Blog Directory CineVerse: Director Todd Haynes proved his mettle with Poison 33 years ago

Director Todd Haynes proved his mettle with Poison 33 years ago

Monday, January 15, 2024

In 1991, acclaimed gay filmmaker Todd Haynes garnered significant attention for his feature film debut Poison, an experimental drama written and directed by Haynes that stands out for its unconventional narrative structure, intertwining three distinct stories that delve into themes of desire, identity, and societal norms. The movie surprisingly won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival but quickly became culture war grist for right-wing detractors like Senator Jess Helms and Rev. Donald Wildmon, who criticized the film, which was partially funded via government grants, for being pornographic and homoerotic.

Indeed, the picture sparked considerable controversy and garnered both negative and positive attention due to its explicit content, unorthodox style, and thematic exploration, and quickly came to be regarded as an important work. The movie is credited with influencing other independent filmmakers, helping to launch the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, and inspiring other gay artists. This movement aimed to present LGBTQ+ narratives in ways that challenged conventional norms and departed from mainstream representations.

Poison also served as the launching pad for a talented director, laying the foundation for Haynes and a successful filmmaking career. Haynes went on to helm acclaimed films like Safe, Far From Heaven, I’m Not Here, Carol, Dark Waters, and most recently May December.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

Poison is particularly renowned for its inventive narrative structure, blending diverse styles and formats. Comprising three separate yet interconnected and increasingly intertwining stories titled "Hero," "Horror," and "Homo," this unconventional storytelling method proved influential. "Horror” is made to look like a low-budget drive-in horror flick in the vein of Carnival of Souls; “Hero,” mimics the tabloid documentary interview style employed by news programs and afternoon TV shows; and “Homo” adopts the conventions of a prison film but with melodramatic flourishes, stylized visual choices, and ample flashbacks.

This is a movie about the experimental nature of storytelling itself; instead of focusing on one main character and his narrative, or dividing the film into three distinct chapters played back to back to back, we crosscut between a trio of tales told chronologically. As the film progresses, the disparate characters and situations begin to overlap thematically and echo some of the same messages and ideas. For example, in "Horror," Dr. Graves jumps from a window just as young Richie does, in an attempt to end his horrific situation; we hear testimony from classmates, teachers, and neighbors of both Dr. Graves and Richie (from "Hero"), many of whom express shock, surprise, and disgust of these two characters; and we observe two young girls spit in Dr. Graves’ face, just as we witness a group spitting-upon of an ostracized boy in a flashback within the “Homo” segment.

Poison is a powerful text unafraid of making serious sociopolitical commentary on what it was like to be gay in the early 1990s, a time when the AIDS epidemic was still rampant, the politicians in power turned a blind eye to this suffering, and being sexually different often made you a pariah in society.

One prominent theme explored is sexual desire deemed taboo by the mainstream. The film probes various facets of desire and sexuality, presenting narratives that not only challenge societal norms but also delve into the intricacies of sexual identity. Particularly, the "Homo" segment emphasizes candid homosexuality and the hurdles gay men face in expressing their desires.

Additionally, Poison posits thought-provoking ideas about identity, otherness, and alienation—scrutinizing matters of self, individuality, and the pervasive sense of estrangement and societal rejection experienced by its characters. The film vividly portrays the emotional and psychological struggles faced by males who find themselves on society's fringes due to their sexual orientation or unconventional behaviors. The exploration of marginalized identities, including queer experiences, contributes to a broader commentary on societal expectations and the ongoing struggle for self-acceptance.

This work disrupts traditional societal norms and delves into the repercussions of being different and unaccepted by straight society, examining the classic conflict between conformity vs. nonconformity. Each of the three narratives presents characters who resist or deviate from established norms, resulting in conflicts and rumination on conformity’s limitations. “(Poison illustrates) that the real disease of our contemporary culture—beyond AIDS…or environmental allergies or child abuse, or even a botched serum cooked up in a sci-fi lab—is a social rot formed by fear, bigotry, intolerance, and persecution,” wrote Criterion Collection essayist Michael Koresky.

Haynes himself said: “…the poison that the film describes is not necessarily one that any of us can avoid, living in the culture that we live in . . . The poison is our culture. The film is about laws and what happens when people break them or transgress them…I think what makes Poison really work for some people is that it gets under your skin and makes you feel something … very sad or disturbed.”

Poison further teaches us to fight fear with fearlessness. “Poison is about the power of refusal, of embracing exclusion, and of admitting that queerness can be a threat to the norm. It refuses integration, acceptance, and co-optation. It seeks to be a ragged outsider. It is a film about ruin and rot, how pleasure and degradation become intertwined, how transgression becomes transcendence. Cycles of violence are ended, pride overcomes the shame of illness moments before death, and showers of spit turn into rose petals,” wrote Sundance Festival blogger Nick Joyner. “Perhaps a portion of Poison’s notoriety lies in its unwillingness to “play nice” and construct “good” representation for the gay community… Haynes was not interested in making films about simple victims who fell prey to the violences of a homophobic society. Here are characters who are imprisoned but not broken, abused but not powerless, cast aside but not ashamed. They could name their suffering and learn from it without losing track of their desires to revisit or re-enact these sources of violence or punishment. The film is not about surrender, resignation, or quiet disobedience. It’s about transforming oppression into something far more fantastical, pleasurable, and ostentatious: power.

Similar works
  • Films regarded as part of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, including Tongue Untied, The Living End, Go Fish, Swoon, The Hours and Times, and The Watermelon Woman
  • Halloween (1978) and its subjective camera sequences; and Eraserhead (1977) with its disorienting black-and-white photography
  • Intolerance (1916), which also intercuts different stories into one shifting narrative
  • Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which also features a somewhat similar outdoor dining scene

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