Jul 06, 2021
By Dustin Krcatovich
Todd Haynes has come a long way in the thirty years since his scrappy experimental triptych Poison surprised just about everyone by scoring the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The director has since carved out a name mainstream enough to have his films parodied by SNL cast members, and he enjoys a hard-earned status as a lodestar of queer cinema.
While Poison handily proved that the director behind legally stymied cult favorite Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story had more in his toolkit than playing with dolls, it may have been easy to miss in the firestorm the film kicked up in 1991. When conservative garbage people in Congress like Jesse Helms (may he rest in piss) caught wind that a film with homosexual themes had received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, they used it to as an excuse to gut that organization’s funding, bellowing “pornography” into the ears of anyone who’d listen. Never mind that, save for a fleeting glimpse of a dong, Poison is less graphic than a typical episode of Baywatch; ruining art, then as now, was this ilk’s kink, and in many ways they got their way (though, of course, time has shown them to be well on the wrong side of history).
All of this sound and fury distracted away from what Poison was, and what it remains now that all the noise has fallen away: a raw explosion of formal derring do and sumptuous camp, a rich and sensual exploration of all that cinema can do with a small budget and big ideas. Its three aesthetically distinct sections (‘Hero’, ‘Horror’, and ‘Homo’) have clear reference points and antecedents — tabloid television, cheap ‘50s sci-fi, and moody prison dramas, respectively — but it dumps you in headfirst without explaining how they go together, and leaves you to divine what any of it means.
And there’s plenty one can read into it, especially in the context of the time. The ‘Horror’ scenes, in which a scientist experiments with distilling the human libido and ends up giving himself and those around him a form of leprosy, is a clear acknowledgment of AIDS’ ravaging of the gay community, but it’s admirably risky in its refusal to be clear-cut agitprop (not that that wasn’t also called for at the time). ‘Hero’, in which a community tells conflicting stories about a boy who murders his father and flies away from the scene, could be an allegory for escaping small town abuse, but it affords plenty of other nuanced readings. Haynes saves the most visually thrilling ideas for the Jean Genet-inspired ‘Homo’, framing prison life in bleak cerulean chiaroscuro; meanwhile, John Bloom (Scott Renderer) relives his memories of youth in a rose-tinted technicolor fairytale, even as he recalls terrible abuse between teenage boys.
One almost wishes that Poison hadn’t received so much attention in its day, and not just because much of it was unduly negative. It just seems a shame that Haynes didn’t spend a couple more years making more of this sort of film before moving up in the ranks; with nobody to please, little to lose, and nobody to throw money at him, who knows what other feats of ingenuity the world may have been gifted? A lovely dream (and not, to be clear, one intended to slight the work he ended up doing instead), but at least with this fine new edition we can take time to savor Poison anew, to bask in its decadent pleasures and ample food for thought.