Poison

1991, Movie, R, 85 mins

Review

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Independent filmmaker Todd Haynes achieved some measure of notoriety for 1987's SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY, a 43-minute examination of the pop singer's life told through Barbie dolls and other ironic, post-modern conceits. Composed of three interlocking narratives, POISON, Haynes's feature debut, is an exercise in cinema of ideas that, while audacious and occasionally compelling, is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Following two brief and baffling scenes--one each from "Horror" and "Hero," the viewer later realizes--POISON opens with an extended point-of-view pan, as a child passes his hand over an eclectic collection of ordinary objects, touching each as though it were some rare and exciting wonder. The sequence, from "Homo," ends abruptly when he's discovered by his monstrous parents, whose horror at the child's sensual thrall is the first of many poisons with which the film deals.

The film proper unfolds in a series of fragments, each with its own distinctive style. "Horror," shot in the exaggerated black-and-white of low-budget 50s monster movies, tells the story of brilliant sex researcher Dr. Graves (Larry Maxwell). Graves distills the human sex drive into a viscous liquid, then accidentally drinks it (an object lesson in why one ought not to store things in inappropriate containers -- concentrated sex drive in a teacup is an accident waiting to happen) when distracted by his beautiful new assistant, Nancy (Susan Norman). Graves degenerates into a leprous monster, spreading disease and destruction before committing suicide in front of an angry mob.

"Hero" tells the story of Richie Beacon, a seven-year-old who shot his father and escaped, his mother (Edith Meeks) explains, by flying out the window. An investigative news crew interviews Richie's suburban friends and neighbors, and a puzzling picture of the boy and his milieu emerges through the flat, purportedly neutral form of the video news magazine.

Based on Jean Genet's Thief's Journal (but also including quotations from Our Lady of the Flowers and Miracle of the Rose), "Homo" examines the prison romance of John Broom (Scott Renderer) and Jack Bolton (James Lyons). Broom, a thief, and Bolton first met as adolescents in reform school. Bolton, an effeminate boy, was tormented and humiliated by the others. Now an adult, he has remade himself as a macho icon, and his relationship with Broom develops in the contradictory matrix of tenderness and brutality. Bolton is eventually killed attempting to escape with another inmate. The look of "Homo" alternates between murky realism in the prison scenes and candy-colored hyper-reality in the reform school flashbacks.

As the title suggests, the individual stories that make up POISON all deal with notions of contamination and corruption. "Horror" is the most obvious of the three, with its equation of sex and death by disfiguring disease. As a metaphor for AIDS, the segment's sex leprosy verges on the offensive. It's obvious and not particularly enlightening to be told that sexually transmitted diseases arouse the moral ire of a repressive society, turning sufferers into hateful icons of perversion and danger. The comparison to David Cronenberg's THE FLY is inevitable and not flattering to Haynes; the tonal mixture of sadness, morbid fascination and bitter humor that defines Cronenberg's film is far more complex than anything Haynes manages to evoke.

"Homo" attempts to translate to the screen the world view of Jean Genet, whose celebration of baseness, viciousness and degradation is extraordinarily difficult to translate to film, requiring that a balance be struck between remaining true to both the brutality of Genet's subject matter and to the rapturousness of his tone. While's Genet's narrative voice can reconfigure through language the grotesque nature of such an experience as having a mob of boys spit into another boy's mouth, the literal image itself evokes only repulsion. "Homo" takes place in a poisoned and poisonous world in which no word or gesture--perhaps even no thought--is free from the taint of opportunism, cruelty and the need to establish authority within a debased and unforgiving environment. Haynes misses on the larger political front, lapsing again into obviousness as he sets up the crude and ruthless world of prison life as a metaphor for mainstream society. But he succeeds dramatically on the personal one, evoking with excruciating success the painful euphoria of Broom's desire, thwarted by circumstance and colored by money.

"Hero" is curiously unsatisfying, though it may well be the most successful segment of all. Richie Beacon is never seen, but through eyewitnesses one infers a child who irritated everyone like a burr under the saddle. The segment is built on equivocation. Richie shot his father, though he did so to save his mother from being beaten. Richie was passive, but he manipulated adults and other children. He was an ordinary boy, but he flew away like an angel. It's Richie himself who is the poison of the ironically titled "Hero," a subtly corrupting influence who brings out the ugliness beneath the surface of a placid suburban community.

Though too overtly difficult, in both style and subject matter, to achieve wide popular acclaim, POISON is the work of a serious and daring filmmaker. The film generated sharply divided response when it was shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, receiving the Grand Jury Prize while prompting walkouts during screenings. (Violence, sexual situations, adult situations, nudity.) leave a comment

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