Monday, September 7, 2009

Poison (dir. Todd Haynes, 1990)

"The whole world is dying of panicky fright."

- Opening line from Poison

Poison is the conceptually interesting yet uneven 1990 feature film debut from Todd Haynes. The film attracted me for two primary reasons: first Haynes directed what I consider to be quite possibly the finest film of the 90's (Safe) and two outstanding films from the 00's (Far From Heaven and I'm Not There), and secondly the broad outline of the plot appealed to my guilty pleasure for horror anthologies. The film deals with three seperate stories, each told with an entirely different narrative model and visual look, spliced together to create a thematically consistent yet spiky and jumbled whole.

The first story entitled "Hero" is the most compelling of the bunch, and it is told in documentary format revolving around a young kid named Richie Beacon (remaining unseen for the majority of the story), who apparently one morning finds his mother and father having a fight, shoots and kills his dad, and flies out of a window towards the sky to never be seen again. This segment is made up almost entirely of establishing shots and talking heads giving testimonials, but it is effective in the way it slyly hands out little nuggets of info which put Richie and what may have transpired that fateful morning into a bit of perspective. We learn Richie was bullied, picked on constantly and made a staggering amount of visits to the hospital. Other secrets are shared and the questions continue to mount, all leading up to a splendid shot ascending towards the sky that closes the film and marks the one, true moment of beauty we are offered from Haynes.

"Horror", the second story, deals with a doctor (overtly named Dr. Graves) who has isolated and liquidated the essence of the human sex drive, and one day accidentally ingests it. What follows is a send up to the low-budget monster movies of the 1950's era, with a constantly swirling camera obsessed with close-ups and the appropriate black and white photography. As Dr. Graves quickly turns into a leprous, contagious monster, he finds himself the target of a manhunt while dooming the one woman who still loves him, all spiraling towards an inevitably tragic ending. It is tongue in cheek for sure, but not without charm as Haynes hits his stylistic bullseye and provides assuredly the most techinically competent segment of the film.

The last story comprising Poison is titled "Homo", and it deals with two prisoners in the early 1900's who knew each other when they were kids, but find themselves forced to reconnect in a much different environment. They quickly develop a cruel and sadistic, doomed sexual relationship that provides a few stomach churning moments and more than explains the films NC-17 rating. "Homo" is based on the writings of Frenchmen Jean Genet, and it is only with the emergence of this story that we begin to see exactly what Poison is going for. Haynes, an open homosexual, seems to be painting us a kind of mad, enraged allegory. We can speculate with a bit more ammo what exactly it is that may have tortured young Richie Beacon. The "Horror" story now quite obviously becomes a metaphor for the AIDS virus. Victimization, transgression and being outcast by society are the threads that tie these stories together, and I'd be lying if I said Haynes doesn't provide us with some particularly interesting things to say on these topics.

The problem is that it all failed to come together for me, and I believe the editing is the major reason why. The film constantly jumps from one story to the next in a manic frenzy, spending no more than three or four minutes on any given sequence while never allowing the opportunity to invest in any of the situations or characters. I just couldn't help but feel as though had the stories been given more room to breathe, perhaps giving us 10 minutes at a time between cutaways or even showing them in their entirety one at a time, it would have added up to a more cohesive and digestible whole. The pieces are here and they are interesting, but they are not in place, and while this doesn't take away from the importance of the statement Haynes is making, it does lead to a disjointed and rather frustrating viewing experience. I mentioned earlier that I was drawn to this film out of my love for horror anthologies, but here we are presented with a horror of a much different type, a very real horror. Though Poison will stand to me as a failed experiment, it still represents a challenging and noble first effort from one of the most important contemporary directors we have.


Ed Howard said...

While I agree that this film isn't up to the level of Haynes' best work (the films you mention as well as his fantastic and defiantly underground debut, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), I still like it more than you do. I agree that the best story is the "Hero" one (which features a wonderful final moment that encapsulates the film's theme of a desire for escape) but the others are certainly interesting as well. Haynes has always had a keen eye for genre parodies, and his takes on 50s horror and Genet are both sensuous and insightful, probing aspects of the genres and using them to make his commentary about sexuality and ostracization. He'd go on to do much better work, of course, but this is still an interesting early feature.

Drew said...

Well said Ed. An interesting early offering it certainly is. I wasn't in love with the spiky form the film took on, I would have preferred something a little more fluid and cohesive and not as patched-together feeling, but at the end of the day that is just an argument of aesthetic preference and there is no denying that Haynes gets his thoughts across in an extremely effective and interesting manner. In that context, the film is a success for sure.