, a transformation in human consciousness that may be a consequence of evolution, or may be brought about by some kind of interface of man and machine. In this, Johnny taps into one of the most popular currents of radical thought in the 90s, transhumanism, a loose movement which heavily influenced Michel Houllebeque’s highly successful novel “Atomized”.
Naked’s vision of a better future, the escape from the horror of the moment, is one which is largely divested of what would normally be understood as political agency. Perhaps this is understandable, the institutions through which agency traditionally and effectively expressed itself in the UK are, by the Nineties, in a parlous state. Instead we hold out hope for divine intervention, this divinity may well be in the form of the machine, as there is nothing else that can be done.
Transhumanism, the credo of superseding “the human” is still current in a number of ways, in concepts like the Singularity for insistence, or in attempts to radically decentre presumptious humanist worldviews and reduce human agency to just one element among many in networks of non-organic actants. Johnny’s better future, the one he is still holding out for at the film’s end will be an order of being inconceivable to our own minds. In the same way that the monkey could never have dreamed he would become a man, we will become creatures of pure spirit leaving the painful encumbrance of the body, with its nerves and needs, its ego all behind.
With the body gone then presumably basic social and political problems will have been transcended too, there’s nothing now to feed or house. This is similar to the idea of “metaphysical mutation” in Atomized, though in this case the utopian possibilities of genetic engineering are the key to transcending our “man-locked set”. The key question in Atomized as to precisely how the future utopia has been brought about, who controls and owns the necessary technology, administers it and to whom, how the world is then subsequently organised, are all conveniently ignored. There is simply some better beyond that science will lead us to, that biological destiny will propel us into, a totally new set of relations to the universe that a sufficiently radical theory will align us to.
This inability to articulate any kind of practical alternative to Capitalism, to the botched, false end of history that we have been palmed off with by the plutocrats, leads to these fantasies of a release into a post-human universe. The argument would be that the more deep the disempowerment the more radical and luxuriant the dream of the impasse being overcome. Rebuilding what has been destroyed, and is continuing to be destroyed, reconnecting and reforging a collective position seems impossible, the dull, daily, piecemeal manner of it all is a debilitating prospect. Johnny keeps running because if he holds out long enough, rejects the small comforts of home, eventually he will be swept up in the Rapture, the Singularity, delivered into a world beyond the horizon.
Johnny’s dream is also a dream of the end of politics. But of an end to politics not achieved through political means. Politics is wearying, contestation and argument are wearying and endless. “No matter how many books you read there are some things you never, never understand”. Everybody yearns for an end to politics, to strife.
Johnny’s hope runs parallel to the Utopian third-way fantasies of the early nineties, that the combination of de-industrilaization, the free-market and high-technology will revolutionize Britain, breaking down traditional class barriers and creating a kind of ecstatic, always on, hyper-mediated new-Jerusalem. Markets are a-political in the sense that they are radically democratic, we vote with our money at every moment, winnowing out the inefficient and maximising our access to both the necessities and the amenities of life without having to contest the place occupied by the state, which will eventually wither away. There will be smart new people on new drugs, surfing their way into the future in the new radically non- hierarchical third space of the world wide web: these are the people Renton spots at a rave in Trainspotting, the people celebrated at the end of the Beach.
When There Is No Alternative, there is no argument. We can concentrate on having fun, we can concentrate on guiltless consumption. And once again, enter Renton.
As mentioned earlier, Johnny doesn’t get out. Instead of the anti-hero riding off into the sunset, it is, rather tellingly, the sunset itself that rides off. After all, where could he have gone to? We know that Renton at the end of Trainspotting decides to become just like “us”, though quite who the film presumes “we” are is a matter of some interest in its own right.
Another character who doesn’t get out is Withnail. Marwood exits stage left, presumably to become the author of the film we’ve just watched, abandoning Withnail to his soliloquy.
Withnail and I is, among many things, a film about “maturity”, about the final necessity of compromise and the impossibility of sustained protest and refusal. Withnail’s refusal, like Johnny’s is a consequence of a deep antipathy, a rejection of the world as it is, their grandiosity a response to the poverty of reality. In this way they are what Shaw termed “unreasonable men” demanding that the world change to suit them rather than adapting themselves to the world. This being unreasonable, this rejection of “opting in” , this properly bohemian refusal stands in contrast to the weak or pseudo-boheminanism that follows in which excess, artiness and irony become cultural norms. For Withnail poverty is preferable to the dishonour of trying to “make it”.
Though they’re very distinct works it’s instructive to consider the difference between the exits from their films of four different characters. In Trainspotting and Withnail and I we know where Marwood and Renton are going, into straight society via some stolen money, to an acting job in Manchester , but where do the characters at the end of Nick Loves’ “Goodbye Charlie Bright,” or Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” get to? The films celebrate the ecstatic moment of departure or the admirably feisty qualities needed to leave the council estates behind, but the destination is obscure. Certainly in “Fish Tank” it appears to be another council estate, this time in Wales. Ultimately you're always departing for the place you’d hoped to leave behind.
There is no getting out not for those who are constitutionally set against assimilating, or are too marked by class, and there are only two possible remedies to the impasse, running on the spot and drunkenly soliloquizing, holding out for the moment when something finally happens.
And that, at least in my experience, was how many of us got through the Nineties.