Thursday, September 22, 2005


A few days ago I watched Todd Haynes' first feature, Poison. Todd has been my most recent 'discovery,' and after seeing Far From Heaven a while back, I set out to see all of his films, a quest that is now complete. Haynes is someone who creates great, challenging films that are always a bit off. Everything he's made seems to take place in a world that's not quite our own, whether it's the 50s Sirk world of Far From Heaven or the slightly skewed 80s of Safe. All three of Todd's features that I've seen ended up on my Top 100 Films All Time list, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story surpasses even the greatness of those films. So, I was understandably excited to see Poison, and at least complete the journey through the filmmaking world of Todd Haynes.

Right from the beginning, Poison puts you in a really weird headspace. I'm not sure if it felt like that when it was first released, but this film just seems to come from another world, and the voice of that other world is the narrator of the Richie storyline. I think she narrated Superstar also, and it's the oddest, seemingly calm, yet disturbing voice. Combine that with the grainy file photo and the long shot of a child's hand reaching for something and I was in a strange place. And the film doesn't really leave that strange place. From a narrative point of view, and a thematic point of view, this film doesn't really make it, but where it does succeed is in sustaining an odd feeling for an hour and a half, and a lot of the time, that's more interesting than a classically structured narrative.

As I talked about in my piece on running a film series, a lot of people don't seem to enjoy the slow paced world building that Haynes did in Safe, and I don't think they'd enjoy what he does here, because from a story point of view, there's a ton of issues. The film has three seperate segments that are intercut, but there's no real connection between them, and in terms of style they're worlds apart.

One segment revolves around a prisoner who's jealous that the inmate he's in love with is hanging out with other prisoners. This makes it sound like a really bad teen prison show, but the way the feelings are dealt with is through a bunch of dream sequences and voiceover. The dream sequences represent the prisoner's time at a juvenile home, but they're set in an odd meadow type environment, and have a lot of bizarre, dreamlike imagery. These sequences are interesting from an aesthetic point of view, and the spitting scene is quite disturbing, but I'm not sure what the thematic point of them is. They work as a purely visual element, providing a contrast to the dark enclosed prison, but their position in regards to the narrative is a bit obscure.

This story has its moments, and is probably the most well made, but it's also the least entertaining. Going to the other extreme, we've got a story about a scientist who discovers how to turn the 'sex gene' into a liquid form, and accidentally ingests it, causing him to take on the appearance of a leper. I thought this was just a bizarre tale, imitating the style of 50s sci-fi movies, but reading about it online indicates that it was meant to be an allegory for the AIDS crisis. That makes sense, but I guess it shows how much society has 'moved on' from that crisis, even though it's still affecting thousands of people. It's just not part of our cultural consciousness at present.

Anyway, this story is entertaining, notably the overwrought acting, but its value as dramatic piece is questionable. I love the shots of a rotating black and white wheel intercut with all kinds of crazy things, and the way the piece seems to take place in a world that's kind of like the 50s, but not quite. Without viewing it as an allegory, it's rather nonsensical, but the ending works really well, and provides a nice thematic wrap up for the whole movie. So, again, narrative not a big concern here, but in terms of creating a mood it succeeds.

The final piece is told in documentary style, harkening back to Haynes' work on Superstar. The mockumentary format has been used to death lately, but it works well here, as the people who knew gradually construct a picture of Richie, the seven year old boy who killed his father. I love the visual of Richie looking in at his mother having sex with the gardener, staged in such a way that it's obvious the footage is film composited in the frame. It's great when the footage within the door actually zooms in, breaking any illusion of reality.

The ending of this piece is very enigmatic and leaves a lot of things unanswered, which works well. This isn't the kind of story where you want to find out that Richie ran off somewhere and died in a ditch, the entire power is in the fact that we're reconstructing this person solely from other peoples' impressions of him. It's a technique Haynes brings back later in Velvet Goldmine.

What prevents the film from working as a cohesive whole is the fact that these stories don't really have any discernable connections to each other. They all focus on some element of humanity's dark side, but other than that, the styles, tones and content are all vastly different, and intercutting these totally different stories doesn't add much to them, or produce any really interesting juxtapositions, which is the whole point of intercutting.

So, Poison was worth watching because of its alien atmosphere, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I don't think it's anywhere near as successful as the work that would follow. You can see the potential for greatness here, but potential alone doesn't make a film great. But I always love to watch people who experiment with the medium and try to do something different, and this film certainly does.

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