Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Poison (1991)

Since discovering my awesome local video store, I've been eagerly snatching up the titles that are too X-rated/obscure/avant-garde for Blockbuster or Netflix. It's been really nice to go somewhere with distinct sections for "Documentary", "Cult", "Gay", "Martial Arts", "Adult", and "Alfred Hitchcock" (to name a few), and I think I finally understand what my college film theory professor meant when he said to never trust a video store without a healthy porn selection.

I checked out a copy of Todd Haynes's Poison, which I knew nothing about except that it supposedly started the whole "New Queer Cinema" movement that was hot in the early 90's. I generally feel iffy about the American independent resurgence from this period; while I think films like Slacker and Sex, Lies, and Videotape are interesting and inspiring for young filmmakers like myself, I also have to admit that I don't find them terribly compelling. However, watching Poison has given me a much stronger appreciation for why this kind of work got people so damn excited in the first place.

Haynes's film unfolds through three interwoven narratives. "Hero" presents itself as a contemporary news documentary investigating the strange case of a young boy who has murdered his father and mysteriously ascended to the heavens. This segment employs a mix of archival photographs, stylized re-enactments, and faux-interviews with local citizens who knew the boy. What emerges is a troubling story of domestic violence and despair, and while it is certainly a "fake documentary", it never feels like a "mockumentary". This is partially because the the subject material is so dark, but it's also because Haynes avoids taking cheap shots at his characters or flattening them into simple caricatures. He instead creates a complicated portrait of a family torn apart by desire and shame, and he leaves it to his audience to decide if the patricidal child is indeed an outcast turned "Hero" or a monstrous killer.

"Horror" mimics the style of a sensationalist 1950's science fiction flick and tells the story of a scientist who accidentally consumes a draught of pure human sexuality that causes him to develop a disfiguring disease. In his madness and sorrow, he finds himself brooding in dark corners of seedy bars, picking up women and infecting them with his fatal sickness. This vision of a nightmare sexual illness was most surely influenced by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, though Haynes seems to be invoking the promise of a post-AIDS world by staging his scenario in with such a pronouncedly retro style; the film-noir lighting, antiquated camera techniques, and hammy dialogue all hammer down the idea of a more primitive time that needs to be left behind. However, Haynes takes precious few chances to violate or complicate these old-fashioned conventions, and at times he seems to have less control of the genre than the genre has over itself.

The final story, "Homo", crafts a stylized tale of tortured romance in an early 20th century prison. Drawing heavily from the writings of Jean Genet, this sequence delves into the psyche of career thief John Bloom who finds himself infatuated with fellow prisoner Jack Bolton. The two men had known each previously at a boys' reformatory, which Broom recalls as an idyllic garden of homoerotic love and violence. However, these halcyon memories stand in sharp contrast to the men's adult penitentiary, which Haynes presents as a cold labyrinth of melancholy repression. Broom and Bolton struggle together against these oppressive surroundings, and they become ambiguously intimate, though neither expresses the kind of open affection that might incur the wrath of their peers.

In one of the film's most powerful scenes, the two men lie next to each other, apparently asleep amongst several other prisoners. Broom is roused as Bolton's leg falls across his own, and Broom begins guardedly exploring his friend's body as he nervously attempts to determine if Bolton is asleep or secretly conscious. This charade is brought to an abrupt end by a disturbance in the cell, and despite the feelings that the two men obviously harbor for each other, they remain unable to verbalize their desires.

This scene strikes me not only because of its beautifully charged eroticism (and it does get pretty damn hot), but also because it so perfectly captures that core experience of the homosexual coming to grips with forbidden lust. This unfulfillable yearning is certainly at the heart of the many bittersweet moments that tormented me throughout so much my young adult life, and I must believe that the same is true for most other gays as well. When I was still in the closet, one of my college professors (different from the wise porn shop one) remarked to me that the great tragedy of homosexuality was having to be near someone that you loved deeply while being unable to say or do anything about it. This has stuck with me, probably because I immediately recognized it to be the awful truth.

I suspect that Poison will likewise stick with me for years to come, though hopefully for less damning reasons. Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about the film is the way in which it so earnestly addresses the fundamental issues facing the homosexual/outsider figure who wishes to integrate with the rest of society. In doing so, Poison pushes aside the marginalized or two-dimensional homosexual that was (and still is) the Hollywood norm, and it simultaneously elevates the queer film beyond the furtive celebrations of unseen pleasures that had so long characterized the genre. Haynes also makes good on the stylistic promise of his avant-garde lineage, as Poison freely borrows various elements from narrative, documentary, and experimental styles of filmmaking in order to create a new voice that is entirely and authoritatively its own.

In rejecting old forms and striving beyond surface issues like AIDS, sex, and family strife, Haynes turns his attention to the existential problems and possibilities facing the homosexual in the modern world. With Poison, he heralds the coming of a new gay consciousness that looks beyond sexual politics to the much more fundamental questions concerning the problematic role of the outsider in today's America. A bold and exciting New Queer cinema indeed.


Anonymous said...

Poison is a favorite and I enjoyed reading your take on it. I'd recommend Dottie Gets Spanked by Haynes for a lighter take on how being gay makes one an outsider at a tender age.

Mike J said...

Thanks! I'm amped to check out Dottie (along with the rest of Haynes's films).