POISON. 1991

Director: Todd Haynes

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

This barely watchable film consists of three short stories so loosely based on works of Gene Genet that to even make the claim that these are Genet stories ranks somewhere between insulting & cowardly -- cowardly because of an evident fear within the director of admitting his tawdriest sex fantasies are strictly his own & nothing at all to do with a Decadent French homosexual genius.

What makes this film such a failure is the additional pretense that it is a feature-length movie. It's an anthology with each story inexpertly cut to ribbons & spliced back together awkwardly with clumsy shifts back & forth between tales. The stories do not comment on one another & intercutting them just reduces them to puzzles to sort out. If they'd been presented honestly as three separate short films, they might not be a whole lot better, but they'd be a whole lot less clumsy.

"Homo" is soft-core masochistic faggot porn reminiscent of by Ken Anger's marching sailors-on-parade personal jack-off film. If the viewer doesn't share Haynes' fetishistic interest in homosexual masochism in prison, there's not much of a story here, it just all builds with tense unloving sexuality to an s/m flashback of a boy with his mouth wide open being used as a spitoon by bullies. Our voyeuristic point-of-view character watches & rather than feeling empathy or sorrow or horror, (as the director himself has explained) the voyeur wishes it was him it'd be such fun.

Framing "Homo" as erotica left no room for deeper character, though it was moodily photographed & if porn deserves awards, this is undoubtedly more artful than most porn. If it had been a short story by Paul Bowles it might've transcended its tawdriness, because he could present even the most specific deviant fantasy as of universal meaning. But Haynes wasn't up to making it view like anything in addition to his own ritualistic masturbation fantasy, which anyone even close to being the same kind of masochist might find very exciting.

"Hero" is somewhat more complex, told in news documentary style of an investigative reporter trying to find out the facts behind the story of a seven year old child often beaten by classmates & who shot his cruel father to save his mother immediately before the boy jumped out a window & flew up to heaven.

This faux documentary never gets to the heart of the legend, neither proving it nor disproving it. Apart from Haynes' admitted spanking fetish which he cannot resist inserting into several of his films (especially Dottie Gets Spanked), this odd tale of a child masochist who manipulates other children into hurting him, has a demented psychological credibility.

Despite that we never actually meet or see this deviant child except through the eyes of all who observed him during his short time on earth, we have several diverse portraits of what others thought of him as either a demon or an angel. This would've been much the best of the three films but due to being intercut with inferior stories, it loses all the impact it might have had uninterrupted.

The third tale is something of a horror spoof shot in black & white & occasionally resembling visually the Z-grade sci-fi films of the 1950s.

It's the story of a scientist who accidentally inflicts himself with what we are repeatedly told is leprosy, but of a virulent fantasy-type associated with the sex drive & easily spread like herpes. The scientist becomes the city-terrorizing leprosy-killer infecting disease on people & just outright killing women.

The story is internally so irrationally told that it is like a little sci-fi story as told by an eleven or twelve year old not yet skillful at weaving a tale, & I have the appalling suspicion that that's how old Haynes was when he wrote it. But it has its moments so long as one believes the weak comedy was intentional & if the viewer is already used to the crappiness of cheapo SciFi.

It is also, of course, an expression of the director's own avowed fear of sex & preference for demeaning sex, & we gotta give him credit for letting it all stick out there like a flasher in the park. But it'd be better if he could bleed his own sexual dementedness on viewers within slightly less self-absorbed stories.

There is no frame story & no explanation for why this anthology should be regarded as Poison, but the common denominator is masochism & the filthiness & toxicity & the diseased nature of sexual desire. Anyone who finds sex rather pleasant (& that would include masochists) probably won't relate much to these seemingly self-hating stories filmed by a young faggot not yet used to himself as a gay man nor quite skillful enough to convey his loathings & desires more artfully. The film nevertheless won a Sundance honor, so either there are a lot self-loathing people out there who could relate, or a lot of people pleased to know faggots hate themselves.

Haynes went on to make much better films than this, with less psychiatric self-counselling as the impetus, & graceful about perversion, especially Velvet Goldmine (1998) which conveys the self-destructive bisexual world of the glam-rock era, or Far from Heaven (2002) which not too awkwardly uses an interactial love affair in the 1950s to convey the director's feelings about homosexual love today, & uses an illicit affair as a parallel to the furtiveness of the gay closet, & uses racism to convey his own feelings about homophobia. So it rings a little false but provides sufficient "distance" that he can tell a story that doesn't boil down to whinging about himself as a masochistic faggot disliked by the world with almost as much venom as he once (we'll hope no longer) disliked himself.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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