Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes inspired by the novels of Jean Genet.
Starring: Edith Meeks (Felicia Beacon), Millie White (Millie Sklar), Buck Smith (Gregory Lazar), Anne Giotta (Evelyn McAlpert), Lydia Lafleur (Sylvia Manning), Ian Nemser (Sean White), Rob LaBelle (Jay Wete), Evan Dunsky (Dr. MacArthur), Marina Lutz (Hazel Lamprecht), Barry Cassidy (Officer Rilt), Richard Anthony (Edward Comacho), Angela M. Schreiber (Florence Giddens), Justin Silverstein (Jake), Chris Singh (Chris), Edward Allen (Fred Beacon), Carlos Jimenez (Jose), Larry Maxwell (Dr. Graves), Susan Norman (Nancy Olsen),
Al Quagliata (Deputy Hansen), Scott Renderer (John Broom), James Lyons (Jack Bolton), John R. Lombardi (Rass), Tony Pemberton (Young Broom), Andrew Harpending (Young Bolton).
When Poison was released, it was one of the most controversial films of its time. The film was one of the first American films to tackle the AIDS epidemic, and also includes fairly graphic homosexual sex – enough that the film got the dreaded NC-17 Rating. That normally would cause a small stir – but what really upset people was the fact that a (small) part of the funding came from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – meaning tax payers helped to foot the bill for the film, and many on the right were none too happy about it. The film was also highly acclaimed – and won prizes at Festivals around the world, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It was the first feature of Todd Haynes – and it’s safe to say it put him – as well as the New Queer Cinema movement – on the map.
As always happens when a film generates controversy, over time that fades, and what we are left with is the movie itself – to be judged on its own, and quite apart from that controversy. The film is neither the abhorrent gay porn that its detractors made it out to be – but it’s also not quite the masterpiece that its defenders hold it up as. What it is though is a highly ambitious, and highly original film that showcases Haynes already experimenting with style – using the cinematic stylings of a previous era to comment on society today. It is an angry film in many ways – a young man’s film, who is unhappy with the way gays are treated by a society who treats them as outcasts, offering punishing them violently for their transgressions. It is an easy film to admire, but for me a hard film to love – it remains more of an intellectual exercise than what Haynes would go onto produce in later films. It is, however, a rather great debut film.
The film is actually three separate films, in three distinct styles, intercut with each other telling stories of people who have been outcast by society. Titled Hero, Horror and Homo, the three films look at an America afraid of anyone who is different – and that wants to stamp that difference out. Hero is done in mock-documentary style, telling the story of a 7-year-old boy who murdered his abusive father, and then – according to his mother – simply flew away. The film begins as a sort of Unsolved Mysteries episode, painting a portrait of idyllic America suburbia, and wondering how such a horrible thing could happen. As the film progresses however, Haynes shows the cracks in the façade of that perfect suburbia – exposing adultery, abuse and eventually murder. Ricky, the child, is far from perfect – but he’s a product of the society he is growing up in – that demands perfection from him, even though itself is far from perfect. Horror a 1950s B-sci fi movie parody, where Dr. Graves has isolated the body’s “sex drive”, and distilled it into a liquid form – when he accidentally ingests it, he becomes a leprous, sex murderer – with sores all over his face, who is stalked by a vengeful public, and the media turns the whole thing into a circus. An obvious allegory for the AIDS epidemic – with people afraid of sex, and demonizing the sick, Horror is perhaps too good of an homage to those films – the acting is purposefully wooden, which helps to create the right atmosphere of those films, but also dulls its impact. The third part is heavily inspired by the novels Jean Genet (and one assumes his one film – Un Chant d’amour from 1950, which I reviewed a few years ago), and tells the story of two male prison inmates in the 1930s. Broom is immediately attracted to the new inmate Bolton when he arrives, but cannot bring himself to admit it – there are flashbacks to their shared youth that they never mention to each other, at an all-boys school – where Broom watches as Bolton is abused. Unlike the first two protagonists, Broom seems to be okay with his outcast status – if society has rejected him, he has rejected it right back. This is also the segment that generated the most controversy – it contains rape, a scene of shocking, disgusting abuse that will remind some of Pasolini’s Salo, and (gasp) an erect penis.
On the technical side, Poison is excellent – and Haynes deftly recreates these three radically different styles, in one movie. The TV documentary looks very much like one – it’s almost grainy, home video like quality, with some (deliberately) amateurish reenactments throughout. The 1950s sci-fi film really does seem like a lost relic of that time – except for the fact that in those film, they would never spend so much time talking about sex – even if many of those films had a definite sexual underpinning (much like Far From Heaven, which was a brilliant homage to Douglas Sirk, while being more open about subjects Sirk never could touch. Finally, the soft focus of flashback scenes in the Genet sequence really do make things look idyllic – which is offset by the horrors that eventually invade those flashbacks. The prison is more gray, cold and dank than anything – much like Un Chant d’amour.
As much as I admire Poison however, I also feel it’s undeniably a notch (or two) below Haynes’ best work. At his best, Haynes perfectly blends style, content and message – and Poison feels a lot more like a blunt instrument than the scalpel he normally uses. It doesn’t help that by cutting back and forth between three stories, during just an 85 minute film, nothing really has a chance to build. I’m not sure the film would have worked better had it just been three shorts, no intercut, but perhaps it could have been – there doesn’t seem to be much intuitive editing going on, cutting from one scene to a parallel scene in the other shorts.
Problems aside however, Poison remains a very good film – and clearly a landmark one. Yes, the controversy the film inspired has pretty much faded from everyone’s memory today, but the film did break down some barriers. The sad thing is that now, 25 years later, while the film would not be anywhere near as shocking as it was in 1991, no one is making anything like it. Haynes has grown as a filmmaker since Poison – and that’s for the best. But there is something about Poison that still works. It may not be a great film – but it’s a unique one.