Hands. Secretions. Lesions.
For viewers familiar with Todd Haynes’ work in the last twenty years, the physicalness of his debut feature film may come as a shock. Released in 1991, Poison marked the apogee of the so-called New Queer Cinema, which drew its energy from the ACT-UP years of AIDS activism, its presentations of body and flesh a reaction to Reagan decade cinema’s fear of sex.
Poison should have been a midnight movie classic; instead, it disappeared, shared on coveted VHS copies and a couple of dreadful YouTube transferences. Thanks to a sparkling DVD print released by Zeitgeist Films in 2011, Poison has never looked better, thus has acquired a new capacity to shock—the way awful things look more lurid in the daylight.
Poison has three stories, filmed in their own style, interwoven instead of chopped into discrete chapters. The triptych structure forces audiences to see connections between narratives whose tonal and stylistic impregnability would ordinarily repel synthesis:
• “Home,” told in the style of a local news show complete with interviews and actors facing the camera, follows an adolescent who kills his father and fees. It captures the animal-caught-in-headlights daze of small town citizens unaccustomed to the otherworldly that viewers of “Unsolved Mysteries” might recognize. The verité style—the pops and scratches of cheap tape—should impress David Lynch fans. But after a couple of those interviews and a startling opening sequence to which I’ll return in a moment, “Home” plays like a long joke fumbling for a punch line.
• In “Horror,” shot like a bad sixties grade-Z horror flick, a scientist isolates the human sex drive and drinks it, causing grotesque mutations and a citywide panic. John Lyons plays the scientist Jack Bolton, a casting that acquired poignancy after Lyons, also the editor of the 1998 Haynes film Velvet Goldmine and 2000’s The Virgin Suicides and Haynes’ lover, succumbed to HIV-related infection in 2007. Presaging Haynes’ attention to the mores of Cold War Cinema, “Horror” has paranoid citizens pathologically averse to abnormality and a penchant for mob scenes as well as a blond do-gooder girlfriend who loves the deformed hero because he’s got a good heart. The extreme close-ups, distorted angles, and concentration on effluvia, particularly pus that looks like jism,
• But queer audiences remember “Homo” years after their first viewing. Based liberally on the novels of Jean Gent with their amalgams of realism and gutter poetry, “Homo” concerns a prisoner who falls in love—or lust if you prefer—with the hunky lunkhead whom he’d watched getting abused in the juvi pen years ago. ““Homo” and “Hero” are complementary: homes are prisons too,” Rob White wrote in his 2011 reappraisal for Film Quarterly. “If Haynes thus domesticates outsider fiction, it is in order to suggest that the mainstream cannot be separated from its criminal counterpart.”
Here’s where Haynes’ tripartite structure and use of a leitmotifs pays off. Poison begins with a close-up of hands rummaging greedily in nightstand drawers, across bedspreads, and private spaces. These are the hands of the child-killer; thus, the sequence has a genuine erotic menace, Buñuelian in effect. In “Homo”’s most famous sequence the two prisoners doze on the cement floor—one of them does anyway. Protagonist John Broom stares at his beloved’s still form, hands, also shot in extreme close-up, massaging his jeans and crotch while his bare toes reach for their erotic doubles. If the audience can remember how Far from Heaven and last year’s Carol Haynes fetishized distance, this scrappy sensual directness serves as a reminder of what has been lost with technical mastery.
Uncategorizable and determined to offend somebody, Poison reduced the so-called Moral Majority into the Moron Majority. The news that the National Endowment for the Arts had awarded Haynes $25,000 towards the film’s budget shook the toupees of luminaries such as Representative Dick Armey, minister Donald Wildmon and religious entrepreneur Ralph Reed (whose baby doll looks, by the way, would have made him ideal casting in the “Horror” section).
Producer Christine Vachon may have known she was investing in a career. If she didn’t, she knew, with her impeccable instincts, that she was investing in a vision. Like many films heralding an embryonic career, Poison opens hallways the director will never visit again.
This remarks were delivered at Miami Beach Cinematheque as part of its series on the films of producer Christine Vachon.