Dir. Todd Haynes
Poison has for some time been something of a holy grail to me, but despite its importance in the New Queer Cinema canon, it has remained largely unavailable to Region 1 audiences. I’m not going to lie, I have studiously scoured through countless used DVD and VHS collections in search of it. And here I am, reviewing the film. Thank you torrent community. I don’t intend to drone on about the availability of the film, but it seems a tad peculiar considering Todd Haynes’ clout in the film community. (But ok, I’ll concede, it really isn’t that strange that a film that can be described as “important in the New Queer Cinema canon” is out of print, when you consider The African Queen has still yet to have a DVD release in any shape or form. No matter who the director is.) Enough about that though.
Poison marks the first feature-length film from Todd Haynes, who at the time was still fresh off the bourgeoning cult success of his short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Superstar is still one of those special cult oddities, a film that was banned from any official release (to this day actually) because of its liberal use of unlicensed Carpenters songs. That’s not what makes a cult oddity though; it could’ve been that he staged Karen Carpenter’s downfall into anorexia and diet pills with Barbie dolls. What’s vastly more interesting to that film, however, is really how serious he treats the form, as if challenging the viewer to not see these characters as dolls. It begins perhaps as a cinematic prank of some sort, but Haynes practically demands the viewers to leave their kitsch leanings at the door, and really probe into society’s ills with him. He has many questions as to why this sort of self-image overcomes young women, and even incorporates real interviews with women probing into this further.
Superstar, in one fell swoop, essentially defined Haynes’ sensibilities; he is a semiotician, and he re-appropriates many forms of media and art into what can be defined as cinematic essays to some extent. And, by god, some people just hate him for this. His films do indeed congratulate its viewers for acknowledging the cinematic and literary allusions sprinkled throughout (See: Far From Heaven), some even depend on that knowledge to get the point across (See: I’m Not There). He is routinely accused of being that most horrible of cinematic demons: The Intellectual. One who is cold and calculating, who uses his characters as merely a device to get on his collegiate soap box. This is sometimes true with Haynes’ work, but somehow, almost miraculously, he manages to use this tactic to bring out an emotional core that has been treading quietly beneath.
Perhaps there is no better example of this than Poison. If Superstar existed as Haynes’ first draft, Poison is the first crack at his thesis. This one, like so many other entries in the New Queer Cinema canon, acts as a treatise on AIDS, albeit a vague one at times. Haynes takes three different cinematic forms, the talking-head news documentary, the prison film, and perhaps most immediately fascinating, the campy ‘50s B-horror film. Each acts as a variation on a theme of isolation in society, whether it be the misunderstood suburban kid who shot his father on impulse to protect his mother, the prisoner who finds himself emotionally drawn to a fellow inmate he once saw sexually humiliated in a reformatory school, or a scientist who isolated the human sex drive, only to accidently drink it, and have society judge him on the grotesque effects it finds itself wreaking on his body. Oh, and it’s loosely based off the literary works of Jean Genet. Hurrah for semiotics!
The film is structured in these three acts, Hero, Homo and Horror, and shifts between them seamlessly throughout the film, often at the climax of any particular scene. It plays like an anthology film put on shuffle, but always manages to maintain a logical pattern.
Hero, the news segment, is similar to the interview segments in I’m Not There (the ones with Julianne Moore playing a Joan Baez-type folk figure), but instead of completely being enveloped in camp like those, this one strikes a bit more disturbing note. It is certainly not without its very satirical tendencies (like the expository voice-over narration over footage of the mother driving around the neighborhood and doing other ordinary things), but by the end, it is very emotionally involving, and even the cheesy news-style dramatizations start gelling into something very personal, despite the guise of manipulative early-90s video effects.
Homo, the prisoner segment, is in fact segmented even within itself (confused yet?). This film is broken into two time periods; the present of the prison and the past of the reformatory school. The prison sequences are darkly lit, and the actors remain cloaked in shadows, and play the roles as emotionally distant as possible. This is of course to highlight the homoerotic tendencies of male prison films, and bring them squarely to the forefront. While beginning as a lingering beefcake spectacle in the old muscle film fashion, it becomes increasingly taboo-breaking, featuring an extended sequence of “heavy petting” as well as a disturbing sequence of rape. This sequence brought Poison its greatest press, as ‘ol Jesse Helms, that lovable homophobe, sought to destroy the film, and was particularly distraught over the fact that it had been financed by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The past sequences are much more striking, however, in that they are brightly-lit, to an incredible degree actually. They call to mind the images in Fassbinder’s final film Querelle (itself an adaptation of the works of Jean Genet, neat coincidence) and even the films of Ken Russell. They are beautifully nostalgic, even while the imagery depicted is immensely disturbing. Why, Mr. Helms, whatever could have possibly offended you about this film?
The “final” segment, Horror, is as previously stated, the most immediately striking of these sequences, and certainly the most memorable and accomplished. Given the low-budget nature of this film, and compared to his NQC peers at the time, this sequence is just remarkable in its meticulous recreation of the ‘50s B-Horror films popularized by such figures as Roger Corman, but even throwing in some of the cinematographic flourishes of James Whale. This segment is certainly the most blatantly critical of the AIDS epidemic, specifically the public’s reaction to it. The protagonist, Dr. Tom Graves, finds himself the subject of his own experiment after he mistakenly ingests a liquid form of the human sex drive, and as he begins to mutate and grow disgusting lumps all over his body, he begins to spread this “disease” to others around him, including his lady love, Dr. Nancy Olsen. The public around begins to see him as a deviant, even pegging him as “The Leper Murderer” when it spreads even further. Here, Haynes is re-contextualizing the Killer Queer stereotype that has plagued film history, while also highlighting the ridiculous nature of the witch hunt the AIDS epidemic caused for the gay community. It is a heavily loaded sequence for sure, full of hammy acting and broad speeches about alienation, but using this film style to discuss these large issues is brilliantly in tune with the tradition of B-horror. It always was about making broad social statements in the most approachable style possible. Besides, really, how can you not just smile your way through a sequence like this:
In the end, Poison is a very assured debut from Haynes, who I believe, clearly, is one of the greatest living filmmakers. It is not without its problems, but certainly stands on its own in the New Queer Cinema movement. Other filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki were making very incendiary and provoking films at the time Poison was released, but Poison’s scholarly tendencies give it, dare I say, a bit more relevancy now that New Queer Cinema is no longer a force in independent filmmaking (sadly). It still captures a time and a feeling that most have forgotten, but the issues themselves have hardly subsided; they’ve just been pushed back beneath the surface. Poison cannot be spoken of without acknowledging the presence of producer Christine Vachon, who has never broken from the halcyon days of early 90s American independent filmmaking, and continues to cultivate unique artists’ visions. There’s certainly not a force like her still around, and if independent cinema has a prayer of re-emerging as a vital voice in American filmmaking, she’s probably going to be involved somehow.
Poison can be found on torrent sites as a crummy VHS rip (vertor.com, just saying). Or you can pay exorbitant amounts on ebay for the long OOP DVD. OR, you can say: CRITERION, PLEEEEEEEEASE?!?!?!?
Bonus! Here’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in its entirety on Youtube.