Friday Cult Classics: “Trainspotting” (1996) and “Fight Club” (1999)

From a TRAINSPOTTING (1996) movie poster

From a TRAINSPOTTING (1996) movie poster — image source: kali-ink.com

Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and David Fincher‘s Fight Club (1999) are very funny movies, each in its own way. Good thing, too, because their central ideas — respectively, the lives of a down-and-out junkie trying to get clean and out of Edinburgh and a corporate yuppie whose conventional middle-class American life drives him to psychosis — are very serious and inherently depressing for some viewers. Even though these characters’ lives are as messy as their environments,  their comedic sides (however dark) make them very likable. The audience is motivated to sympathize (and sometimes empathize) with and cheer them on — at least for awhile.

FIGHT CLUB (1999) movie poster

FIGHT CLUB (1999) movie poster — image source: Madison Theater

In fact, the similarities between these movies are many, even though they were made in two different nations and about and under different circumstances. Although an entire book could be written about each film, here are a few that stood out for me. For starters, both are based on classic cult novels. For Trainspotting, screenwriter John Hodge adapted the story of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of the same name. Fight Club is also based on a novel, written by Chuck Palahniuk and published in 1996, on which screenwriter Jim Uhls based the eponymous film.

As in this later film, Trainspotting features voice-over narration by the main character, who delivers sardonic, often counter-cultural commentary on the other characters and the world of the film. In Trainspotting, that character is Renton (Ewan McGregor). Here are his first lines in the film:

RENTON (V.O.)
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a
career. Choose a family, Choose a
fucking big television. Choose washing
machines, cars, compact disc players,
and electrical tin openers.

Compare a similar sentiment in Fight Club (also from the first act), spoken by Jack (Edward Norton) as narrator:

INT. BATHROOM – MOMENTS LATER

Jack sits on the toilet. He digs through a magazine rack. IKEA
catalogues, Pottery Barn catalogues and more of the kind. Jack opens
an IKEA catalog and flips through it.

JACK (V.O.)
I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct. If I saw something
like the clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green Yin
and an orange Yang —

Move in on PHOTO of the tables. CUT TO:

INT. JACK’S LIVING ROOM – NIGHT

Completely EMPTY.

JACK (V.O.)
I had to have it.

The Njurunda tables APPEAR.

INSERT – PHOTO OF SOFAS

JACK (V.O.)
The Haparanda sofa group …

INT. JACK’S LIVING ROOM – NIGHT

The sofa group APPEARS.

JACK (V.O.)
… with the orange slip covers by Erika Pekkari. The Johanneshov
armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern.

The armchair APPEARS.

JACK (V.O.)
The Rislampa/Har lamps from wire and environmentally-friendly
unbleached paper.

The lamp APPEARS.

JACK (V.O.)
The Vild hall clock of galvanized steel.

The clock APPEARS.

JACK (V.O.)
The Klipsk shelving unit.

The shelving unit APPEARS.

INT. BATHROOM – RESUMING

Jack flips the page of the catalogue to reveal a full-page photo of an
entire kitchen and dining room set.

JACK (V.O.)
I would flip and wonder, “What kind of dining room set *defines* me as
a person?”

Jack drops the catalog down, open to this spread. PAN OVER to the
magazine stack — there’s an old, tattered PLAYBOY.

JACK (V.O.)
It used to be Playboys; now — IKEA.

Although these lines differ slightly from those that made it into the final cut, they nevertheless demonstrate that, in the world of Fight Club, mail-order catalogs are the new pornography and shopping the new masturbation. In fact, both films are reactions to the excesses of 1990s capitalism: mass consumerism, rampant materialism, corporate careerism — and the list goes on. Both use a mixture of comedy and drama to call these excesses into question  and critique them.

Is there such a thing as an original?

Is there such a thing as an original? — image source: film, philosophy, religion, ‘whatever comes into my distorted mind’ blog

This focus alone places both films (and, by extension, the novels upon which they are based) in the postmodernist camp. They are also post-modern in their self-referential aspects. Just having a first-person, voice-over narrator and flashback sequences makes the audience aware that they are being told a story by each of these films. In other, different ways, both films constantly refer to and call attention to themselves. The main characters in Trainspotting are constantly talking about, critiquing, and comparing films (as well as music). Then there’s the fantasy sequence during the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene — its surrealism draws attention to the fact that we’re watching a film. Fight Club literally draws attention to itself in its structure and through use of certain devices. For example, the film begins near its end, then tells its story through an extended flashback. When it returns to the final sequence, Jack and Tyler (Brad Pitt) have an exchange of dialogue which the latter refers to as “flashback humor.” There are multiple instances of spliced images in the movie itself, the same type of images that Tyler splices into movies while working as a projectionist. One wonders whether Jack/Tyler also made the Fight Club movie. In one scene (with the camera on Tyler), the film’s celluloid seems momentarily to run off the sprockets of the projector. Unable to be contained within character and plot, Jack’s psychosis apparently becomes manifest in the physical film print itself.

Self-destructiveness in the name of enlightenment is another major theme. Both Jack (lured by his alter ego, Tyler) and Rendon (aided and abetted by his mates) pursue very non-conformist paths that involve physically-damaging activities — fighting and shooting up — financed by anti-social acts. These paths certainly allow escape from the conventional world, but at a price. Both films lead to situations in which the main character acts in a way that the audience would not accept had these actions been taken earlier in the story. But the audience accepts them because it has been seduced into seeing the world through these characters’ eyes.

Inside the "worst toilet in Scotland," literally

Inside the “worst toilet in Scotland,” literally — image source: jonathanrosenbaum.net

But what does each protagonist choose at the end? Both seem to act against their non-conformist, anarchistic sides. Jack apparently kills off Tyler, while Rendon rips off his mates and leaves town with their heroin-deal money. It seems as if both characters have chosen to return to the conventional, materialist, consumerist world.

But do they really? As Jack is holding hands with Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), watching the credit-card corporations’ buildings fall, is he Jack or Tyler (or a fusion of both personalities)? As Rendon leaves town, what does he plan to do with the money? Is he really writing off all of his old life? After all, he leaves some of the money behind for his most sympathetic friend, Spud (Ewen Bremner).

What do you think? I’d be interested to hear my readers’ thoughts on these aspects — or anything else, for that matter — about these two classic cult films. In particular, I’d love to read what my Scottish blogging mates have to say. Please sound off in the comments section below.