You’re also right that Poison is comparatively experimental, in the literal sense of the word. The film’s experimental nature is revealed even its structure: though technically Haynes’ first feature-length film, it’s actually an anthology of three shorter stories, completely separate in terms of narrative and characters but thematically linked. Haynes cuts between the three stories—the documentary-style “Hero,” the Universal horror pastiche “Horror” and the gay prison drama “Homo”—throughout the film, blending them together and exploring the resonances between them. Poison seems like the early work of a director just finding his voice, toying with different storytelling techniques and developing his later themes in sketchy form, whereas Superstar is the fully developed final product, even though it actually came first. The main difference, I think, is that Poison lacks the overwhelming emotional impact of Superstar. There are moments of bracing catharsis in this film—notably the final sequence, which I find nearly as moving and startling as Superstar—but otherwise it’s too fragmented, too abstracted, at times even too jokey, though I do appreciate the broad Hollywood parodies of the “Horror” sequence.
Which is not to say that Poison is without merit, by any means. It’s an interesting film, if not quite a fully realized one, and it’s packed with the inventiveness and insight that one expects from Haynes. Of the three sections, I think it’s no coincidence that the most affecting is the one most closely related to Superstar in terms of style. “Hero” concerns itself with a young boy named Richie Beacon who is mocked and abused at school, and who suffers equally at home as his parents fight and ignore him. This goes on until he walks in on his father beating his mother and saves her by shooting his father. And then, according to his mother’s awed testimony, he flies out a window and floats away. Haynes allows the story to develop between the lines, hinted at in the anecdotes related by schoolmates, teachers and especially his mother (Edith Meeks). A picture gradually emerges of Richie as a confused young boy with a masochistic streak, as someone whose troubled childhood has left a mark on his developing sexuality. One of the few reenactments in this mockumentary is reserved for the primal scene of Richie discovering his mother having sex with the gardener; Haynes places the boy in the foreground, disconnected from the sexual scene that’s playing out in a video image superimposed within the frame.
“Hero” is the one part of Poison I could imagine as a standalone short film like Superstar, and it’s nearly as powerful, particularly its haunting final images from Richie’s point-of-view as he leaps out the window and drifts away into the clouds, the camera trained on the house at first until it turns around, looking up at the sky, leaving the past behind to float ever upward. It’s a mysterious and beautiful image, and if the rest of Poison is more uneven in its effectiveness, it’s still a strangely compelling film as a whole.
JB: As a whole is the only way to see Poison. “Hero” might be the most engaging stand-alone chapter, I think you’re right about that. Nevertheless what’s interesting about Poison is the way its three stories fit together, commenting on one another and creating a collective effect that’s greater than the sum of the individual parts. Watching “Horror” by itself, for example, one might deduce fairly easily that its narrative—about a scientist researching the human sex drive who accidentally infects himself with a deadly disease by drinking a sexual potion—is actually a metaphor for the HIV/AIDS scare of the 1980s. Juxtaposed next to “Hero” and “Homo,” however, the deeper meaning of “Horror” is unmistakable, screaming at us in underlined boldface right from the very start. This clear sense of purpose, which Haynes isn’t always wont to provide, gives “Horror” a gravity it would have lacked if on its own.
Then again, as much as Poison draws strength from its braided approach, there are also times when the weaknesses of one chapter taint the development of another. The “Homo” chapter, for example, is plodding and redundant, dominated by too many similar closeups of guys standing around in the dark talking. Maybe it’s because “Homo” is so bloated that “Hero” often loses its momentum and thus feels a little indistinct. To expand upon that last point, I’m somewhat confused by the film’s conclusion: We seem to agree that “Hero” is about a boy (Richie) who gets picked on at school and either grows to enjoy his beatings or, one mustn’t rule out, perhaps always enjoyed them and went looking for his thumpings. We also agree that “Hero” is about a boy searching for his sexual identity who is somehow traumatized by walking in on his mother screwing the gardener and by witnessing his father physically and verbally abusing mother. OK. Makes sense. I understand that Richie is confused and maybe doesn’t even see a line between sexuality and violence, and I understand why he’d want to shoot his father to save his mother. But the film’s final line—“My little boy,” the mother says, as the camera stands in for Richie and drifts heavenward—suggests to me that Richie has experienced some kind of awakening, as if he’s finally stood up to his abuser and, in doing so, found himself, thus pointing him to a more hopeful place. That sounds fine in principle, and yet all we know about Richie is that he got emotional and/or sexual fulfillment from being, well, manhandled. In that light, standing up to his father is a triumph of what, exactly? It’s an awakening how?
That’s one of the times Poison seems a little muddled, but my main gripe with the film is that it strikes me as a bit hollow. There are some truly wonderful little moments in this picture, like the earnestness with which one of the prepubescent interviewees in “Hero” says that Richie was “just the kind of person you want to see get creamed” (pun intended?), or that terrific intake scene in the warden’s office near the start of “Homo,” or that series of shots in which Haynes focuses on the grubby hands and mouths of the “Homo” inmates as they pass a cigarette down the line. Like you, I also enjoy the Hollywood parodies of “Horror,” which, because 1950s horror flicks were almost always metaphors for the Red Scare, equates, in a typically Haynesian way, the stated desire to “stop the spread of this despicable contagion” (code for HIV/AIDS) with McCarthyist paranoia. Overall, though, Poison is the Haynes picture that indeed feels like a student project, an experiment with form rather than a fully-realized work. Poison is interesting as a reference point to help us understand Haynes, but I can’t call it compelling as cinema.
EH: That’s where I disagree with you. While Poison is undoubtedly a formative work, I still find it engaging and compelling. I’m with you on “Homo” being the weak link, though. It’s Haynes’ tribute to a whole host of influences, most obviously Jean Genet and his Un chant d’amour, but also Derek Jarman (who is felt in the mix of the pastoral and the lurid in the flashback sequences) and Robert Bresson (the wonderful intimacy of those closeups of hands passing a cigarette along comes right out of Pickpocket). I think Haynes gets too tied up in recreating the grim prison atmosphere of Genet and fails to make it his own; that’s one possible source of the hollowness you note, an excess of fidelity to Haynes’ influences. In later films, he’d take his cultural touchstones—glam and Citizen Kane in Velvet Goldmine, Sirk and Fassbinder in Far from Heaven, Godard, Fellini and Pennebaker in I’m Not There—and synthesize them into something fresh and original, something that unmistakably belongs to him. I don’t think he owns the Genet references here in quite the same way.
But you’re right that Poison has to be taken as a whole, and in that sense it does work better. In the context of the whole, I look at the “Homo” segment as the clue to interpreting and reacting to the other two segments. As the only explicitly gay segment, it primes the rest of the film to be taken in terms of gay desire and sexuality, enforcing the HIV allegory in “Horror” and the feeling of being deviant that runs through “Hero.” The interweaving of the three segments creates fertile juxtapositions, developing the idea that Haynes views the gay experience as one of feeling fundamentally different in society. That’s the common ground between the three segments, and the key to understanding Richie’s torment and redemption in “Hero.” Richie, like a subsequent Haynes boy hero, the equally confused Steven in the short Dottie Gets Spanked, isn’t necessarily gay, though there are signs that he’s leaning in that direction. But Richie’s difference is used as a metaphor for the experience of gay young men: uncertain what he wants, with no clear reference points in the adult world, only violence and rage and abuse. I see Richie’s final flight, therefore, as an escape from this confusion, a rejection of the violence and misunderstanding that confronted him everyday. I’m not sure if Richie is meant to have “found himself,” or that he’s heading towards “a more hopeful place,” so much as he is fleeing a world that seemed ill-suited for his sensitivity and his differences. He’s not running toward anything so much as running away from the life he’d had. His mother’s awed “my little boy” is ironic: she didn’t understand him while he was around, and she glorifies him in the abstract now that he’s gone.
The ironies in “Horror” are even more pointed, particularly the way Haynes treats the epidemic as a corruption of the 1950s-style squeaky-clean Hollywood image. It’s surely no coincidence that Haynes names the saccharine-sweet good girl character Nancy Olson (Susan Norman), after the actress who played the similarly sweet girl next door in Sunset Boulevard, similarly offering up redemption to the male protagonist and similarly failing. Haynes’ Nancy is an exaggerated vision of the 1950s good-girl archetype; Norman moves stiffly, with a grin frozen on her face, almost like a mannequin striking poses—or a Barbie doll. As in Superstar, Haynes is subverting popular narratives, like the one about the good girl who, through her purity, rescues the corrupted man from his fate. The story is also a clever metaphor for how the spread of AIDS has, ironically, forced our society to confront sexuality in more open ways than we had in repressed earlier eras; squeaky-clean discretion is no longer a viable option.
All of which is a way of asserting that I don’t find Poison nearly as “hollow” as you do. It’s a somewhat rough early work, and Haynes would soon go on to make much more fully realized films, but there’s more than enough substance to Poison in the way it slyly uses its disparate styles to comment on the self-image of American culture and the uneasy place of difference and deviance within that self-image.
JB: Yeah, “hollow” is a somewhat relative term in this case, and even then it might be the wrong term. Thinking about it more, maybe I really mean that Poison is emotionally flat. Again, it’s not without its moments, emotional ones at that. But its stimulations are mostly mental. I appreciate Poison, but I rarely feel it. I take pleasure in the way the three stories weave together to create a greater whole, but that greater whole rarely takes me to a deeper place. So if in calling the film “hollow” it seems as if I’m suggesting that Haynes isn’t invested in the film, or hasn’t thought it through, that’s not my intent. But Poison is a film that too often seems to be inspired by its styles and techniques, rather than the other way around. I think you might be on to something when you suggest that with “Homo,” Haynes gets lost paying tribute to his influences. Indeed, that’s the chapter that seems at odds with the rest.
Dottie Gets Spanked, his subsequent short, has no such problems of disjointedness. It’s a comparatively simple tale about a little boy, Steven (Evan Bonifant), whose efforts to find his place in the world, his comfort zone, if you will, result in a deep obsession with a TV star, Dottie (Julie Halston). In a mere 30 minutes, Haynes touches on some of his favorite subjects—celebrity idolatry, sexuality and identity—but it’s here that Haynes most explicitly explores his fascination with a child’s view of the world. Dottie Gets Spanked isn’t entirely told from Steven’s point of view, but it shows us life through his eyes. Unforgettable, for me, are those early shots of Steven watching Dottie’s TV show: sitting cross-legged on the floor with his faced pressed up against the television, as if by positioning himself close enough he can escape his real life and enter Dottie’s world. We first see Steven from behind, from the position of an adult looking down at the child, but then we get very tight closeups that put Steven’s face in the foreground while his mother chats with a friend in the background behind him. Steven hears their conversations, but he isn’t listening. To look into his eyes is to see he’s fully absorbed. Dottie’s world is all he thinks about and all he wants to see.
The shots of Steven’s bedroom are equally poignant: his walls covered with his own Dottie illustrations that hang like family portraits. Dottie Gets Spanked includes some fanciful black-and-white dream sequences that cast Steven as the ruler of his own kingdom, giving him the control that every child covets, but I think it’s in these “real-world” details of Dottie that Haynes best evokes the childhood imagination and emotional state.
EH: For me, the scene in Dottie that best captures the emotions of childhood is the final one, in which Steven takes a drawing he’d made of his idol Dottie, folds it up, wraps it in aluminum foil, and carefully buries it in his yard. It’s the attention to detail that sells it, the way Haynes shows Steven methodically going through each step of the process, very serious and intent as he creeps around in the dark. There’s something ritualistic about it, the kind of ritual engaged in by children when they’re locked into their own private world, with its own private rules. By burying this picture—a crude drawing of Dottie being spanked—Steven is attempting to bury his own strangeness, to distance himself from the quirks that set him apart from the other children. There’s something tender in the final image, though, in the way Steven gently pats the dirt down on top of the folded drawing, as though he’s reluctant to say goodbye to these childhood fantasies. He seems to be telling himself that maybe someday soon he’ll come back for the drawing that’s buried so shallow, even though he has to know he’s leaving Dottie behind.
In addition to childhood imagination, the film is, as you suggest, about control and power. Steven’s dreams are power fantasies, creating a world in which he can take control in a way he never can in his ordinary life—at least, right up until his final dream, when his imaginary reign ends. These dreams are realms where his fertile imagination has free play, where he can think about and act out whatever he wants—including his obsession with Dottie, which in the real world marks him out as somewhat feminine or weird to both his father and the other kids at school. The final dream, in which he’s punished for his love of Dottie, suggests that Steven has started to realize that he’s different, that he’s judged for the things he likes and the things he does. Burying the drawing of Dottie is a farewell to childhood, a farewell to his ability to do his own thing without worrying what other people might think. It’s a moment of sad maturity, an acceptance of the boundaries imposed upon people by the expectations of gender roles; a theme that obviously resonates with Haynes at a pretty deep level. Steven perhaps acquiesces to what’s expected of him by his parents and peers, unlike Richie Beacon in Poison, and unlike Haynes himself, who understands and sympathizes with these incredible pressures to conform and resists them at every opportunity.
JB: I don’t know. My reading of the final scene is somewhat opposite of yours. I agree the scene captures the emotions of childhood, that Steven is “attempting to bury his own strangeness” and that the shallow burial seems to suggest an unwillingness to put the feelings inspired by the drawing too far out of reach. But I don’t see it as a farewell to childhood so much as a last ditch effort to retreat back to it. I don’t see it as a sign of maturity so much as a realization that he’s not quite ready to grow up. Prior to Steven’s visit to the Dottie show set, his relationship with his on-screen idol has been innocent, as evidenced by the drawings on his wall which are fixated on her beauty. (Steven, who knows his trivia, is aware that the actress who plays the blond Dottie is actually a brunette, and thus he seems to appreciate the ability of “Dottie” to transcend her God-given boundaries, to go from caterpillar to butterfly, which is a metamorphosis he might be trying to plot for himself.)
Once Steven visits the set, however, and watches Dottie get spanked by her on-screen husband, and finds himself strangely fascinated by the display, his relationship to Dottie changes. She isn’t so pure anymore, and now Steven is aware that he isn’t either. He appears uncomfortably titillated. It’s those emotions he attempts to explore by recreating the Dottie spanking with his crayon drawing. And, once the scene is depicted, Steven grows uncomfortable having a visual cue of those feelings lying around, so close at hand. Thus, out to the flowerbeds the drawing goes, allowing Steven to bury those emotions safely away from him and, just as important, safely away from anyone else. They are protected, like buried treasure, waiting for the day he might be ready to dig them up. So, again, my take is that Steven isn’t prepared to mature quite so quickly, isn’t prepared to accept his sexuality (which at that age is quite understandable). He isn’t ready to face the truth of his condition: those growing illicit urges that, at least in his mind, make him an outsider.