In her distinguished Sight & Sound essay, B. Ruby Rich (1992) described the early times of the New Queer Cinema movement as a “watershed” year for independent gay and lesbian filmmaking that dealt openly and even aggressively with queer culture, politics, and identity. It also paved the way to a transformative period of queer film spectatorship. This movement was characterized as a part of the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was known to embody an accelerated cultural and political evolution of queer identity brought on by that time’s challenges to advocate for a peaceful and productive gay future. The films during this time were considered to be radical in form. They were also very much aggressive in their espousal of sexual identities in their attempt to not just challenge the heteronormative status quo that stigmatized and marginalized some forms of sexuality, but also to the positive promotion of gay and lesbian images juxtaposed by AIDS crisis and the conservative political wave both in the United States and in the UK.
It is in this context that a seemingly inconspicuous art house film directed by Todd Haynes, Poison (1991), surprisingly found itself in the center of a political controversy starting from the time it was being filmed up until its wide release. Despite the fact that Posion was only screened in the art house circuit and was never played in mainstream cinemas, it still stirred the US Senate, dominantly Republican then, into an uproar. It started when Jessie Helms threw a public fit upon knowing that the film was partly funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—an independent agency of the federal government that offers support and finances for projects exhibiting artistic superiority and excellence. In the middle of the clamor was Poison’s perceived theme and content. The conservatives claimed that aside from its confrontational, disturbing, enigmatic, visceral and harsh tone, Poison contained “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex”, and even called for the resignation of Frohnmayer, NEA’s chairman during that time. Surprisingly, NEA stood against the Right and asserted that there was no way that violence was glorified in the film, and that Poison was neither prurient nor obscene. But in the end, the imperative issues in this controversy that is detrimental for the ultimate salvation of the film was Posion’s real content—on what it was really trying to communicate to its viewers, and if there was indeed a necessity to use the techniques Haynes incorporated in the film in the effectiveness of conveying his messages.
During the process of resolving these issues, it is inevitable that we get to unveil the motivation behind Haynes’ three multi-themed vignettes told in distinctly different cinematic styles, at the same time using the technique of cross-cutting one story to another. “Hero” is a mockumentary about Richie Beacon, in an attempt to understand what really happened the night he shot his father. It later turned out that it is a story of abuse, maltreatment, domestic violence and infidelity. “Horror” is a black and white, 50’s style monster movie about Dr. Thomas Graves in his quest for medical history. Yet, upon ingesting the liquefied sex drive, he became a contagious leprous beast. He lost himself in the process, making this story a slightly concealed AIDS metaphor linked with alienation and the darker side of human sexuality. Lastly, “Homo” deals with homosexuality—was even explicitly pointed out in the beginning, and is about john Broom and his quest to retrieve a certain bad memory involving Bolton. This vignette was told in a contrast of alternate dark, prison setting and a bright “counterfeit world of men among men” situation. And as the two places overlap, we encounter violence, rape, and death.
Living with AIDS, alienation, juvenile delinquency, homoerocticism, domestic violence, domination, the darker side of human sexuality, abuse and repression shown in a surrealist manner—that is to free one’s imagination and own understanding by producing a creative process free of conscious control, is a mash-up between Haynes’s trademark and commended manner of film-making and Jean Genet’s literary and controversial masterpieces.
Todd Haynes, now established as a nonconformist director, is capable of dealing with more than his New Queer Cinema tag might cover. As seen from his works Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998) Far From Heaven (2002), and I’m Not There (2007), there is more to him than only being considered as one of the proponents of the New Queer Cinema by successfully addressing the ineffable. Haynes is also proficient in making us consciously aware of our beliefs through his films, and then challenges its viewers to rethink them and consider others, as was in Poison. One has to think profoundly, albeit carefully, to arrive at the notion that the poison Haynes was portraying in this film is society itself—that we think that there is only one kind of misery, that of Dr. Graves, when in fact we live in a world that is packed with despair. And in that denial, as was exemplified in Richie’s story, we reject other beliefs and cram ourselves inside a tight box. All it should take was to stand up for your self, and break away from the society, just like the way Richie’s mother believed that her son DID fly away after killing his father, the way Dr. Graves faced the outrageous crowd and jumped off to kill himself, and how John Broom fought to retrieve his unpleasant memories with Bolton and make him experience things that Bolton deserved. At the same time, Haynes’s surrealist tendencies are embodied in the film. There is an opportunity through which he gives his viewers enough time to distance themselves from his works to make room for their imagination and understanding. This makes his movies, and ultimately Poison, an unassuming and unimposing, yet a powerful tool for political socialization. Through Poison, we can see Haynes unconventional method of film-making as initially disconcerting and enigmatic. But ultimately his techniques are as unusual as the moral and social issues he tried to cover.
Jean Genet, on the other hand, whose works had inspired this film, is a celebrated French writer mostly associated with Cocteau, Sartre, Picasso and the existentialist movement. Considered as a deliberate outsider, he was in and out of prison due to series of arrest for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage and lewd acts. Genet is also very much explicit and provocative in his portrayal of homosexuality and delinquency that his works Our Lady of Flowers (1943), The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief’s Journal (1949), with which Poison was based, are considered autobiographical. He can be considered as a “been there, done that” kind of author, and that infuses distinctiveness on his works. In fact, one can associate Genet with the character of John Bloom in “Homo”—a habitual thief and criminal. Both of their lives can be summarized by a line said by John in the movie: “Prison life is not new to me. I’d live in them all my life. In submitting to prison life, embracing it, I could reject the world that had rejected me.” And that’s how Genet viewed himself, a rejection of the society, experiencing an exile from it, yet such action was done on purpose, deliberately. It is in this process of distanciation that he got to see the societal order that bounds most of the people, and makes sense to it. As in Poison, most of the characters are bound by the order, like the townspeople that rejected Richie and Dr. Graves, without realizing the reason as to why they do so.
Poison, thus, with its out of the usual run of themes and techniques, is a result of the interplay between Haynes’s nonconforming cinematography and Genet’s profound social and moral exposure. It is in this combination that the film unraveled the manner by which power and transgression in a society can shake its deeply rooted foundations. Power relations in a family can be carried, though sometimes reversed, out in the community, and such will forever be under the approval of everyone. Transgression, therefore, is defined in relation to what the society perceives as wrong, and, in their judgment, SHOULD BE severely punished. Poison also dealt with the peculiar side of human sexuality and its consequences. As the film had shown, it may lead to societal rejection, and can even be detrimental and fatal to others. Disloyalty also dictated the course of the “Hero”, that I get a sense of the fact that if not for his mother’s doings, Richie wouldn’t be able to commit patricide. Consequently, the real murderer might also be violence, domination. Perception also played a huge role in “Horror”, as it is in real life. “Why do they matter?” Nancy had asked. Indeed, it is the perception of the people that rejected and ultimately drove Dr. Graves to his threshold. Power, transgression, disloyalty, violence, perception—all of these can drive someone into a counterfeit life that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Just like in “Homo”, John sees two correctional institutions as different from one another: one as a place where he can live a happy life with his mate, another as place full of charade and twisted beliefs that corrupted him into doing something grave. With that, Posion can be considered as an accurate reflection of the inaccuracy of life in general—sometimes out of sequence, out of line, stifling, disturbing, and more often than not not making any sense to us. But all it takes is a step back for us to realize its deeper meaning.
G. Benatar, “Film Flap: NEA Takes ‘Poison’”, Entertainment Weekly, Issue 61, April 1991.
M. Bullock, “Treasures of the earth and screen: Todd Haynes’s film Velvet Goldmine (A Critical Essay”, Discourse, September 2002.
B. Ruby Rich, “New Queer Cinema”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 2, Issue 5, September 1992.
Poison is a film that can provide viewers a taste of a different type of movie. It is the first feature film of Director Todd Haynes, considered to be the leader of the New Queer Cinema Movement. Released in 1991, it presents three different stories: the stories of a young boy who killed his father, a doctor who turned into a contagious monster after a laboratory accident and a gay prisoner’s admiration towards another prisoner. This movie is inspired by the works of French writer Jean Genet. It received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that enabled the director to take the movie in his preferred path without worrying about commercial studios interests. Aside from this, the movie received the Grand Jury Award in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
However, not everyone is in favour with the supports and acknowledgements that the film got. Some people argued that it is not right for the NEA to grant funding to a film that is pornographic and have the potential of corrupting the mind of its viewers. There were even cases of movie goers walking out from the theatre because they cannot stand the ‘indecent’ scenes in the film. And these kinds of reactions might not be surprising. The movie was released at the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. The fear of everyone to the disease causes some conservative beliefs to be reinforced and some modern ideas to be reconsidered. Aside from these, the film offered compelling stories about social injustice, gender stereotypes and most importantly, morality.
According to the teachings of Hobbes, morality is relative. Different people might be correct in their beliefs for beliefs are based on each one’s interpretation of things. What might be good for someone might be bad for you. So in order for people to co-exist, there should be a moral agreement amongst them. And this agreement is what we know today as laws. These written or sometimes, unwritten laws have the capability to restrict human action. For once agreement is reached, everyone is compelled to follow no matter how unjust or unreasonable this might be for someone.
And some of the consequences of these agreed-upon laws were presented in this film. In ‘Hero’, the story of Richard Beacon was shown. He is a young boy who killed his father after he saw him beating his mother. According to his mother, after the incident the boy went out of the window and just disappeared. In the ‘documentary’, the truth about what happened was investigated by interviewing the neighbors, teachers and schoolmates of the boy. From their testimonials, we can see how they view a young boy like him. Their views about Richard Beacon were influenced by how the society thinks a young boy should behave. They pilloried him as a queer boy for he has done something wrong and behaved immorally.
The next story ‘Horror’ on the other hand is about Dr. Thomas Graves who, ever since he’s a child, possessed the hunger for scientific knowledge. He is a hormone specialist highly interested in finding the hormones that causes sex drives. But due to a distraction (Dr. Nancy Olsen) in his laboratory, he accidentally drank the solution on human sex drive that he was working on. This caused him to have a contagious disease that caused many people to die. This story is clearly a representation of the AIDS epidemic during that time. If we are to look at it closely, the treatment that Dr.Graves experienced represents a kind of punishment to a person who goes out of the boundaries set by the moral agreement. Because he dared to explore a part of humanity that is in some way a ‘taboo’ that led to the spread of a deadly disease, he was treated like a criminal and a pest.
‘Homo’ the third story focuses on John Broom desire for John Bolton – a friend from the juvenile prison. This story is different from the other first two stories because it is set in a different community – a jail. The prisoners are people who already crossed the boundary and so the same moral standards of them may be different. It is like a smaller bounder society outside the bigger society. In this place, it is accepted for men to sleep with other men but to love another man is unacceptable and immoral. This is one of their unwritten rules. And what is the punishment for crossing the line? It is stigma.
From these stories, we can indeed see the consequences of the moral standards we abide for the people who cross the boundaries voluntarily or involuntarily. And through the different techniques and styles used in this film, it was able to communicate all these messages in an effective way. The use of mockumentary in Hero allowed the viewers to see and evaluate how people judge other people base on what they believe is decent. In the Horror film, the use of the B-movie style with all the exaggerated acting, bad make-ups and low quality set-ups, shows how people exaggerate the issue of AIDS and maltreat the victims of such disease. And lastly, in the third story Homo, darker colors and shadows was used inside the prison while brighter colors was used in the flashbacks to highlight the difference of Broom’s fantasy and reality.
And lastly, it is worthwhile to look at the writer Jean Genet and how his experiences translated in the stories showed in the film. As we know, Genet spent many of his years inside European prisons. So we can say that in those periods of his life, he was outside the bounded society. He went outside the boundary and he was punished for it. But it seems that these experiences ‘outside’ enabled him to see the flaws of the existing moral standards of our society. He was able to see how the current state of the human society marginalized or sometimes maltreat queer individuals or groups.
This film, ‘Poison’ may at first looks like another offensive scandalous gay film. But as we have seen, the film communicates various societal issues like morality. And it also encourages the viewers not to be jailed in one perspective alone but to explore other outlooks to further understand things. This is the message the ‘Poison’ communicated to me. And I hope you got the same messages too