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Poison (#110 of 3)

Hearth of Darkness Rob White’s Todd Haynes

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Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes
Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes

Perhaps the most salient point in Rob White’s auteur study of Todd Haynes comes within his discussion of B. Ruby Rich and her statement that Poison (1991), a pioneering film of New Queer Cinema, is “homo-pomo,” which involves appropriation, pastiche, and irony, among others. More importantly, she claims the movement’s films to be “irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive…full of pleasure.” It’s an alteration of the last claim that defines White’s book, where he acknowledges that Poison is “witty and playful” (or pleasurable), “but it builds to an intense pathos.” That pathos—and its significance—is where White seeks footing within the oeuvre of a filmmaker who appears to operate with equal parts practice and theory in mind. After all, Haynes studied with prolific film theorist Mary Ann Doane at Brown University, which White sees as a potential influence on Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), given the film’s preoccupation with “female subservience and the honorable authority of the medical profession,” which is a central concern of Doane’s classic monograph The Desire to Desire. Also on White’s agenda: navigating through the litany of cinematic influences on Haynes’s films and carefully investigating the various modes of transgression present throughout much of his filmography. Ultimately, the balancing act is an impressive mix of high and low criticism.

Low, in the sense that White has visibly reigned in the academic arsenal, making only glancing references to the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—names that will be (painfully?) familiar to anyone who’s logged hours as a grad student in cinema studies. In this case, the short shrift isn’t only welcome, but supplemental to the core of White’s analysis, as he refrains from bogging the films down in unnecessary theoretical explications. Though Haynes’s filmography is potentially riper for such discussions than others, White’s own delicate prose takes its place. For example, White states regarding Superstar that objects are “better described as deathlike than lifelike.” Such an acute approximation trumps paragraphs of theoretical examination. Moreover, the discussion leads to equally proficient conclusions; regarding Poison, the author states that “horror represents the politics of futile protest.” In stridently identifying these tendencies and qualities, White combines the best of critical and academic writing.

Todd Haynes’s Poison

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Todd Haynes’s Poison
Todd Haynes’s Poison

Poison is a love letter composed like a ransom note,
an unstable compound synthesized in a lab,
a cut-and-paste collage by a gifted schoolboy.

“A milestone in American independent film and the inciting spark for what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes’s first feature, ’Poison’ (1991), has always stood for much more than itself…A triptych of stories about transgression and persecution inspired by Jean Genet, [the] film’s three strands are stylistically distinct—a newsmagazine-style account of a suburban boy who killed his abusive father, a black-and-white B-movie about a scientist turned leprous outcast, a rough-trade romance set in a Genet-like prison—and it cuts among them to create a web of unsettling correlations and an echo-chamber effect.”Dennis Lim, The New York Times

 

I was a teenage fanboy for Todd Haynes.

The Conversations: Todd Haynes

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The Conversations: Todd Haynes
The Conversations: Todd Haynes

Ed Howard: In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes, because he sees—in the lurid stories about sexuality and decadence and violence that we like to tell ourselves, in the celebrity gossip rags and TV news and hyped-up movies—deeper truths about identity, gender, politics, entertainment and sexuality. Haynes finds, within the sensationalist and the melodramatic, a culture’s vision of itself, distorted by a funhouse mirror but nevertheless evocative of the unvarnished truth. Or maybe the truth really is as strange as the mirror suggests: entertainers as plastic action figures, made to be manipulated and posed; sexuality as a plague, terrifying and mysterious; suburbia as a deadening cage for the emotions; the past as a manufactured façade, rendered superficially safe by the suppression (or ignorance) of all those impulses that go unchecked in the present; identity as malleable and fluid, the true self supplanted by endless masks and games. Haynes’ appropriation of the language of media—the docudrama, the genre film, the educational documentary, all eras and styles collaged together in his cinematic blender—is an examination of the ways in which culture both disguises and probes the truths about individuals, their secret desires and fears and fantasies.