Friday, February 21, 2014

Poison (1991): Rage Against the Closet

Poison (1991)
dir: Todd Haynes

It's been 23 years since Poison was made. 22 years before that was Stonewall. 20-26 years before that, Jean Genet wrote three French novels dealing with homosexuality (which wouldn't get English translations until the 60s and into the 70s).

Looking back on Poison from the same distance that Poison relates to Stonewall, which is the same distance from Genet's original sources seems to be important, not only to look at what has changed since the creation of Poison but, also what has stayed the same.

Poison was the first feature length film from Todd Haynes, and also an early entry in the New Queer Cinema movement that happened from the 80s into the 90s. Unlike most of the NQC films, Poison doesn't take its notes from the French New Wave. Haynes was never really interested in that movement. Poison, instead, takes its stylistic notes from pulpier sources: television tabloid, 50s monster movies, and claustrophobic grindhouse films.

Poison is constructed from three disparate stories. Hero, a tabloid expose about a severely antagonistic and abused 7-year-old boy who shoots his father then "flies away." Horror, a 1950s monster movie about a doctor who manages to distill the human sex drive into a liquid form, then drinks it and turns into a leperous killer. Homo, an arthouse grindhouse film about a gay prisoner who falls in love with a new young inmate.

Separately, they tell stories of homosexual life. But, together, these three stories are not just exposing what it is like to be gay in a heterodominant culture, but raging against the closet that these atmospheres create. In Hero, the kid is constantly abused by schoolmates, by teachers, by his parents, and won't or can't stand up for himself. Horror exposes the feeling of being gay in a culture that condemns homosexuality, and the feeling that everybody can see you for what you are even as you try to hide it. Homo exposes the dangers of falling in love while surrounded by a community that will slaughter you if they find out.

While Poison is a work of 1991, it is also a work informed by the original source materials written by Jean Genet in the 1940s. Jean Genet was an interesting early gay icon. A vagabond, a thief, a prostitute, a liar, and a homosexual, his works were the first sources of homosexual identity, and also came with heavy senses of irony, elevating evil to levels of respect, and also having a perverse sense of sadism and power struggles. Genet was one of the first playwrights that Andy Milligan would produce when he was a director in the early 1960s.

Given that Genet was writing in the 1940s, the closet and a condemning culture also figure heavily into his works. Genet himself was arrested and jailed for prostitution and lewd acts, as well as thievery, vagabondage, and fraudulent papers. In his works, people always existed in the face of an oppressive class, whether it is due to homosexuality or just general class struggles.

Sadism/masochism, power struggles, irony, the closet, and an oppressive culture are themes that Haynes would come back to time and again throughout his works, many of which explore through various aspects of the past. Haynes would constantly explore these themes through the pulp medium of American culture as well. Exploring homosexuality through the 1950s lens of a monster movie informs of the hysteria that would frequently accompany the fear of the homosexual. At that time, homosexual bars were being raided (though they were out of the public eye), and homosexuals were also being counted as communists in the great Lavender Scare that accompanied the Red Scare in the 1950s. The communists of the red scare were frequently the metaphor of the monster in the 1950s b-movies, so it makes sense that Haynes is setting up the metaphor of gay sexuality and monster movies, especially given that Haynes was making a movie during the height of the HIV/AIDS scare, which is informing the leprosy of the monster.

In the 1970s, homosexuals were starting to come out of the closet, but were still acting in secrets. Which is informing the story of Homo, where the prisoner is starting to come out in public, but the public is trying to come to grips with it. The warden of Homo writes down homosexual, but asks if it is one word or two. But, then the homoerotic tortures of the prison gangs are intertwined with the homosexual advances between the actual gays in search of love. There is also the abuse of school children for homosexual behaviors, accounting for a bullying trend which would later get mirrored in adulthood.

In the 1980s, homosexuals were starting to die and disappear, just as they were starting to get accepted. The homosexual abuse victim son would save the day, then disappear from life. The TV tabloid format wasn't really perfected until the 1980s, in which it would become a dominant form of expression. Homosexual youth suicide is one of those statistics that was strong in the 1980s, and suicide in general was one of those 1980s themes of high school. But, not only that, the 80s were the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis, where the gays started disappearing from life due to death of a mysterious disease. They didn't jump out of a window, and fly away to a mysterious nowhere. They fucking died.  And those that didn't die, ran away to the big cities, instead of living in the suburban nightmare they grew up in.

The worldly themes of these three films - bullying, HIV/AIDS scare, the closet, mass condemnation, systematic abuse - were all massive issues in the homosexual community in 1991. Still fighting for rights, due to the hiccup that the HIV/AIDS epidemic created from the late 70s into the 90s, the gay community was just now coming back to the activist behaviors that defined its moves into the public in the early 70s. Poison is one of the products of this return to activism. It points to a rage against the homophobia of the world. And, it isn't pretty about it. Poison actually is a toxic movie raging against the life.

23 years later, these issues are still being fought, but there has been significant advances from 1991. Bullying has become one of the nation's hot button topics, time and again, especially with homosexual teen suicide. HIV/AIDS has been reduced to being akin to "gay diabetes" and HIV rates are skyrocketing, especially among the young homosexuals, and moreso in the urban communities that are still resisting homosexual acceptance. Mass acceptance has started, but there is still a huge backlash against the homosexual "agenda." And, celebrities still have to come out of the closet because they're default thought to be heterosexual, and feel the need to hide their homosexuality in order to gain more financial security. But, things are getting better. The poison is starting to get sucked out of the system, but it's still pooled in our culture.

Poison is still a toxic movie, though it doesn't deserve it's NC-17 rating. The movie is a perpetually negative toxin about the ills of American society through the kaleidoscopic viewpoint of American pulp culture. It's ADD in its intercutting, which slows the movie down a bit, and Haynes is still mastering the camera. It's still a cultural milestone of independent cinema, and in the New Queer Cinema, as a form of raging against the machine that is both a product of its time, and an examination of the time past.

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