With brutality and bitterness, Todd Haynes’s influential masterstroke, the pretty Poison, receives the DVD re-release it’s due.
By Steven Foster
Once upon a time, Marcel Duchamp grabbed a urinal, re-oriented the humble porcelain god, and christened the work Fountain. Those confounded by this “sculpture” should be reminded that Duchamp performed this assault on traditional art in 1917. At the time, society was still barely comfortable with blurred photography, and was still years away from being able to see cubism as a viable method of portraiture.
Similarly, Todd Haynes’s bitter Poison, a metaphorical daisy chain of desire and disease, was the flush heard ’round the world. Like Duchamp’s pisspot, Haynes’s barely cloaked firebrand diatribe on all things homo and unholy may still confound and confuse. But while a toilet hanging on a wall barely registers a heightened pulse, Haynes’s piece still manages to shock. It doesn’t matter that the cinematography and staging can be as rudimentary as a low-budget daytime soap. At the time, Poison’s vision was luminescent. After constructing a stop-motion Barbie tragedy about the dead anorexic pop singer Karen Carpenter, Haynes garnered wild, rabid acclaim with this nightmare.
Later, Haynes would go on to create Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Safe, and even take a crack at Mildred Pierce for HBO. But after all these years of classier productions, the taste of Poison still lingers in his cineaste mouth. The isolationist prejudice that haunted Heaven and Pierce, the slipping of self in I’m Not There, the unknowable disease of Safe, the candy-colored doom-glam of Velvet Goldmine—Poison’s three interlaced vignettes, “Hero,” “Horror,” and “Homo,” has ’em all.
The new DVD features a new HD transfer, a 20th-anniversary Q&A with Haynes and producers Christine Vachon and James Schamus, as well as a previous commentary with Vachon and star James Lyons. There are also private set photographs, diaries, and the like. Zietgeist has assembled a fitting tribute to a groundbreaking film for any cinema movement, queer or otherwise. But the tchotchke-filled extras are just fluff compared to the powerful images the film offers. The black-and-white images of a disease-ravaged man screaming at a mob from a high window, the richly lit male rape against a brick wall in indigo night, a cloud-filled sky and the bobbing heads of spitting men and their open-mouthed target of ridicule against a stone-choked garden—these will always be Poison ’s true extras. And the ones that are harder to shake.
Zeitgeist Films (zeitgeistfilms.com).
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.