Poison: Queer Film as AIDS Metaphor

poison_poster_todd_haynesFilm critic B. Ruby Rich cited “Poison” as a defining film of the New Queer Cinema movement, due to its focus on “deviant” sexuality as an anti-establishment force.  This movie established Haynes as a major voice of a generation of boldly innovative filmmakers.  Nonetheless, early on, Haynes decided not to be typecast as a “gay” director by the industry. He refused to label himself as well as his screen characters as such for fear of limiting the artistic possibilities of his exploratory narratives.

It’s not a coincidence that the French enfant terrible Jean Genet inspired Haynes, as another enfant terrible, in making the most provocative movie about the AIDS crisis to date, “Poison.”  One of the three stories in “Poison,” “Homo,” makes explicit link to Genet’s reminiscences (both factual and fictional) of his days in reformatory school and prison.  Genet’s “Un Chant D’Amour” is a cult work among gay and other independent-rebellious directors.  As we shall see, Gus Van Sant’s 1985 “Mala Noche” also recalls the writing and movie of Genet’s “Un Chant D’Amour.”

poison_10_todd_haynesUn Chant d’amour (A Song of Love) is the only film that the French writer had made in 1950. Because of its explicit homosexual content, the 26-minute film was initially banned and, later on, disowned by Genet, who was not pleased with it. The tale is set in a prison, where a guard takes  voyeuristic pleasure in observing how the prisoners perform masturbatory sexual acts. In two adjacent cells, there is an older Algerian-looking man and a handsome convict in his twenties. The older man, in love with (or at least attracted to) the younger one, rub himself against the wall, then shares his cigarette smoke with his beloved neighbor through a straw.

poison_5_todd_haynesThe jail guard, jealous of the prisoner’s relationship, enters the older convict’s cell, beats him, and forces him to go down on his gun in an obviously sexual mode of fellatio. In the lyrical sequence that follows, the inmate drifts off into a fantasy world, where he and his object of desire escape to the countryside. The final scene makes it clear that the guard’s power is no match for the intensity of attraction between the prisoners, even though their relationship is not consummated.  Instead of using dialogue or words, Genet focuses on close-ups of full bodies and then parts–faces, armpits, penises. The film’s over-eroticized and fetishistic mode has influenced many American artists, including Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey.

poison_7_todd_haynesOver the years, “Un Chant dÁmour” has become a cause celebre.  In 1966, the distributor Sol Landau attempted to exhibit the film at Berkeley, California. But he was informed by the police investigations department that were he to hold screenings, the film “would be confiscated and the person responsible arrested.” Landau responded by instituting the case of Landau v. Fording (1966) in which he sought to show Genet’s work without police harassment. The Alameda County Superior Court watched the film twice and declared that it “explicitly and vividly revealed acts of masturbation, oral copulation, the infamous crime against nature, voyeurism, nudity, sadism, masochism and sex…” The court rejected Landau’s suit, condemning the film as “cheap pornography calculated to promote homosexuality, perversion, and morbid sex practices.” Landau was also rebuffed in the District Court of Appeal of California, which accepted that Genet was a major writer but cited the film as a lesser work of an early period and declared that in the end it was “nothing more than hard-core pornography and should be banned.” When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision was confirmed once more, in a 5-4 decision.  The justices simply stated that “Un Chant d’amour” was obscene and offered no further explanation.

poison_2_todd_haynesWinning the 1991 top jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, Haynes’ “Poison,” garnered considerable acclaim but also controversy.  Denounced by one of the country’s most outspoken conservatives, Reverend Donald E. Wildman, “Poison” was attacked for containing “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.” Though he had not seen the film, Wildman was infuriated by the government support via a $25,000 post-production grant.  But the embattled National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA) chair, John E. Frohnmayer, defended the film as a responsible work of art, claiming that: “The central theme is that violence breeds violence, lust breeds destruction.  It is clearly not a pornographic film.”

poison_4_todd_haynesOne chapter of “Poison” deals with homosexual obsession, though its overall tone is neither exploitative nor pornographic.  “Poison” is in fact a socially-conscious art movie, the kind of which government agencies should subsidize (and in Europe, they do).  But for many, the very fact that “Poison” portrays homosexuals sympathetically was enough to condemn the NEA support.  Almost every major newspaper and TV program, from CBS Evening News to Entertainment Tonight (E.T.), covered more extensively the fuss and scandal rather than the film itself.

When “Poison” finally opened theatrically, to a well-deserved critical praise, it had already become an infamous art work.  In fact, the NEA attack helped push an avant-garde artist into the spotlight.  Like Jean Genet, whose release from a lifelong prison sentence was achieved with help from the French intellectual elite (Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, among others) and was a major media event, the NEA controversy catapulted Haynes from a tyro outlaw director to a celebrated filmmaker.

Soaked in paranoia, “Poison” begins with a provocative statement, “The entire world is dying of panicky fright.”  This is followed by subjective shots of the police breaking into a besieged apartment. The film’s major themes are deviance, in its various manifestations, and the inevitable pain and isolation that it generates.  The title refers to society’s penalizing attitude toward deviants through various forms of stigmas. Pushing the boundaries of narrative cinema, “Poison” both parodies and challenges the conventions of some Classic Hollywood genres.

Composed of three interwoven stories, “Poison” gains cumulative power based on juxtapositions of themes and contrast of relationships.  As the Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman pointed out, the bodily fluids (blood, pus, saliva) that leak from the various characters, and the relentless equation of love and death, serve to bind the three texts in a tight web of cross-references. Everything in the text amplifies everything else. The stories form sort of three aspects of a single biography about three males, a little boy, a youngster, and a mature scientist.

The most inventive segment in “Poison” is the black-and-white “Horror,” which mocks the genre’s conventions of cheap look and its stilted, self-conscious dialogue.  In this spoof, the mad-scientist Dr. Thomas Graves (Larry Maxwell) distills the “mysteries of the sex drive” in a bubbling teacup, then accidentally drinks his own concoction and turns into a contagious leper whose kiss can kill. “Leper Sex Killer on the Loose,” a tabloid headline screams, while Dr. Nancy Olsen (Susan Norman), the sweet scientist who loves Thomas, contemplates his “change of heart.”  Although Haynes never mentions it, the allusions to AIDS are obvious and the message is clear. The naive dreams of Nancy (allusions to First Lady Nancy Reagan?) give way to knowledge that love equals death.

The theme of “Horror” is echoed in the other segments.  In “Homo,” the most controversial segment, the prisoner John Broom (Scott Renderer) becomes obsessed with his handsome fellow inmate, Jack Bolton (James Lyons).  Haynes constructs a prison whose blue-shadowed filth and claustrophobia contrast sharply with flashbacks of a reform school set in a lush countryside, where Broom first glimpses his object of desire.  An incredibly painful but powerful scene in “Homo” shows school boys relentlessly spitting into Bolton’s mouth. “Homo” is more about mental than sexual brutality: A homosexual rape is discreetly shot, emphasizing the emotional rather than the physical abuse.

The film’s third section, “Hero,” is a fake documentary in which reporters investigate the disappearance of a little boy named Richie Beacon.  His mother, Felicia (Edith Meeks) claims that, to save her from savage beatings, Beacon shot her husband Fred (Edward Allen) and then fled out an open window into the open air.

“Poison” intercuts a triptych of episodes that are visually divergent, each set in a world defined by panic, fear, and death.  Stylistically, the film displays bravura technical skills, and thematically, it makes a unified statement about life and death.  A parody of black-and-white movies, “Horror” was shot in the slightly exaggerated noir vein, with skewed angles and dark shadows. “Hero” employs a deliberately-chosen banal style, TV-like camera set-ups and talking heads. “Homo” is shot in a soft romantic style that suggests 1950s Hollywood melodramas by Douglas Sirk, to which Haynes will return in “Far From Heaven.”  Awashed in blue light and populated by blue-clad convicts, who remove their shirts and caress their scars tenderly and erotically, the prison scenes are deliberately shot like a soft-porn gay fantasy. The reformatory scenes of sexual initiation and degradation take place in a courtyard, decorated with exotic flowers and splashed with sunlight.

Drawing on the writings of the “transgressive” and outlaw gay writer Genet, “Poison” ends with a wonderful quote from the infamous Frenchman: “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nurtured in darkness.” It’s a fitting coda, as Haynes, just like Genet, offers a call for engagement and action to all those individuals who have been alienated, oppressed, and isolated from society.

The film is a triptych of queer-themed narratives, each adopting a different genre: pop documentary, 1950s sci-fi horror, and gay prisoner love story. The film explores traditional perceptions of homosexuality as an “unnatural” social force.  It presents Genet’s vision of sado-masochistic gay love as a subversion of heterosexual norms, culminating in a detailed depiction of a marriage ceremony between two male convicts. Well ahead of its time, years before same-sex marriage became an embattled issue, this scene became prophetic when twenty years later President Barack Obama officially endorsed same-sex marriage as part of his platform.

Dense in style, structure, themes, and associations, “Poison” calls for multiple viewings, if we are to fully decode the elements of an experimental film, interlacing three stories of outcasts.  Which may explain why some critics felt that “Poison” was too academic in its deconstructive nature, basing their argument on the film’s self-consciousness and overly symbolic subtexts. The first segment’s boy, sort an angel of light, is named Richie Beacon. Flying away after killing his dad, he is like an extreme version of Peter Pan. The dedicated scientist, who turns into a monster, is called Graves, and he embodies Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There are also symbolic doors and windows and quotations from Genet.  All three characters are linked by the theme of death, an issue that is also shared by Almodovar and Van Sant, albeit in different ways.  In “Poison,” the scientist plunges to death from one window, the little boy soars away through another, and the convict remains locked away, which is also a form of death.

Put in perspective, the iconoclastic “Poison” is akin to two of Haynes’ shorts, “Dottie Gets Spanked” and “Assassins,” a film about the French “decadent” poet Arthur Rimbaud, who contributed to art, literature and music and died prematurely (of cancer) in 1891, age 37.  These gay-themed movies are “deliberately messy,” according to Haynes, because they deal with things that he felt passionately about, with characters that are deviant and acts that are transgressive, and as such, should not be presented in a neatly structured mode.  In contrast, Haynes’ second feature, “Safe,” which for some critics still represents his best work, is more aligned with “Superstar.”  Both films are conceptual projects about individuals in whom he initially didn’t have, to use his words “emotional investment,” and which were approached in a more detached and dispassionate way, from the outside.