by Harlan Kennedy



When Mel Gibson stands there holding the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars as an honorary Scotsman, something startling is happening in world culture. We're acclaiming the moment when Aussie americanus went to the Highlands to paint his face blue, declare war on Limeyland, and bequeath the ultimate footnote to movie martyrology. Where Brando in One Eyed Jacks, Douglas in Spartacus, and Penn in Dead Man Walking were content merely to be flogged, crucified, or injected, Gibson's William Wallace was hanged and drawn and quartered--buy one death, get two free--right there in front of the popcorn-chewing populace.


This has not been the only mid-Nineties movie exercise in self-mortification transpiring in Caledonia lately. Scotland is becoming the flavor of the zeitgeist. From Rob Roy, Braveheart, and the retro-whimsical Loch Ness it is a small but quantum leap to Danny Boyd's Shallow Grave successor, Trainspotting, and Gillies MacKinnon's Small Faces. Scotland's soul is being bared by her native helmers with increasing wit and mordancy, even as the rest of the filmmaking world sees the land as a place to combine epochal agony with fancy costumes and bankable stars.


MacKinnon's tangy Glasgow bildungsroman, which won Best British Film prize at latest Edinburgh Film Festival, and Boyle's seething new comedy of hard drugs and "trainspotters"--slang for the clubby macho subculture of listmakers and memorizers (like Quentin McTarantino)--were clearly not made with the leftover stock footage handed back to the Scottish Tourist Board after the Neeson-Gibson-Danson pix. No scenic goats prance over heathered hills. No blue capacious skies ring to Dolbyized bagpipes.


At the same time there are striking assonances between those mass-appeal history 'n' folklore movies and the tarter Tartanism of Boyle and MacKinnon. Scots and other skeptics may scoff at Braveheart, pronouncing it Mad Max 4: Woad Warrior. And they will query its wilder historical freedoms, such as the defenestration of gay royal boyfriends, the kilt-lifted "mooning" at enemy armies, or the romance between a Franco-English envoy-princess and Scottish hero. But Trainspotting and Small Faces prove that Braveheart, mixing a dram of surreal farce into its tragedy, got the spirit right if not the letter. So did much of Rob Roy with its determined, at times demented, playoff between southern foppishness (Tim Roth as drawling English milquetoast) and Scottish-Euripidean grandeur (Jessica Lange as a Highland Medea). Modern Scottish cinema--much of the land's modern artistic sensibility--is about surrealism as a higher reality. Dispossession is played out as black comedy; romance is skittishly ephemeral; and survival, especially as seen from the perspective of this 250th anniversary year of the Battle of Culloden, when the English ground their final foot into Scottish independence hopes, is a gutsy, anything-goes synthesis of fight and flight.


The concept of devolution from nasty old England is now so ancient-historical that many of today's Scots see it as a sore scabbed over with seriocomic ritualism. Yes, nationalistic discontents must be aired. But no, Scotland won't have its independence today or tomorrow or the day after. Meanwhile, a quarter-millennium after Culloden and three-quarters of a millennium after William Wallace, a vassal nation filling up with anti-Conservative socialist voters gets treated by the punitive English as an offshore social science laboratory. ("Let's try our new poll tax there first!" cried Margaret Thatcher. And she did.)


England no doubt wonders what else it can do with its delinquent nephew and his urban flagships. Glasgow, when not flaunting higher aspirations as Europe's Capital of Culture (its title a few wears ago), offers an alternative self-portrait as a hive of crime, violence, and gang warfare: a sort of Belfast without religion-and-politics. And Edinburgh, oft dubbed the Athens of the North, says "Ya boo" to the arts-and-letters carpetbaggers by becoming also the drugs and dirty-needle AIDS capital of the North.


Though few of these larger cultural-political suppurations are explicit in Trainspotting or Small Faces, they surely help to energize the sense of a large and vibrant existential distemper; of orphaned street lives striving for their self-enfranchisement, however brief or adventitious, from parent surrogates or imposed social commandments. Where recent English cinema dealing with lower-depths subjects has conveyed cramped lives through lovingly downbeat styles--Terence Davies's mod-Rembrandt nostalgism, Mike Leigh's Beckettian nihilism, the humane docu-comedies of Loach's Riff Raff or Raining Stones--Boyle and MacKinnon brandish an airy, hyperreal contemporaneity that's part Glasgow School of Painting, part offshoot of the free-swearing, vernacular-rich New Scottish Novel, where excitement derives from the perpetual possibility of narrative and character derailment.


We know the Boyle movie gestalt already from Shallow Grave. Give three ill-matched characters a common habitat and purpose, then sit back to watch sanity and harmony unravel in a crescendo of surrealism and splintering viewpoints. Trainspotting is also about a band falling apart. Three heroin addicts take turns at attempting to kick the habit, but only kickstart the others into re-succumbing. It's a farce about an endless loop. Yet like Shallow Grave it defies nihilism with a kind of evangelistic hallucinophilia: you can take away everything but our fantasy lives.


The blackened, feces-smeared public toilet cubicle visited in an early scene by protagonist Mark (Ewan McGregor) becomes the gateway, or bowlway, to an underwater paradise as he dives in head-first to swim through oneiric depths of blue water--all to recover two heroin suppositories he has just noisily evacuated in the first of the film's drug frightmares. After that, Boyle's fist-in-the-face surrealism moves so far from the tender touch of most contemporary-life movies made south of the border--or across the sea in Ireland, where there is almost no mean between agitprop realism (Nothing Personal) and fabulist elegy (The Crying Game)--that Trainspotting deserves some award for giving fully realized shape to a set of long-nascent Scottish idiosyncrasies. The hints of impish caricature detectable in the work of Bill Forsyth, or even the more ludic moments of Bill Douglas, are here made explicit, outlandish, messianic.


As in Shallow Grave, Boyle seems to choose his supporting players for their faces and for how picturesquely those "phizzes" bulge in wide-angle shots. Like Christopher Eccleston's nerdic-macabre presence as Grave's accountant turned attic dweller, in Trainspotting Ewen Bremner's bony-faced, rubber-limbed Spud (a fairground-mirror version of Uriah Heep) or Alex Carlyle's mad-eyed, stark-mustached Begbie, the band's resident psychotic, seem transformed already by the grossed-out imagination of a heroin junkie. And the baby who dies from neglect in a corner of their drug commune later returns, gothically transfigured, as a spidery horrorchild with Exorcist-style revolving head who crawls across Mark's bedroom ceiling during his withdrawal delirium.



Boyle and writer John Hodge never characterize their story or their characters' dilemma as exclusively "Scottish." Drug addiction, after all, is a global franchise, and so are petty crime, troubled love lives, and attempts by mixed-up youngsters to start life afresh. Yet national context still serves important functions here. In the specific case of Sick Boy (Johnny Miller), the most garrulous character, it adds geo-comical point and poignancy to his obsessions. He's the chief trainspotter, with his encyclopedic riffs on the career and charisma of Sean Connery. Connery being Scotland's only superstar, what more apt than for a Glasgow junkie high on movie junk to get off on earnest comparisons between Dr. No and Thunderball. This is siege-warfare iconolatry. Whom can the sassernachs produce, Sick Boy would no doubt argue, to equal this screen Celt's impact on late-century pop heroism?


A broader nationalist reverberance is provided by the plot's shuttling between Glasgow and London. When Mark flees Scotland to set up as an estate agent, his south-of-the-border hideaway is broken into by his pursuing pals, one after the other, as if the film were determined to wage comic war on the yuppie inauthenticity of its hero's new bolt-hole. Mark's life and flat both crumble into chaos, until Serious Matters (a friend's funeral) summon him back to his rightful home.


Only once in the movie is a larger political perspective made explicit. It happens on the single occasion that the main characters swap their interchangeable urban hell for a Scottish Heritage backdrop. The walk they have already begun into the green and heather-mottled hills is aborted when Mark, asked by one of the friends if the scenery doesn't make him "proud to be Scottish," delivers this broadside: "I hate being Scottish. We're the lowest of the fucking low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English, but I don't. The English are wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can't even choose a decent race to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes."


The blank look this speech gets from Mark's pals undercuts its potential solemnity and also avoids "signposting" the subtle point that it is less the English themselves that some Scots resent, more their own acquiescence in English dominance. The non-sequitur isolation of this scene also makes sure we understand that while Anglo-Scottish tensions might underlie  Trainspotting's story, they lie so far under that like a seismic fault they aren't felt until they produce the occasional, seemingly irrational cataclysm.


Small Faces is set in Glasgow in 1968, but like Trainspotting its take on Scotland and the Scottish character seems ur-Nineties. Without opting for seat-shaking surrealism Danny Boyle-style, it delights in absurdism and short-circuited logic. In an early plot incident, our 14-year-old hero Lex (Ian Robertson) fires an airgun across a park at Malky, the leader of a rival gang. When Lex is later told that the bullet hit him in the eye, he does not even bother to ask if it blinded him. In most films this would seem lèse-probabilité, since Lex's own life might depend on the answer. But in MacKinnon's movie as in Boyle's, time wipes out time as if in a cartoon, and cause-and-effect naturalism went thataway. We suspect that Malky either has instantly recovered or has been wiped off the map, as properly befits a minor character.


People die deaths in sudden or impiously bizarre circumstances. In the Edinburgh-set Trainspotting the only member of the inner circle to die (baby apart) succumbs not to AIDS or drugs but to the obscure ailment "toxo-plasmosis," caused by cat feces in his flat. The two key deaths in the Glasgow pic are equally loopy and outlandish. One takes place on an ice rink: the out-of-nowhere killing of Lex's older brother, crowned with a Hitchcock-style visual flourish as the body is dragged off the ice leaving a bright, straight ribbon of blood. The other, later demise is (the non-blinded) Malky's. Waking up with a hangover in a gas-filled room--courtesy of enemy sabotage--he staggers to the source, turns it off, and then, without even opening a door or window, calmly lights a cigarette. Adieu Malky; adieu dull plausibility.


MacKinnon (who seemed a skilled but more ordinary director on his non-Scottish movies, The Playboys and A Simple Twist of Fate) and his brother Billy (script editor on The Piano) wrote the script from their own memories of a Glasgow childhood. The often low-angle camera, as if craning up at adult reality, is Small Faces' own, more innocent variant on the floor-level camerawork of many scenes in Trainspotting: where the perspective is not from childlike inexperience but from a carpet strewn with spoons, sinister chemicals, and hypodermics.


Yet both movies use emotional pixilation as style. As the MacKinnons' plot tours through gang warfare, love rivalry, and long-suffering parenting (Clare Higgins as single Mum), it registers an all-accepting, even all-delighting incomprehension at life's mysteries and contradictions. Far from accepting serf status, culturally or spiritually, this Scotland defies its provincial role within the British Isles by reaching out to mysterious connections with far-flung countries. "Tongland" is the Fu Manchu-ish name of the towering, ugly housing estate, lapped by mud wastes, where the enemy Glasgow gang lives. And Lex's own gangleader, a strutting dandy called Sloan, has a private passion for the paintings of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. Schiele's swirly, infernal nudes and vivid, stricken faces seem right at home in the Scotland of MacKinnon and Boyle, a land trying to burst at the realist seams. Schiele is also close kin to modern Scottish painters exploring the interface between realism and the grotesque, like Peter Howson and Stephen Campbell, whose mission to make purgatorial comedy out of the quotidian could be seen as a template for the New Scottish Cinema.


There are other distinctive chimings between modern film and modern culture north of the border. Small Faces and (even more) Trainspotting have the fast-footed, innovative freshness--episodic stories, free-association syntax, profane language--of a key Scottish writer like James Kelman, whose 1994 Booker Prize-winning How late it was, how late uses a colloquially cataracting style to narrate the thought sequences of a blind down-and-out trying to make it from police custody, where he lost his sight, out into the tragicomic maze of a new world. The book is an epic of the "transformed mundane" worthy of Joyce. Yet it's also quintessentially Scottish in mood and momentum, less closet-mystical than the same story would be in Wales or Ireland, more flighty, cantankerous, and derisive than it would be either there or in England.


Likewise Trainspotting the movie's hiccupy, unholy grace notes owe much to the style of Trainspotting the book's author, Irvine Welsh. Where Welsh on the page offers every literary and typographical trick from freely varied print sizes to verse-style half-lines to explosions of untranslatable Scottish dialect, Boyle and cameraman Brian Tufano flaunt a gleeful repertoire of frozen frames, card-shuffling montage sequences, queasy false perspectives, and fantastical visual punctuation. In one drug-taking sequence, Mark sinks through the red-carpeted floor and the image is carried over into the ensuing hospital scene, where shots are "framed" with a border of red carpet as if by some absurdist soft-sculpture proscenium arch.


It all seems a long way from Braveheart, let alone Rob Roy, let alone Loch Ness. Yet is the fast-track whimsy of Trainspotting, offering its own monsters of the deep who seem as interested in play as in terror, different in kind or merely in degree and subversive energy from the rollercoaster reality/fantasy disportings of Nessie lore? (If there is a major criticism one could charge Boyle's film with, it's that it makes heroin addiction seem too much like heedless, playful, no-penalty fun.) And is the clan warfare of Small Faces, with its strutting partisanship and bleakly comical brutality, that different from the serio-farce of blue-painted Mel Gibson versus King Patrick McGoohan, or of a cut-out Liam Neeson claymoring a cut-up Tim Roth into shapes undreamt of by his English tailor?


In addition to their epoch-friendly hints of postmodernism, Trainspotting and Small Faces are united by their refusal to moralize. Neither drug addiction in the first nor gang warfare in the second receives a moment of author's-message condemnation. We shuttle between an uneditorialized "How life is" and an equally unmoralistic "How life seems with a bit of sardonic Celtic vision." The same motto could be hung above both films: "Abandon sententiousness, all ye who enter here." This is a quick-witted land with a store of folklore, amorality, and native defiance: a land that, as in countless Scottish or Highland-based movie yarns from Brigadoon to Local Hero via I Know Where I'm Going and Whisky Galore, invites the outsider in to become either a fast friend or a fast-exposed fool.


Perhaps when filmmakers take that venturesome leap over Hadrian's Wall, they really do enter another world. The dull prose of social realism moves to one side; the false resonances of an ethical or mystical perspective move to the other. And we are left with a gleaming through-path into subversion's mischiefs and surrealism's higher sorcery.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.