Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The constitution of the addressee.

It’s obvious, but it bears repeating: Trainspotting is not a film about four Edinburgh junkies in the late Eighties, it’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” for Blairites. Ewan McGregor’s “Renton” is the fantasy projection of the Poorist middle classes, representing a brief, invigorating holiday in transgression they can return from replete with all kinds of sub-cultural capital, the clothes, the drugs, the music, the bars, the terminology. The Information.

Poverty and “social exclusion” are aesthetic and discursive playgrounds: being a junkie doesn’t mean you can’t look good or riff on pop culture in a knowing way. No need to mourn anything or wring your hands over anyone’s lots, in various ways everybody is having, as a book title of the time put it, “Adventures in Capitalism”.

If Trainspotting represents an attempt to elide the working classes through an “urban pastoral” it’s one in which underclass energy and savvy feeds directly into middle-class narcissism.* “The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor”. Trainspotting’s return to the Sixties, its Beatles-referencing and by extension its Cool Brittania/Brit-Pop stylization attempts a temporal elision of the bitter Seventies and combative Eighties, back to the last time England could reasonably have been said to be “sexy”, where class seemed momentarily a mirage and the prospect of brave new heterotopias spun giddily on the horizon. After all, with the abandoning of Clause Four a new form of post war consensus has emerged, T.I.N.A. “The working class are such a disappointment,” as Kureshi and Frear’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” reminded us, whereas the underclass are just so mouth-wateringly dynamic and unthreateningly unorganized.

It’s not simply that cheeky Brit-pop skaghead Renton finally decides, through some mysterious Neo-Liberal alchemy to choose life and thereby affirm, if not exactly all the stultifying choices he rejects at the start in favour of smack, then at least a lifestyle of high consumerism, “a fucking big telly” (with the lascivious “fucking” emphasising his libidinized more-Consumerist–than-thou new hyper-Realism), it’s rather that Renton IS the middle-class audience member herself, leaping as though through force of sheer, magical yearning into the frame and the film’s world from behind the camera in the opening shot and eventually with a knowing , conspiratorial wink, melting back out of it to rejoin herself at the end. The permeability of the screen, the looking glass through which the viewer passes, is the fantasy of the permeability of social barriers in the newly classless, New Labour Britain.

This is part of the film’s obsession with choice and its casting of poverty as something which one can opt in or out of at will, bridging the gap between underclass smack-addiction and the world of big TVs at one existential stroke. Poverty is a consequence of individual lack of graft or get-up-and-go, cosily re-affirming to the gap year and trust-fund brigade that a few years of chemical romance can easily be set aside when the time comes to re-join the real world you were only ever having a little vacation from anyway.

Indeed, in much of Boyle’s work there is no social or psychological fixity, everything is fluid and opt-into and out-able for the protean middle-classes: in “Shallow Grave”, “28 Day’s Later” and “The Beach”, psychopathology, that most useful of disorders, is also a temporary state, exploited as required in order to get the job done, just one more weapon in the armoury of Late Capitalist character traits. The primal savage is always there just below the surface, handily allowing, for example, the wispy Cillian Murphy to wipe out an entire platoon of soldiers in 28 Days Later.**

One of the fantasies these films gratify is the viewers’ desire to be a complete subject, a subject who is capable of everything, who knows everything, who has experienced everything. On the one hand grounded, responsible, “realistic”, capable of making the right “choices”, on the other hand secretly exultant at having achieved apotheosis, that they are the culmination of history. There is no realm of experience or state of being, form of experience or mode of communication in which they are not potential adepts, the fantasy of polyvalent, omniscient, final and culminatory subject of the end of history is what is spoken to in Boyle’s films.

A reasonable definition of Hipsterism, of which Trainspotting, though it will have no cache among hipsters themselves, is a formative work, is the assumption that there is no position which the middle class subject can not occupy, both class and identity politics have been overcome, or at least class has been subsumed into identity and identity is for the other. The middle class assumes a kind of transcendent, post-historical emptiness into which all cultures can be incorporated. This is not simply hyper-consumerism it’s also a metaphysical claim, a claim to superiority, thus while others are bounded by ethnicity, class, gender; limited, objects, with a finite set of facets and characteristics, the hipster, viewing everything as simply a lifestyle choice, views her own not just as one lifestyle among many but the lifestyle of lifestyles.***

Trainspotting’s ethic and aesthetic are a further extension and deepening of the American ethos, so ably represented by Curtis Hanson’s “Eight Mile”, that marshalling a set of given proletarian skills: linguistic flair, a negative cultural capital of realness, soul and more-than-rugged individualism bordering on sociopathy will allow you to prevail if and only if the individual is ready. In the state of Late-Capitalist precarity the readiness is all. “Opportunity comes once in a lifetime,” Eminem’s “Release Yourself” tells us; you will have your chance, if you blow it you know who is to blame: not the system, which democratically allocates an opportunity to all, it is the individual who has been found wanting. Trainspotting’s relation to the series of Brit Films (Little Voice, Billy Eliot, the Full Monty) wittily dubbed “Dance, Prole, Dance!” by Joel Anderson will have to be teased out elsewhere, suffice to say: if you cant sing or dance then there’s always crime, the two magnificent options generally afforded to America’s Permanent Underclass are now benevolently offered up as options for the atomized working class.

Renton’s escape is via a drug deal set up and orchestrated by others, his apparent friends, who he then rips off, except for the guileless Spud, who unlike Begbie and Sick Boy is in need of a bit of charity. It doesn’t matter how you get the money, the important thing is that you put a bit back, alms for the deserving poor. Spud’s discovery of the money in the locker in the films coda is the film's final strategy in absolving Renton/the viewer. This is how you get out of poverty, crime or culture. You may need to ditch your friends along the way: so much for all that sharing of scores and junk camaraderie, so much for solidarity, so much for refusal. At the end of the day when the opportunity comes you choose life and comfortingly affirm the conservatism you tokenly attacked in your youth.

This is how to live in Cool Brittania.

As the knowledge economy gears up, as London becomes the centre of finance, as a young, sexy, globalized Britain prepares to Start up and the boom years of cheap credit, massive personal debt, seemingly ever-rising house prices and an economy organised around orgiastic consumption and compulsory positivity are about to kick in we might be tempted to a more chastening conclusion than even late sixties/mid-nineties archetype Arthur Seaton managed.
A good time can also be a form of propaganda.

*The Ballardian Continnuum, Weird Paternalism and other strategies for an alternate, anti Cool Brittania canon promoted by Fisher, Hatherly, Power and others attempts to recuperate some of the features of the traditional pastoral, a weird pastoral perhaps, forging a re-evaluation of the dynamic cultural relation between the upper and the working classes which re-elides the philistine middle class

**There’s an interesting distinction between the entry into the worlds of “Trainspotting” and “28 Day’s Later”, part of Boyle’s talent for forcing identification. Renton springs into the film and immediately we are alongside him, running with him, the first POV shot comes early, a careening descent down steps into a side street and the collision with the breaking car. In “28 Days” we emerge slowly, waking into the world with the central character, then beginning to explore its unfamiliar emptiness, the camera moving out over a series of shots, from intense close ups of his opening eyes to extended long shots of him wandering through a deserted London. We separate out and take our place back in the audience leaving our proxy behind, lost in the deserted city, all our anxious care engaged.
*** In this respect the Ur-Hipster figure is Martin Amis.