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Grade: A-Poison (1991)

Director: Todd Haynes

Stars: Scott Renderer, James Lyons, Larry Maxwell

Release Company: Fox Lorber

MPAA Rating: R

Best Gay Cinema

Todd Haynes: Poison

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"A child is born and he is given a name. Suddenly, he can see himself. He recognizes his position in the world. For many, this experience, like that of being born, is one of horror."
Jean Genet quotes punctuate Todd Haynes' controversial 1991 Poison, a triad of three separate films intricately interwoven and linked thematically to make a whole. Although each story is shot in a distinct style, they are connected simultaneously in a non-linear narrative that provokes meditation on some aspect of "crime" and "punishment" and involves sex/sexuality in some form.

Shot like a news report, "Hero" tells the story of seven-year old Richie Beacon, who kills his brutally abusive father, and disappears in a mysterious way, according to his mother. The interviews with neighbors, teachers, and friends provide a touch of humor in the least developed of the three stories--I chuckled at the reference of the missing boy's face appearing on milk cartons and the typical reactions of the older acquaintances when hearing the news about the shooting.

"Horror" is filmed like a classic B movie about some monster. In this case the Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde character turns out to be Dr. Thomas Graves (Larry Maxwell), who has been hungry for knowledge ever since he was a child. This time he applies his molecular coagulation theory to isolate the sex drive. Unfortunately, he drinks the entire potion after meeting an attractive lady who wants to serve as his assistant, and he becomes the Leper Sex Killer, complete with bad peeling makeup that gets passed on to others in a thinly disguised metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. "Horror" also contains a scene that most pointedly ties the three stories together when the suicidal and highly contagious scientist screams out that the horrified viewers are really just like him.

The last of the triad is the most complex and compelling of the three stories and the one that has garnered the most praise, along with attracting the most controversy. "The Homo" revolves around lifelong prisoner John Broom's (Scott Renderer) obsession with fellow inmate Jack Bolten (James Lyons). Told through Broom's thoughts, much of this story within a story is communicated through flashbacks and vignettes that develop the characters of the two men.

Renderer is among the few experienced actors that Haynes uses, and communicates his longing mostly through his eyes in reaction shots that are as well acted as anything I've seen recently. Most of his dialog is done through voiceover--the following lines are very revealing about his character:
"Prison life was not new to me. I'd lived in them all my life. In submitting to prison life and embracing it, I could reject the world that rejected me."
Although sexual lust is accepted in adult prison, real homosexual love is looked at with disdain, and Broom doesn't want his inmates to regard him as the biggest fruitcake in the joint. Yet we know his internal thoughts and his longing for Bolten. This portion contains the film's most homoerotic scenes--the camera’s sensuous movement across Bolten's body scars and the night scene with Broom and Bolten pretending to sleep while next to each other. It also contains the most brutal images with an anal rape scene and a spitting scene that reportedly caused some 57 people to leave the theater at Sundance. (look for an uncredited cameo by John Leguizamo under a different name)

Poison is most notorious for the negative right wing reactions that Rev. Donald Wildmon stirred up after discovering that Haynes had received funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. This was no Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that would be seen by a handful of art patrons only in New York City, but an arthouse film with the potential to "corrupt" millions of people worldwide. Thanks to the Wildmon's reactions against what he deemed taxpayer funding of gay porn, Poison gained much notoriety and far larger box office receipts than it would have received otherwise.

On the DVD commentary, Haynes states that the NEA funding was a great help because it allowed him the independence to carry out his vision without having to worry about satisfying commercial studio interests--exactly the idea behind NEA funding. Unfortunately, due to the political reactions against Poison and other controversial works, that type of funding has now dried up. Too bad since there must be other non-mainstream artists with visions to translate onto the film medium if adequate funding was available.

Poison clearly establishes Todd Haynes as a major talent with a sharp eye for visuals and subtle and intelligent screenwriting skills, which are also evident in Safe and Velvet Goldmine. His work is regarded as groundbreaking and has been cited as the leader of the New Queer Cinema movement, so don't expect Haynes' work to play in mainstream cinema outlets. If one of Haynes' films played at the multiplex, most of that audience would be trying to figure what the hell the film was about and would walk out muttering about its obscurity if they weren't talking about the sexually suggestive scenes. Of course, they may have to work their way through the pickets of the right wing reactionaries who railed against the film without even seeing it.

While Poison takes some liberties with Jean Genet's stories, the film captures the spirit of Genet's work and received the blessing of his estate. When a highly intelligent independent visual artist like Haynes can use his creativity and film school background skills to translate a literary artist to the screen, it's worth checking out--no matter what label critics attach to his work.

"A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness."

-- Jean Genet

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