PRINT October 1991


Todd Haynes’ Poison

A child is born and he is given a name. Suddenly, he can see himself. He recognizes his position in the world. For many, this experience, like that of being born, is one of horror.1

DURING THE OPENING CREDITS of Todd Haynes’ recent film Poison, a boy’s hand slowly riffles through the objects in his foster parents’ bedroom. The room is dark, and the camera wanders contemplatively along with the child’s fingers as they grasp seductive things—sequined fabric, a strand of pearls, silk brocade, a tassel, coins, a hairbrush, a porcelain box—and then, one by one, set them back in place. The scene is a visual celebration of human sensuality. Yet it ends with a sharp rap on a child hand: “Miserable little thief,” his foster mother screams angrily. “Beggar, failure, thief, bandit!” The camera shifts to reveal a cute blond-haired boy. His eyes are fixed on his foster parents, his face rigid with panic.

Many American children must have memories something like this one—memories, at any rate, in which sensual curiosity was rebuked or denied. But this particular child will grow up gay, and his foster parents’ extraordinarily punitive reaction to him, as if they had sensed what was nascent in him, is surely to be interpreted as incipient homophobia. Lately it has become almost commonplace to read that we of the ’90s are enduring a new form of cultural McCarthyism. Far less discussed has been the role of homophobia in this trend, with gay men and lesbians the convenient scapegoats on which to pin a rhetoric of hatred. Earlier this year, Poison became the latest target of this creeping paranoia: ostensibly angered by its actually quite modest and inexplicit scenes of “homosexuals involved in anal sex,” the Reverend Donald Wildmon, a familiar name from his many previous essays in censorship, campaigned to discredit the film and one of its sponsors, the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s not really surprising that Poison should draw such fire, since the film comprises an intertwining series of allegories for today’s erosion of individual freedoms—an erosion predicated on the neoconservative and religious-right agenda. Now that the controversy has died down, it becomes easier to draw out, without the protectiveness toward the movie that Wildmon’s attack engendered, the way Poison unravels the cultural prison that is being silently and effectively constructed around us all.

In contrast to the classic film trilogy, where the parts are independent and run consecutively, Poison interweaves in alternate sequences three stories about white male outcasts. “Hero,” narrated in a quasi-documentary style with the visual quality of contemporary TV news, examines the mysterious disappearance of Richie Beacon, a ten-year-old Long Island boy who has killed his father and then escaped by levitating from a patio balcony. “Horror,” shot in a dark black and white, recreates the noir-ish world of ’50s monster movies and ’60s sci-fi TV (The Twilight Zone, say) to tell the story of Dr. Thomas Graves (Larry Maxwell), a scientist who isolates in liquid form the chemical essence of the human sex drive, accidentally drinks it, then turns into a leprous sex killer. And “Homo,” a dreamlike pastiche of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Miracle of the Rose, in color now muted, now lush, tells a tale of sexual desire, unrequited love, and rape in a 1940s prison. This is perhaps the movie’s central metaphor: people who are discernibly different in our society are often condemned to a prisonlike existence. “Prisons were not new to me,” proclaims John Broom (Scott Renderer), the boy from the opening episode now grown up. “I lived in them all my life. In submitting to prison life, embracing it, I could reject the world that rejected me.”

As the film progresses, the sequences of these three stories grow shorter until they blur into what seems a single disjointed moment of torment and recrimination. But the disjunctions between the stories, and their contrasting visual textures and often enigmatic narratives, actually place particular demands on the viewer; rather than complacent movie-watching, Haynes is asking his audience to do a considerable amount of intellectual and emotional work. One of the movie’s aims, for example, is to send up various documentary and cinematic styles so as to expose their manipulative and complicitous nature. “Horror” evokes the McCarthyite mentality of the ’50s monster-film genre: lurking in the dark margins of society, Graves is made to personify the enemy within. Even Nancy Olsen (Susan Norman), the adoring colleague who loves him, obeys the social pressure to reject him. And Richie Beacon’s troubled childhood is reconstituted through the deadpan (and inadvertently humorous) interviews characteristic of television investigative journalism, with a gym teacher (who absentmindedly fondles a basketball while talking of Richie’s penchant for being spanked by one of the other boys), a school custodian, a policeman, a social-worker, a neighbor, and a school nurse wittily trotted out to offer the camera their “informed” testimony. But their words snowball instead into exaggeration and hysteria: it seems to be the aggregate view that the documentary’s absent subject, a boy who has shot his father only in an attempt to stop the man from strangling the child’s mother, is an evil misfit who deserves all the punishment he can take.

Poison envisions a world ruined by its own pathological impulse to act out of fear and bigotry. In “Horror,” Dr. Graves is hunted down by the angry residents of “Centerville” and by a police deputy who wants to “seize on the menace to the community and stop the spread of this despicable contagion.” (The allusion to AIDS stigmatization here is undeniable.) The film’s epigraph reads, “The whole world is dying of panicky fright.” Indeed, Poison’s ambience of fear, death, and ruination—intensified by moments of sheer ugliness and decay (Graves’ sores weeping into his food, say, or young Borstal inmates taking turns spitting into another boy’s mouth)—contributes to its allegorical nature. “Allegory. . .declares itself to be beyond beauty,” wrote Walter Benjamin. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”2 Poison constructs a complex allegory of our own social ruination, a picture of "how society poisons all of us no matter how fully we choose to participate in its rules and regulations.3

Yet ultimately the dense, contemplative rebus that Haynes constructs in Poison hinders meaning and distances the viewer. In our current war of representation, where right-wing commentators can be depended upon to manipulate the public without scruple, and with all the persuasiveness of which the mass media are capable, the voices of the left must find ways of better reaching people, without compromising artistic or theoretical rigor.4 In an earlier film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, 1987, Haynes avoided the contemplative and ambiguous quality of Poison and made his political position more accessible and effective. Employing Ken and Barbie-like dolls (themselves repressive models of masculinity and femininity) to tell the story of the late pop vocalist’s rise to fame in the early 1970s and her tragic descent into anorexia nervosa, he created a mock documentary that functions on several powerful levels: not only does it examine the greedy mechanics of the record industry and their impact on the Carpenters’ lives, but, exploring the causes, effects, and treatment of anorexia and bulimia (the film has actually been used in eating-disorder clinics and college psychology courses), it exposes the familial dysfunctions that often precipitate them. In Haynes’ recreation of Karen Carpenter’s conservative suburban-Californian adolescence, it’s not gays who are the enemy but the singer’s domineering, emotionally incestuous parents and the mythologies of family that foster their pathological behavior. This point is also driven home in Poison, where Richie’s borderline-psychotic fundamentalist-Christian mother avoids the true emotional implications of her dysfunctional relationship with her son: “My child was watching over me,” she nervously tells the camera. “My child was an angel of judgment and I sinned against the Lord.”

Ultimately Haynes’ films—Superstar explicitly, Poison more obliquely—attack one of the most fundamental and cynical motives of late-capitalist culture: the construction of a social environment where dissent is discouraged, sensual pleasures are denied, and conformity is rewarded. This social situation, of course, has already arrived. Senator Jesse Helms and the Reverend Donald Wildmon may rant about the sick and perverted homos who threaten the moral integrity of our nation, but America’s real pathology lies in the repressiveness and passivity of its people. The neoconservative manipulation of sexual and racial paranoia, and a U.S. Supreme Court in full retreat from the Constitution, are progressively robbing us. The freedom to love has been qualified. Fundamental civil and reproductive rights have evaporated. And the ability to represent ourselves freely—whether as artists or even as physicians—has been curtailed. Poison depicts a pathetic America, a nation of political zombies, too fearful and selfish to stop the erosion of our rights. What we stand to lose, of course, is our freedom. Only then will most Americans begin to understand the kind of life that John Broom has known all along.

Maurice Berger is a cultural historian and art critic. His most recent book, How Art Becomes History: Essays on Art, Society, and Culture in Post-New Deal America, will be published by HarperCollins this winter.


1. The epigraph to this article is an unsourced quotation used in Poison.

2. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, London: NLB, 1977, p. 178.

3. Todd Haynes, as quoted in John Anderson, “The Final Cut,” New York Newsday, 4 April 1991, p. 73.

4. Hannah Arendt writes: “Allegory always proceeds from an abstract notion and then invents something palpable to represent it almost at will. The allegory must be explained before it can become meaningful, a solution must be found to the riddle it presents, so that the often laborious interpretation of allegorical figures always unhappily reminds one of the solving of puzzles even when no more ingenuity is demanded than in the allegorical representation of death by a skeleton.” See Arendt, “Walter Benjamin, 1892-1940,” in Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 11-12.