During the early 1990s, right after the AIDS crisis that plagued the 80s, a particular group of films burst into the consciousness of American cinema. From Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingstone, 1990) to Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992), from The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992) to My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991), these films were sexy, stylish, and risqué. More importantly, they featured LGBT characters at the centre of the narratives, heralding the start of what B. Ruby Rich termed the New Queer Cinema.

Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) can be seen as one of the trailblazers of this queer movement, and consists of three individual stories – Horror, Hero, and Homo – intercut with one another. Horror chronicles the story of a scientist, Doctor Grave, who isolates and drinks the elixir of human sexuality, in turn transforming into a murderous leper. Hero shows a journalistic attempt to find out whether seven-year-old Richie actually shot his father and then flew away in the sky. Homo follows the sado-masochistic and violent sexual relationship between two male prisoners.

When the film was first released, it created a huge furore. The Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, then head of the American Family Association, wrote to Congress, condemning the “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex” (1). Wildmon made the comment without having seen the film, but based his statement from a review that he read. Though there are scenes of anal sex in the film, it is all very tastefully done and no genitals are shown – it is not pornography. Wildmon’s statement is hence symptomatic of the widespread homophobia in his contemporary America and its cinema, where films that explored “deviant” sexualities were seen to be morally bankrupt and positioned as the opposite of heteronormative practices. Yet, as Haynes observes, this belief is extremely fraudulent:

I have a lot of frustration with the insistence on content when people are talking about homosexuality. People define gay cinema solely by content: if there are gay characters in it, it’s a gay film […] Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as content. It is an imposed structure that goes along with the patriarchal, dominant structure that constrains and defines society. If homosexuality is the opposite or the counter-sexual activity to that, then what kind of a structure would it be? (2). 

Viewed in this light, Haynes’ Poison suggests that homosexuality can co-exist with this hegemonic content. As Rich writes about the New Queer Cinema: “there are traces in all of them of appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind” (3). Haynes knows his genres well and Poison is testament to that. The film isconsciously intertextual, and points to a wide array of filmic genre conventions. Horror is shot in black and white, constantly framed using Dutch tilts, lit in chiaroscuro and peppered with sultry jazz music, like a typical film noir. Homo, with its muted colour scheme, reminds the audience of films like Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) and West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961). Conversely, Hero – with the direct camera address and the occasional boom mike entering the frame – is filmed like a vox-pop tabloid documentary of the video era.

On the surface, then, Poison appears to be a mixed bag of clashing styles. However, I suggest that Haynes revisits the history of cinema – which has consistently denied deviant identities – and reinscribes queer sexuality back onto these heteronormative genres. The political occurs through the reworking of the structures, in turn surfacing the invisible and hidden.

This newfound visibility can be compared to the Blaxploitation era in the early 1970s, where an onslaught of sexual and violent black characters came to dominate the screen. Likewise, in Poison, the characters are equal part murderous and sensual. Doctor Graves, after ingesting the “human sexuality” serum, turns into a sexual leper murderer; the young boy, Richie, enjoys getting spanked by his male schoolmates, and shoots his father with a gun; and the two prisoners aggressively fight and wrestle, before engaging in amatory, sensual sex. Critics sometimes opposed the representation of LGBT characters in such a negative manner. When Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) was released, for instance, gay rights activists – offended by the undesirable characterisation of the film’s bisexual character as a murderer – picketed cinemas in an attempt to dissuade people from watching it. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In rejecting negative portrayals, these activists pinned LGBT identities to a good-bad binary, unhelpfully encouraging essentialist and reductionist representations.

Instead, I suggest that we think of Poison in terms of Homi Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry, where the colonised imitates and adopts the colonisers’ culture. Instead of fully assimilating into the culture, the mimicry will always be different in order to give the colonised their own identity. Succinctly put, they are “almost the same but not quite” (4). Similarly, the characters in Poison are overtly sexual and violent (all the negative stereotypes associated with homosexuality) but they are also more than that. They are violent because they fear, they are sexual because they lust, and they are murderous because they love. In other words, they are human beings.

This is thus not just a gay film, nor a great film that just happens to be gay. As Rich writes, the “queer present negotiates with the past, knowing full well that the future is at stake” (5). At the heart of Poison – alongside the other pioneering films of the New Queer Cinema movement – is a conscious temporal attempt to confront the abusive history of queer as a category of shame, and to move it in a completely different direction. Haynes’ film is therefore a significant entry in the history of cinema. 

Endnotes

1. Wildmon quoted in Barbara Gamarekian, “Frohnmayer Defends Grant for Prize Film,” The New York Times, 30 March 1991, www.nytimes.com/1991/03/30/movies/frohnmayer-defends-grant-for-prize-film.html (accessed 20 March 2015).

2. Haynes quoted in Michael De Angelis, “The Characteristics of New Queer Filmmaking: Case Study – Todd Haynes,” in New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, ed. Michele Aaron, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2004, pp. 42.

3. B. Ruby Rich, “The New Queer Cinema” in Queer Cinema, The Film Reader, eds. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, London, Routledge, 2004, p. 54.

4. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London, Routledge, p. 127.

5. Rich, p. 58.

Poison (1991 USA 85 min)

Prod Co: Bronze Eye Productions, Killer Films, and Poison L.P. Prod: Christine Vachon Dir: Todd Haynes Scr: Todd Haynes Phot: Maryse Alberti Ed: Todd Haynes and James Lyons Prod Des: Sarah Stollman Mus: James Bennett

Cast: Scott Renderer, James Lyons, Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman

About The Author

MaoHui Deng is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. His research looks at how we can use films about dementia to think about issues of time in cinema and in general.