Thursday, June 23, 2011


POISON                     B                     
USA  (85 mi)  1991  d:  Todd Haynes

Homosexual:  is that written as two words?              —admitting prison official

Easily one of the most uncomfortable film experiences ever, as the film dwells on themes of fear, panic, and personal horror, intertwining three stories which are each inspired from Jean Genet novels, specifically Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers and Thief’s Journal.  Haynes uses entirely different film styles for each section, where the stories aren’t really similar, and they don’t blend together particularly well, though they share common themes which just happen to be expressed differently.  Perhaps the one element that cohesively pulls this all together is the dissonant chamber music playing throughout which couldn’t be uglier, as there is no attempt whatsoever to pull the audience into the story with something warm or nice and attractive.  Instead the images are violently disturbing and express the feeling of blunt trauma.  There’s nothing uniquely memorable about any of the acting performances, each feeling just a bit detached from reality, almost as if filmed during the era of silent films.  The dialogue is equally as indistinguishable, making sure none of the characters stand out, so all are blended into the same mix where the lead characters are forced to face some horrible trauma, which are identified over the end credits as Hero, Horror, and Homo.  In Hero, using a newsreel style documentary format, a young 7-year old boy has been identified as killing his father in suburbia, where the mother undergoes an extensive interview staring directly into the camera as she describes what happened in great detail.  Horror is a black and white, panic stricken tribute to the 50’s sci-fi B-movies usually associated with a dreaded catastrophic event that causes public hysteria, while Homo is a depiction of the brutality displayed inside all-male prisons, set in an era when homosexuality was considered a crime, where undesirables were kept locked up, and where the idea of love is a foreign concept to be kept concealed, like valued contraband.

Probably the climax of the AIDS scare in this country was around 1985, smack dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, just after his rousing re-election winning 49 of 50 states, showing little compassion for gay or minority rights, a time when AIDS was initially seen as an exclusively gay disease because it was first diagnosed among gay men, so little attention was paid by government, where a lack of funding as well as foresight remained a constant.  While never identifying this illness in the film, which didn’t exist at the time Genet’s novels were written, Haynes incorporates common reactions both to the discovery of having AIDS, a panic stricken sure sign of a contagion of death as there was as yet no treatment or cure, and the experience of being gay, seen through differing stages of one's life, a uniquely unalluring prospect as one could foresee a lifetime of being despised and hated by the unsympathetic majority public, where the film includes many of the common boyhood experiences where a child is singled out and shunned by the others, including multiple trips to the nurses office for incessant injuries and bodily harm.  One of the bullies admits on camera that the singled out kid wanted him to do it, that he made him do it, so he publicly spanked him, admitting he felt compelled to hurt him because he and all the others believed the kid was evil.  This kind of humiliation continues well into the boys homes of adolescence and the dreary prison existence of adulthood, where bullies rape and humiliate homosexuals for sport.  Horror has an otherworldly, almost Guy Maddin feel, though this film precedes any of his work, but it has the same somnambulistic feel where characters appear to sleepwalk through their roles, where a scientist discovers the origin of the human sex drive, reduced in his lab to a liquid formula, which he unfortunately drinks, turning into the Leper Sex Murderer where he spreads the horrible skin contaminated disease to others through simple human contact, creating a large scale epidemic. 

Much of the backlash following the success of this film was the discovery by those on the religious right that this film received money from the National Endowment for the Arts, which they found scandalous, holding Congressional hearings where they actually screened portions of the film denunciating the idea of a film made with public funds that flouts explicit scenes of homosexuality.  To be fair, sixty years earlier in the 1930’s, this same moral outrage was expressed at the release of James Joyce novel Ulysses, calling it obscene, the same with Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl in the 1950’s, where the courts had to intervene in order to allow these works to be distributed in the United States.  Jean Genet was himself a French petty thief and gay hustler, spending much of his life as a career criminal behind bars, where the graphic description in his novels of sexually explicit homosexual acts got his work banned in the United States during the 1950’s as well, along with William S. Burroughs and Naked Lunch, giving their works greater notoriety due to the attempts to censor the content.  In the case of Todd Haynes, with this film he was quickly anointed to the leading vanguard of the New Queer Cinema movement due to his identification with gay oriented themes, though over time his interest is more associated with artistic freedoms and society’s perception of social outsiders.  Still, there’s something exceedingly creepy about his initial work, which remains a dense and difficult film, completely humorless, swirling in a state of delirium, as it reflects the point of view of a panic stricken victim who is immediately shunned and ostracized from society, forced to hide, oftentimes in their own self-imposed, prison-like exile where a strange and mysterious fascination with death may be seen as an inevitable and even acceptable option.

Note:  James Lyons, who was Haynes's lover for years, plays the object of desire in the Homo section, and also edited the film, breaking up nearly a decade later where he eventually succumbed to AIDS.  Haynes' later film I’M NOT THERE (2007) is dedicated to his memory. 

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