The Mise en Scène of Trainspotting

In Barret Hodsdon's article "The Mystique of Mise-En-Scene Revisited", "the somewhat melancholic conclusion" (Martin 2) is reached that mise-en-scene's usefulness, as both a filmmaking practice and a critical ideal, has effectively expired. He complains that "contemporary Hollywood directors tend to indulge in variations on mannerist mise-en-scene... devouring narrative interweave and resonants... image burn out at the expense of narrative modulation and subtlety... today's examples of extravagantly mannerist mise-en-scene are stylistic tactics designed to trigger a form of audience blockage... Mise-en-scene is rarely a process of sensuous visual accumulation; it is more often a relentless visual stream of sock-it-to-me, throwaway icons. The filmmaker now savagely fetishizes the image at the expense of the spectator." (Hodsdon 12)

To describe contemporary mise-en-scene as 'mannerist' is to refer to a period of art history in which there was a movement away from the conventions of one-point perspective and realism, towards exaggeration of certain features to palliate idealizations. It is true that many of the contemporary films hailed as visual masterpieces are considered so for special effects, frequently computer-generated, that grab attention away from weak plots and characters. Films considered fun to watch are frequently action movies filled with illogical explosions and sequences that defy the laws of physics, and those that are not, are still fast-paced, placing more emphasis on montage than the sustained shot. These visuals are meant to absorb the eye without needing connection to the story-- art for art's sake gone hideously wrong. Hodsdon points out the folly of these trends, and claims that the audience can no longer use subtle cues to derive greater meaning from film, because those subtle cues are no longer there. But to say that mise-en-scene is dead is to undermine the efforts of those directors who do utilize it successfully, as Danny Boyle did in Trainspotting.

A scrupulous reader will cry folly on responding to an attack on Hollywood movies with an analysis of a British product. To this, I respond that while Hodsdon used the word "Hollywood", he most likely meant "dominant" or "mainstream"; films become part of the mainstream due to popularity; and despite being made in Britain, Trainspotting cannot be denied as a phenomenon popular in several major global markets, the U.S. not the least of these. I could cite figures, but I believe it sufficient to say that the film was extremely successful, with a high profit margin, and it garnered a loyal enough following that it is still popular in the teen-totwentysomething age bracket despite the passing of years. Thus, I will use Trainspotting to show that films of the 1990s (and, logically, those of later decades as well) still have the capability of being both popular and viable in terms of mise-en-scene.

In his review of the film for The Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum began by stating, "It would be pushing it to call Trainspotting a serious work of art or a major statement about anything." (Rosenbaum 1) I disagree with this statement. It would seem that Rosenbaum has fallen into the trap that Hodsdon pointed out, of assuming that in order for a film's style to be significant (as Trainspotting's is) it must distract from the narrative. Trainspotting's distinctive stylistic tendencies are integrally tied into the narrative, and do not distract the average viewer in such a way that e would remember the film's style of direction more than its plot or dialogue. Importantly, its style of filming connects even more deeply to Trainspotting's themes than its plot; in the interest of space, I will focus upon only the exemplary uses of the different elements of mise-en-scene to enhance Trainspotting's character and theme.

Trainspotting's settings are frequently useful for character analysis. From the amount of film time spent in each of the different types of setting (homes, business establishments and their surroundings, government establishments, and three "outdoors" settings of football pitch, park, and Scottish moor), it is easy to deduce the base of the character's lives and experience. As the character of Spud remarks in the film's original shooting script, when these characters are removed from the urban setting, "I don't know if it's... normal." (Hodge 35) Certain sets are integrally tied to specific characters. All of the flats of the heroin users (Swanney's, Forrester's, and Tommy's-- Tommy's flat is of special interest because it changes drastically over the course of the film as the character undergoes a similar change) are in disrepair, and are bare of decoration and furniture, implying that bills are going unpaid and personal goods have been sold off to support habits. In opposition to these stark sets, there is the home of Renton's family, in which every room is filled with at least one pattern print, frequently three or four clashing ones, clearly making a comic statement about the locked-in lives of the resident couple. Dianne's home appears more tasteful. Something that a repeat-viewer of the film might notice (and also find humorous) are the statements made about Dianne by her bedroom; on the first view of the film, all that will probably be noted is the Warhol-esque print on the wall near her bed (and the fact that two characters are getting naked), but if closer attention is paid to the set, several clues are given as to Dianne's jail-bait status, such as the presence of teddy bears and piggy banks.

The use of color in Trainspotting is mostly diegetic, but not always, and is even more significant for character analysis of mise-en-scene than setting, as with many artistically significant film. The scenes shot in Swanney's flat are the strongest examples of color use in the film. Areas of heroin use and preparation are washed in red, the hallway is an eerie blue, and Baby Dawn's space is green. Each of these three colors has strong resonance for the Western mind. Red is usually connected to violent emotions, whether 'positive' (passion and lust) or 'negative' (anger). Depending on its shade, blue can either be a color of peace, or of threatening chill, and it would seem that in this film the second association is played upon. Significantly, it is the hallway that leads to the world of Edinburgh-separate-from-heroin that gets washed in the chill blue. Lastly, green is traditionally a color of nature, health, and life (even though when it is reflected onto skin, it usually creates a sickly pallor).

These three colors are the dominant ones used in the film (grey being a shade, not a color, and associated primarily with Renton). Yellow is also used, primarily to imply sickliness and non-healthy states of being. Conclusions about characters can be made from the film's use of these colors. Red is used most frequently; every single heroin sequence involves the color red (in the freebasing if nowhere else). The Volcano and London nightclub scenes also invoke red, as does Dianne (through the taxi interior in addition to her coat). Interestingly enough, so do the phones at Renton's London workplace, and so does the hotel room in which the skag deal takes place (the hotel room actuall involves all four of the colors, red, yellow, green and blue-- lust, sickliness, potential, and coldness?). So, we see what these characters have passion for: heroin, sex, and money, in that order of importance. The film's most memorable use of blue is probably the infamouse toilet-dive sequence. It has been claimed that this is a romanticization of a distasteful experience, but I would counter that it is, instead, a dissociation. Many people, in remembering a particularly unpleasant experience, will report that they felt they were watching themselves from across the room, as though the event was happening to someone else. I would argue that the blue of the waters into which Renton dives, in search of his opium suppositories, is not the blue of peace and serenity (despite musical cues made chiefly for humorous effect). It is the blue of emotional numbing and the separation of one's consciousness from an activity that has been taboo for every member of modern Western civilization since his/her childhood (and rightfully, too, given the amount of germs present in human excrement). There is one noticeable use of green for character development: when Renton approaches Dianne outside The Volcano, they are totally alone, and both are lit with a greenish tinge that seemed rather non-diegetic to me. I would argue that this is an example of a highly subtle, possibly unintentional, cue to the viewer of the fact that these two characters are operating from a similar mindset. While the red is present in the background and soon dominates again, for just a moment during Dianne's monologue there is a meeting of minds. Despite all the things that work to end the relationship, at this moment at least, they are on the same footing and it is not necessarily sexual.

The visual aspects of a film's characters, their costuming, makeup, expressions, and to some extent movement, is probably by definition the element of mise-en-scene tied most strongly to character. Even in its most surreal moments, the film retains diegetic costuming; that costuming is still worth noting, particularly in order to contrast Edinburgh and London characters. The people Renton has contact with in London are, almost without exception, dressed with what most of Western culture would consider better taste than the people seen in Edinburgh (but nowhere near as interesting or possessing the attitude of the Scots). Obviously, Renton is trying to change his social sphere. The Edinburgh characters, as can particularly be seen in The Volcano, do not seem to be dressed like figures from the mid-nineties when Trainspotting was filmed. Rather, their clothing is more typical of the 1980s, and in the case of certain characters I would say the 1970s.* (This probably connects to the filmmaker's desire to show progression through three decades of culture, as is evident in their choice of soundtracks.) However, despite Dianne's love of New Order's song "Temptation", her silver sequinned dress seems much more in line with the clothing worn in the London club later in the film than that which is worn in The Volcano. This is yet another cue to her character's savvy and worldliness despite her age. "Too young for what?" she challenges (Hodge 57). The most distinctive use of makeup that adds to the mise-en-scene of Trainspotting is the realistic pallor given to the heroin junkies; it is easy to tell what stage of the kick-relapse cycle Renton is in, using the base of his skin tone. Also, each character has a sort of default expression that adds to their personal mise-en-scene. Begbie's, for example, is a surly half-grimace, half-sneer.

The best use of mise-en-scene in Trainspotting to make points about character is, as might be logical, focused upon the central figure of Renton. Renton's mise-en-scene is distinctive enough that it should be isolated and looked at in depth. All of the film's uses of shadow play involve significant moments for Renton, starting with his slump to the floor of Swanney's flat during the opening voice-over; continuing in the dinner sequence when Renton is admonished by his parents for blowing all of his chances; visible again in the quasi-confrontation scene between Renton and Tommy when Tommy is in his junkie phase; visible again in the definite confrontation between Renton and Begbie, Spud, and Sick Boy for the down payment on the skag deal, and finally to be seen when these four characters are brought to the hotel room by Andreas for the skag deal. I believe that in all of these situations, the shadows are used to emphasize Renton's isolation from those who attempt to communicate with him, or whom he attempts to communicate with. In a few instances, the shadow becomes a symbol of power and control, such as when Begbie advances into Renton's personal space and announces that he's seen Renton's bank statement. The element of color (or the lack of it) is possibly the most important one of Renton's personal mise-en-scene It is worth noting that both of Renton's personal spaces in Edinburgh-- his flat and his room at his parent's home-- are dominated by grey tones (Of course, the childhood room also has hideously-patterned train wallpaper, but that is a tie-in to Irvine Welsh's original novel.) Renton's wardrobe is also frequently grey. It should be noted that he is dressed in grey during the Worst Toilet in Scotland sequence, which uses the shade throughout extremely effectively. I would connect this dominance of grey to Renton's system of thought, which is to some extent amoral and places definite value on neutrality. His system of thought comes through in his mise-en-scene in a few other ways as well. When not grey, the color of Renton's clothing is very frequently the dominant color of the set in the background. Alternately, the lighting will wash him in a color regardless of what he's wearing (this happens in the club scenes). This combines with the manner in which different undertones of Ewan MacGregor's skin are played up even within the stages of kick/relapse, to produce a chameleonic effect. Despite his thoughts of individualism, Renton does not have a pronounced visual identity like, for example Tommy or Gail does. Instead, his mise-en-scene alters to reflect that of his surroundings, just as Renton's moral code encourages him to adapt himself as necessary and not really assert an identity. There is one noticeable exception to this rule: the bingo parlor sequence, in which the film's main use of temporal effect comes into play. The time-lapsed photography of the bingo parlor sequence, along with the use of high key lighting, emphasizes once again Renton's isolation. This is one mode of life that he quite clearly could never adapt to.

The other aspect of Trainspotting enhanced by analysis of its mise-en-scene besides character is theme. To some extent, Trainspotting is a postmodern film; heroin use is definitely an example of hedonism, which is one of postmodernism's chief motifs in film, and the postmodern technique of metanarrative is used multiple times by Renton. The most memorable uses of metanarrative are the "choose life" speeches at the film's start and finish, but metanarrative is also used during the club scenes and robbery sequence; arguably, Renton's "it's shite being Scottish!" speech on the moor is also metanarrative.

However, Trainspotting is not entirely postmodern in nature (for one thing, it features a definite subject). Rather, Trainspotting brings up other facets of 20th century philosophy, most notably existentialism, which connects most directly to the film's title. "Trainspotting", as has been established, is a hobby-- one that has very little practical application, and that many people would consider a waste of time, but its devotees must find fulfilling. This struggle to create one's own meaning out of a life that cannot be proven to have inherent meaning is at the heart of existentialism. I proposed in a class discussion that htis film also had nihilistic themes to it, which I believe it does, if the term 'nihilism' refers to the belief that all moral codes are man-made and contemporary society is not in harmony in human nature (which is what I understand the definition of 'nihilism' to be). I have heard 'nihilism' defined as a belief that nothing exists, or that nothing is important. I would say that is a misinterpretation of the word, and the idea of nothing being important is really not a major theme of Trainspotting (it was not written by Beckett, after all).

These philosophical themes play out quite interestingly in the film's mise-en-scene, and can be seen most clearly in the Edinburgh Volcano, where two interesting film references are made solely through set design: Tommy and Spud confer in a side area that has been painted with graffiti identical to that found in the moloko-bar in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and Renton skulks in a corner (along with others not successful in the sexual sphere) with a mural of the title character from Taxi Driver placed behind his head, so that his ears are framed by two hand-cannons. A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver both feature the conflict of Man vs. Society, and their main characters both choose deviant, criminal paths out of desperate hatred for the lives society has planned for them. This theme of nihilistic shunning of society can also be seen in the visual treatment of the courtroom in Spud and Renton's conviction scene. The courtroom is stark, to the point of extreme visual discomfort, and this discomfort is combined with an unwholesome brown tint to the walls and stiff tableau posturing of the actors, to make a point about the calcified nature of The State, its approved society, and the system they espouse. Trainspotting is about the struggle of the intelligent consciousness in modern times to find its own meaning in life rather than have automatic faith in meanings handed to it by others. This is why the film's protagonists constantly and consistently reject symbols of Scottish nationalism (such as Sean Connery), and constructs of valid social activity (such as bingo). They struggle to find their own meanings, and it would sem that most of them fail. Sick Boy's attempt was doomed before it ever started, given his "unifying theory of life". The film's ending gives me doubt as to whether even Renton manages to succeed. His closing act of theft does not let him find that meaning; instead, it is his final rejection of concepts pressed upon him, the last concept that he had held as true throughout the film-- the concept of the value of friendship (though he gives Spud a token kindness). This connects to one of the film's sub-themes, that of responsibility for the consequences of one's actions, and how this connects to whether those actions were made by choice or out of a perceived entrapment.

Trainspotting's other major theme is that of the human condition of isolation, and how isolation can be possible even in situaions of claustrophobic closeness. Two main spatial effects are used in Trainspotting: shooting from ground level as opposed to eye level (which can be symbolically connected to the film's attempts to show basic truths about character and situation instead of surface presentations), and what is usually termed a "fisheye" focus, in which more of the scene than could normally be captured on a flat, 180 degree plane is visible through what is in essence a curving of space. Fisheye focusing always feels claustrophobic to me, due to the compressed images at the periphery. This connects with one of the most easily identified thematic binaries in the film: isolation vs. claustrophobia. The one setting arguably used most strikingly to set off the film's themes is that of the moor, which Tommy futilely attempts to engage his friends with and which they in turn universally denounce. The moor is beautiful, but also bleak, and the characters are completely isolated. All except Tommy clump around the last visible edifice, a small bridge; Tommy is never shown in close-up in this scene. Instead, he is dwarfed and swallowed by the surroundings. In contrast, Renton's profile occupies the entire vertical space of the shots during his monologue. I draw the conclusion that the mise-en-scene of the moor scene definitely connects to the film's theme of isolation, and that one of the reasons Renton is given a close-up (besides the narrative significance of his rant) is his self-centeredness and fear of being swallowed, as Tommy is when dwarfed by the cragged peak behind him.

The third theme evidenced in Trainspotting's mise-en-scene is highly symbolic, and becomes evident through the connection made earlier between the color green and nature, health, and life. Green is used chiefly in Trainspotting in the context of actual vegetation, and in the space around Dawn. When Dawn dies, though her space remains green, the light in the area goes out and thus the color is dampened, and after this, green is not seen again in the entire length of the film as a significant part of the mise-en-scene. This echoes the change in the character of Sick Boy, the idea that "nothing at all was going to be just fine... everything was going to be bad," and this change could be seen as a reflection of a much larger change in British society, away from optimism towards something darker, less green if you will-- defeatism.

With this analysis of Trainspotting's mise-en-scene, I dispute the conclusion of Barret Hodsdon, Adrian Martin, and others that was drawn more than a decade ago, that mise-en-scene as either a critical term or directorial approach is no longer viable for mainstream film. Trainspotting does not display aesthetic self-exhaustion or throwaway icons; it contains subtle nuances of mise-en-scene, both diegetic and non-diegetic, which neither detract from the plot nor are effaced by it, and serve quite well as cues to the film's interior meaning, in terms of both character and theme; and, as a film, it was commercially successful. While many of the films that can be pointed to as dominant cinema sadly lack in mise-en-scene, not all of them do, and to denounce an entire generation of directors, as well as generations to come, just because its audience frequently enjoys tripe is not entirely just.

* = Catchpole says "a quick point about the time the film is set - Trainspotting the book/film is meant to be set in the 80s (it's probably more obvious from the book). Example - when Renton and Begbie are discovering 'the summer of love' of 1988 when rave took off." I agree that this is evident in the book. However, this writeup is focused on the film, and I remember hearing about how there was a strong desire on the part of the film's creative team to show the cultural shifts from the 70s through to the 90s.

  • http://ctp.murdoch,, Martin.html