Todd Haynes’s Poison

I discovered Haynes’s work in those golden years when I was precociously overenrolled, swaggeringly social, and getting laid all the time.

Todd Haynes's Poison
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

Todd Haynes’s 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.

I discovered his work as an art-fag undergrad, in those golden years when I was precociously overenrolled, swaggeringly social, and getting laid all the time. Haynes made the kind of moon-shot movies I would have liked to have made myself: intellectually ambitious, outrageously stylized, playfully overwrought. We obsessed over the same directors—Ophüls and Sirk, Godard and Fassbinder, Welles and Anger—and when Haynes quoted their compositions and reworked their scenarios, my brain tingled with the spark of recognition. There were endless allusions to excavate in his densely footnoted filmography. Haynes’s work was like a primer in queer aesthetics: part literary canon, part cinematic retrospective, part Critical Theory syllabus. Back then I’d fill up spiral notebooks with lists of Films to Watch, drawing a small box next to each title and checking it off once screened. It gave me a pleasant sensation of cumulative mastery, a kind of flow, and it was the same feeling I got screening Haynes’s pastiched pictures: check check check check check.

At the time, I was fascinated with anything and everything “postmodern.” (Yes, truly fascinated by social constructionism!) Haynes’s pop-semiotic style concretized critical theory in literal and analytically exacting terms. I totally geeked out. But his films didn’t seem like dry exercises to me. Their impulse to critically deconstruct commercial cinema (its operative narratives, iconography and modes of characterization) was balanced by a desire to recuperate its energy and accessibility. Haynes insisted that movies could be at once cerebral and sensual, rigorous and playful, principled and popular—that they could be all of these things and also super gay. That sense of possibility was exhilarating.

AIDS intersects with and requires a rethinking of all culture: of language and representation, health and illness, sex and death, the public and private realms.” — ACT UP member Douglas Crimp, October magazine, Winter 1987

In Poison, transgression is considered globally in the form of three interwoven stories. And although they’re depicted in distinctly different styles, they are each, ostensibly, the same story. What distinguishes them is not so much in what’s being said as in who’s saying it: who’s telling each story and why. What we learn, for instance, about the monster in a horror film, or of the suspicious subject of a tabloid documentary is very different from what we might learn from Genet, the exiled criminal of Miracle of the Rose. But in all three cases, we encounter a central character that has been shut out by his society as a result of his transgression of certain laws.

Poison’s structure created many challenges, but my primary concern was that it be a source of stimulation for the viewer. Although today’s video-fluent filmgoers experience something very much akin to fragmented narratives every time they flip around the channels on the TV, I still felt it was essential that beneath its braided structure, Poison’s central themes were clearly drawn. With any luck, it’s a film that plays around with the act of telling stories while at the same time asking a few serious questions about the nature of deviance, cultural conditioning and disease.” —Todd Haynes, Poison Director’s Statement (original release), 1991

Poison is the exemplary work of New Queer Cinema (if not necessarily the best), because it so rigorously works through the political issues of its moment. Mainline gay advocacy groups in the late ’70s and early ’80s, like the “homophile” associations of the ’50s and ’60s, comprised a conventional civil rights movement; their goals were reformist (lobbying against anti-gay penal codes) and assimilationist (promoting positive images of gays and lesbians to foster social acceptance). But the AIDS epidemic—and the government’s refusal to respond to it as a health epidemic, instead of a referendum on moral values—radicalized the gay community. Returning to the oppositional stance of the post-Stonewall, Gay Liberation era, groups like ACT UP, in which Haynes was a prominent member, mounted protests that were unapologetic in tone and revolutionary in spirit. Homophobia was seen as just one expression of a puritanical and reactionary moralism that operated on all levels of society.

Thus, the three narratives of Poison—dubbed “Homo,” “Hero,” and “Horror”—figure different kinds of social outcasts, articulating a comprehensive critique of sexual and gender norms. “Homo,” a composite of three Genet novels set in 1930s French prisons, addresses the regulation of same-sex desire through its medicalization (the invention of “homosexuals” as a psychopathological type) and criminalization (the formation of an abject social class). “Hero,” in its Unsolved Mysteries-style investigation of a murderous six-year-old, chronicles the physical violence and casual cruelty meted out to children in a patriarchal society, particularly those whose behavior departs from accepted behavioral norms. “Horror,” a not-so-thinly veiled allegory of the AIDS epidemic filtered through the tropes of postwar B-monster movies, dramatizes the social hysteria, media sensationalism, and McCarthyite political opportunism that exacerbated the health crisis.

“Queerness” is not an intrinsic state of being, but a differential relationship to normative culture. So in an important sense queerness is identical with hegemonic oppression and social abjection. But the main characters in Poison aren’t simply casualties of an unjust world, the kind of lambs-to-the-slaughter you find in liberal prestige pictures about homophobia. Though all are victims of persecution and physical violence, each one internalizes and reproduces that hatred by becoming victimizers themselves. Their stories hash out a complex moral calculus. They’re sympathetic but not at all saintly, and most often are impenetrable, antisocial and repulsive. And no, they’re not “just like you.” That’s the last thing they want to be.

“The Kuleshov Effect is a film editing (montage) effect demonstrated by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s. Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mozzhukhin was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl, a little girl’s coffin). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mozzhukhin’s face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was ‘looking at’ the plate of soup, the girl, or the coffin, showing an expression of hunger, desire or grief respectively. Actually the footage of Mozzhukhin was the same shot repeated over and over again. Vsevolod Pudovkin (who later claimed to have been the co-creator of the experiment) described in 1929 how the audience ‘raved about the acting…the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.’”Kuleshov Effect, a crowd-sourced contribution to Wikipedia

Haynes’s infamous 1987 short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story dramatizes the true-life tragedy of the pop singer’s anorexia-induced death at age 32. Here’s the hook: The principle parts are cast entirely with Barbie dolls. That may at first sound like a macabre joke, but the thing is, by the end of the film you’re just devastated. You come to identify so strongly with this plastic toy, you read so much pathos in her blank expression.

Superstar deploys classical melodrama’s narrative template and stylistic strategies (lighting, montage, and, above all, music) to suture the viewer into a direct emotional involvement with Karen’s personal tragedy. But generic disruptions—informational intertitles, cutaways to T.V. news footage, a fake educational film—cue you to read her bulimia as a symptomatic social phenomenon, a disease created by and legible through cultural constructs. The foregrounded materiality of Haynes’s shoebox-diorama drama literalizes the fabricated nature of its story world. You are constantly confronted with the absurdity of empathizing with a doll, and the dissonance prevents you from losing yourself in the illusionism. And yet!

It’s a somewhat ingenious response to a political paradox typically attributed to Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” While it’s easy to become emotionally involved in the death of Karen Carpenter, it’s hard to respond so directly to a health epidemic (one that millions of individuals struggle with to this day). But it’s easy, in turn, to treat the death of Karen as an individual tragedy, to have one’s emotional involvement diffused in dramatic cathexis, when it could be directed outwards to the real world. The brilliance of Superstar lies in its ability to fuse our intellectual understanding of a social problem with our emotional involvement in a personal tragedy, to make them identical. Haynes’s doll reinvents Eisenstein’s “mass hero” for the media age.

“Every film is a documentary of its actors.” — Jean Luc Godard

All of Haynes’s subsequent films star flesh-and-blood people—but only sort of.

Haynes systematically storyboards his images and edits in advance, “writing” (like the trained semiotician that he is) in a language of visual hieroglyphics, each shot borrowed from the Barthesian image repertoire, each edit a precise grammatical placement. It’s amazing how many camera set-ups Haynes squeezes out of such small budgets. He must be shooting incredibly fast, mechanically executing a blueprint mapped out long before.

Like Supesrtar, his subsequent work can be seen as experimental riffs on classical characterization and audience identification. The performances in his films (at least up to I’m Not There) seem to fall into two categories: flatly devoid of affect (shades of Fassbinder) or archly mannered and knowingly campy. The actors quote their lines, in the manner of Brecht. No suggestion of psychological depth or behavioral realism is intended. In its conceptual purity, the doll playing Karen Carpenter has given Haynes the greatest performance of his career.

But actors are real people. They do have interiority, and those states are manifest in the tiniest details of their movement, expression, and vocal inflection. These revelations are so subtle they’re largely imperceptible (and at the very least, are too nuanced to be schematized), but that doesn’t mean we feel them any less. Too often in Haynes, we sense that the profilmic reality is cuing us in ways that are at odds with the rhetorical construction. We sense the actors’ lack of confidence, their awkwardness, their boredom; we become aware of the gap between concept and execution. At times Haynes can seem almost autistic. For all his analytical brilliance, his films are almost painfully devoid of intuitive empathy, spontaneous revelation, a sense of immanence. His cinematic universe is as airless as a mausoleum. In a majestically glacial film like Safe, which dramatizes interpersonal alienation and estrangement from one’s environment, the effect is powerful. In a film like Velvet Goldmine, which is ostensibly about the pleasures of performance, the clash of material and method is deadly.

“The beauty of a living thing can be grasped only fleetingly. And to analyze it, that is, to pursue it in time with the sight and the imagination, is to view it in its decline, for after the thrilling moment in which it reveals itself it diminishes in intensity.” […]

“Nothing will prevent me, neither close attention nor the desire to be exact, from writing words that sing. I tear my words from the depth of my being, from a region to which irony has no access, and these words [are] charged with all the buried desires I carry within.” — Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose

Did Haynes not realize how incompatible his own sensibility is with Genet’s? Though the “Homo” section faithfully reproduces scenes and dialogue from the novels, the tone couldn’t be more different. Haynes’s gaze is analytical and distanced. The feverish psychodrama of Genet’s texts—their ritualistic repetition of sadomasochistic fantasies, their delirious conflation of the death drive and the sex drive—has been transformed into a clinical study of power structures.

Haynes is an ethical thinker; he wants to make the world a better place. But Genet is an amoral fantasist; his stories are written from the perspective of a man without agency, condemned to die, who wants only to burn brightly through his final days, to transform his inevitable death into a transcendent liberation, to aestheticize not only the “immoral” but the truly unethical. The heart of Genet’s novels is their suggestion of direct and unmediated access to the most primal desires. The heart of “Homo” is an interesting thesis that would not be out of place in an MLA conference. If Poison is such a “radical” and “transgressive” films about sex, why isn’t it ever sexy?

“Bulkaen came down the stairwell two at a time. His jacket was dirty, bloodstained, open in the back as the result of a past stab. He was shirtless, his torso naked beneath the jacket.…A prisoner who did not know us stopped on our stair on his way down. Bulkaen looked him in the eyes in such a way that he dared not say a word to us; he dashed off. Bulkaen’s gaze delighted me with its hardness. I could tell what my fate would be if ever such a gaze transfixed me, and what followed frightened me more, for in order to alight on me his eyes grew milder until they were only a moonbeam quivering with leaves, and his mouth smiled. The walls crumbled, time turned to dust, Bulkaen and I remained standing on a column which kept rising us higher. I don’t think I even had a hard-on.” — Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose

“When I watch this movie, I don’t get aroused ever.” — Todd Haynes, Poison DVD commentary.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Paul Brunick

Paul Brunick's writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Film Comment, and BOMB.

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