Sunday, June 17, 2012

Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)

[This is a post for the Queer Film Blogathon, co-hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr and Garbo Laughs.]

Todd Haynes' formal experimentation has always extended to the format of narrative structure itself. His lo-fi debut short, Superstar, handles its extended gag of using dolls and miniature objects to tell the Carpenters' story so intricately that it transcends gimmickry into daring. His most recent feature, 2007's I'm Not There, infamously drew on an entire cast for a single role, filming each side of Bob Dylan's insoluble personality with a different actor and aesthetic true to that musical and social "character." Poison, Haynes' feature debut, is no different, a triptych of radically different film and narrative styles that parody their respective genres of filmmaking as much as they collectively eviscerate their unifying theme. That linking idea is the way in which homosexuality is perceived by society at large. In all three interconnected narratives, gay characters exhibit lust, madness and disease, all of them paraded around in grotesques that eventually fold back in on themselves.

The film even opens with an act of self-loathing violence, a black-and-white, handheld POV take retreating from cops pounding on the door and hiding in a crime scene before fleeing out a window when police and family burst in and scream at what they see. The point of view is that of 7-year-old Richie, who killed his father, and his subsequent segment, "Hero" attempts to sketch a portrait of the fugitive tyke in absentia. The opening credits for the film proper roll over what appears to be a dramatic recreation of the boy's possible motive, another POV shot, this time in saturated color, of a hand gliding over a room filled with psychological shorthands, a host of symbols that could give an instant but oversimplified explanation for the child's stunning act. But Haynes then subverts even this satirical bit of pop psychology, the hand roaming this room of trinkets suddenly struck by another when it pauses for even a second on some feminine objects. The camera wheels around to reveal two caricatures of conservative, abusive parents berating the child in a din of overlapping shouts that are nevertheless clearly homophobic.

The rest of this segment plays out as an absurdly exploitative, valueless (in aesthetics and morals) documentary attempting to piece together why the boy did what he did. This chiefly takes the approach of talking heads of those who knew Richie that weave around the scattered pieces of the other two narratives. "Homo" adds a seedy gay twist on the prison sexploitation genre, with grimy cells host to a series of gruesome rapes and assaults. "Horror"replicates the workman black-and-white look and feel of 1950s science fiction, down to the punchy camerawork and deadpan, clinical narration. In it, a scientist distills the sex drive into a serum that gives him a highly contagious, almost leprotic disease clearly intended to replace the Red Scare of the films this section parodies with the rampant AIDS terror of the late '80s and early '90s.

Haynes is clearly having fun, and a primal energy infuses all of the stories even though he films them all with a critical distance and emotional remove. Each story pushes some "popular" view of homosexuality to an extreme until it rebounds back onto the abhorrence of the perspective. By framing an AIDS metaphor as one of those cheap, didactic sci-fi relics, Haynes subtly suggests that the social paranoia of gays insidiously spreading disease will, in the not-so distant future, be seen as dated and absurd as the thought of people losing their heads over closet Communists. "Homo" is not explicit, but Haynes' judicious editing and selective close-ups give the impression of its ascetic location being even more filthy than it is. But as the protagonist has flashback reveries of his juvenile exploits with a now-adult prisoner who proves the most vicious rapist in the jail as an adult, a warped love story emerges that gleefully rips apart heteronormative tropes of romance. Any number of hijinks can occur in a romantic film so long as the couple gets together at the end, and perhaps the most transgressive element of this whole seedy tale is that it ends with a marriage.

"Horror" is my favorite of the segments, but "Hero" might be the most devastating. By taking the form of a documentary looking for easy diagnoses, "Hero" shows how hate can be rationalized and pseudo-intellectualized via confirmation bias. The stylized hall of tokens Richie wanders through over the credits is blatantly meaningless, but let's just humor the armchair psychology being parodied in this shot: suppose that Richie's "selection" does suggest the boy is either gay or transgender. The subsequent talking heads attempt to find out what was wrong with the child, but the speakers reveal more about themselves than they do Richie. Classmates casually mention beating him up at school because there was just "something about him" that made him a target, while his mother speaks of the murdered father's abuse of her and Richie. Those who do not inadvertently admit to physical and verbal abuse on their own part all reveal their judgmental neglect. So many films position the sexually confused murderer as being motivated by their sexuality; "Hero" makes it clear that it is the outside world's incessant abuse of those who do not fit into strict norms that corrodes people, not the sexual identity itself.

Poison isn't as giddily transgressive as Superstar, nor as crystallized as Haynes' masterpiece Safe, but it nevertheless showcases one of the most radical talents to ever have an unlikely shot at mainstream recognition. Though the three stories all use different kinds of film stock and locations, Haynes manages to switch back and forth between them with few discernible breaks. He can even go in and out of monochrome without hiccups owing to the dimness of so many of his color shots. Poison splits the difference, not cleanly, between formalist know-how and rough-edged, rule-breaking spontaneity. But the same mix of mastery and amateurism that occasionally makes Poison unwieldy also establishes it as a cornerstone of the gestating New Queer Cinema movement, able to at least namecheck the rules of "proper" filmmaking as it looks to chip away at the social foundations.


  1. Excellent review, Jake. I'm afraid the only Haynes movie I've seen so far has been Velvet Goldmine, but judging from your thorough analysis of Poison, I need to change that! Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon.

  2. Thank you, Caroline! I've had the VG Blu-Ray for months now but haven't watched. I was hoping to have reviewed it for this but I ran into other commitments. Can't wait to watch it soon, though!