“In the Washington Times I was called ‘the Fellini of Fellatio’ — a proud moment!” —Todd Haynes, “From Underground to Multiplex”
Let’s get queer for a moment, shall we? But I don’t mean queer in the fashionable sense of reappropriating a pejorative term. And I don’t mean queer in the sense that it becomes a synonym for the ever-growing acronym of “LGBTQIA.” I mean queer in the radical sense, the upsetting sense, the invocation of which connotes the dirty, the abject, and the irredeemable. I point to the kind of queerness that becomes, to borrow a phrase from Judith Butler, “culturally unintelligible.” A queerness that is unable to be articulated with our current cultural vernacular.
A reading of Todd Haynes’ seminal 1991 film Poison, made at the height of the AIDS crisis,would be incomplete without such a delineation of queerness. The film presents three stylistically divergent stories all based on the work of Jean Genet. “Horror” is shot in the style of a 1950s black-and-white B horror movie, telling the story of Dr. Graves’ accidental ingestion of his newest scientific success: the distillation of the human sex drive. The over-indulgence of sexuality is manifest in his desire to kill and in the oozing pustules on his face, and he is ultimately dubbed “the leper sex killer.” “Hero” is a mock-documentary in which talking-head interviews of neighbors and the mother of the young, “meek” Richie Beacon testify to the absurd circumstances in which the boy flew out of a second-story story window after killing his abusive father in their idyllic Long Island suburb. Finally, “Homo” — easily the most poetic of the three narratives and based the most on Genet’s work — tells the story of John Broom, a gay, life-long thief in the male-only maximum-security prison of Fontenal. Broom becomes obsessed with a figure from his past, the newest arrival to Fontenal, Jack Bolton, and we are routinely shown erotic flashbacks of Bolton as the small, humiliated adolescent in the boy’s reformatory where they both served time.
The three narratives share similarities in content but differ in structure and style. They all deal with a central character’s occupation of an “abjected” subjecthood. Broom is branded a thief as a child by his foster parents and willfully takes on the moniker by leading a life of crime. Dr. Graves becomes a diseased, contagious pariah who elicits fear and panic in the streets. Richie is a young boy who is the gleeful recipient of humiliation in masochistic displays of abjection. The characters’ similarities suture these narratives together, but the radically different styles of each story ultimately sever this link, leading to fractures that beg for analysis. In Poison, cinematic structure and style are just as important as narrative content. This article investigates Haynes’ use of a triptych structure to discuss how Poison invites a queer reading that destabilizes the heterosexual ideology embedded in cinematic form and suspends narrative expectations. This suspension provides a space for showcasing alternate constructions of queerness that cannot be redeemed, thus foreclosing the possibility of normalizing homosexuality and the queer subject in general.
In Justin Wyatt’s interview with Haynes, “Cinematic/Sexual Transgression” (a title I liked so much I appropriated it for myself), the director insists on the difference between straight and gay cinema as one of structure: “People define gay cinema solely by content: if there are gay characters in it, it’s a gay film . . . It’s such a failure of the imagination, let alone the ability to look beyond content . . . Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as it is a 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 counter-sexual activity to that, then what kind of a structure would it be?” (8).
There is an explicit call here to move beyond content, to look toward cinematic form as a way to dismantle the patriarchal, dominant structure. There is also a call to explore what the opposite of this patriarchal, heterosexual structure would look like. In short, Haynes wants to create what I will refer to as a “counter structure” — a structure that need not contain gay subject matter in order to be gay. This structure is gay not because of its content, but because of how it presents its content. This presupposes that cinematic structure is embedded with ideology, an idea I will return to later. For now I’d like to focus on the idea that experimenting with a “counter structure” not only requires envisioning new ways of depicting reality that allow cinematic form to depart from heteronormative models, but also requires being fundamentally antagonistic to those models.
If Haynes wants to create a “counter structure” that is free of heterosexual ideology, he must first mess with heterosexual cinematic structure. According to Michael DeAngelis, “Haynes ‘queers’ heterosexual, mainstream narrative cinema by making whatever might be familiar or normal about it strange” (42). The idea of queering, or making “heterosexual, mainstream narrative cinema” strange, is key to understanding Poison‘s structure. Far from allowing a straight-forward reading of the film, Poison actively resists being read in a linear fashion. This queering, or making narrative cinema strange, goes all the way back to early Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and his theory of the “montage.”
Eisenstein defines montage as “the collision between two shots that are independent of one another” which then “explodes” into a meaning which would otherwise not be there (27). Poison is relatively devoid of transitions. The film’s three stories are not told in succession. Instead, each narrative appears in no discernible order with little to no buffers to separate the three disparate stories. With such a lack of mediating transitions, each story collides with the others and explodes, sending us out of one diegesis only to drop us down into another. We are therefore reminded of the fractured nature of Poison‘s structure whenever we are pushed from one narrative to the next.
There are, however, a handful of instances where unexpected quasi-transitional shots heighten the montage effect. For example, a loud and unexpected crash of a gong ushers us from the image of Dr. Graves ingesting the human sex drive in “Horror” to a tracking shot of row upon row of suburban Long Island houses in “Hero.” The gong is heard only once and clearly belongs to neither the “Horror” nor the “Hero” section. In this case, the film is pushing us to make connections, proclaiming with a loud boom: “Look! The relationship between these two stories is important!” When we hear this boom, meaning explodes in our minds: is there a link between Dr. Graves’ illness and his unbridled sexuality in “Horror” and this seemingly picture-perfect suburb in “Hero?” How is the Doctor’s sexual over-indulgence related to Richie’s pursuit of masochistic punishment at the hands of other boys?
The film challenges us to consider the relations between these stylistically, generically, and temporally distinct narratives and to create meaning out of the friction caused by the stories rubbing up against each other. We are not meant to easily digest Poison. But it gets more complicated than that: the type of montage I have been discussing so far, as Eisenstein makes clear, explodes into conceptual or emotional meaning. Poison is shoving us further, beyond the structural tension which achieves only emotional effects and toward Eisenstein’s idea of “intellectual dynamisation” (39). Rather than exploding into emotional meaning, this type of montage “serves purely intellectual ends” and produces a connection between Dr. Graves’ illness and Richie’s queerness, thereby expressing Haynes’ intention to “link homosexuality to other forms that society is threatened by — deviance that threatens the status quo or our sense of what normalcy is” (Wyatt 7).
By linking homosexuality with other forms of deviance we are forced to consider how queerness interacts with criminality and disease throughout the film and subsequently how these different forms of deviance are similarly conceptualized. The specific instance of montage punctuated by the gong calls attention to the transgressive capabilities of homosexuality rather than its ability to be normalized. In other words, the sound of the gong forces us to focus on the intersections of Richie’s queerness and Dr. Graves’ disease. It moves us beyond the question of how Richie’s queerness is “healthy” or “normal.” This contingent relationship between queerness and illness ultimately makes the push to redeem queerness from a position of abjection much more difficult. Eisenstein asserted that this “purely intellectual” type of montage “is best suited to express ideologically critical theses” (40). Indeed, critiques of ideology are contained within cinematic structure itself.
However, cinematic structure is not the only way to present an ideologically critical thesis. Jean-Luc Comolli’s and Jean Narboni’s essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” tells us that joining both political content and the subversion of traditional cinematic structure is one of the most effective ways for a film to attack ideology. The essay outlines seven different types of films organized according to content, structure, and their intent in attacking ideology. Poison resists this categorization — instead of neatly fitting into one category it is somewhere between or perhaps simply both b and c in their classification system. The first relevant category, b, deals with films that “attack their ideological assimilation on two fronts. Firstly, by direct political action . . . that is, they deal with a directly political subject” (690). Poison was an intensely politically charged film when it was released in 1991. It was denounced on the Senate floor for its “pornographic” nature, its NEA funding, and its treatment of AIDS. Although the disease is never actually mentioned, the character of Dr. Graves in “Horror” is a thinly disguised metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. He is a diseased subject, made ill by sexual over-indulgence. But it’s not enough for Dr. Graves to be a political subject; Haynes must also experiment with alternate ways of depicting reality, or what I have termed the “counter structure.” Narboni and Commoli stress that this category of film “only becomes politically effective if it is linked with a breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality.” By employing an unruly and seemingly random triptych structure, Haynes is working against the traditional, heterosexual way of depicting reality in cinema.
The second category I will discuss, c, privileges structure over content to determine a film’s efficacy in attacking ideology. In this category the content is not “explicitly political, but in some way becomes so through the criticism practiced on it through its form” — it operates “against the grain.” The “Horror” and “Homo” sections are political: “Horror” presents a metaphor for AIDS and “Homo” frankly showcases gay sex and gay prison weddings. The “Hero” section with the young Richie Beacon, however, has neither explicitly political content nor the sense of political immediacy found in the other two narratives. Because not all of Poison‘s narratives have directly political content, the film is able to straddle the line between these two definitions — it is able to present a critique through both its content and its form. Poison draws attention to the system of representation and its embedded ideology by perverting that very system “so that it can be seen for what it is, to make it serve ones own ends, condemn itself out of its own mouth.” Haynes invites us to think about how Poison‘s structure is different from the cinematic structure we are used to. He refuses to show us the linear plot we expect, thereby disallowing an easy, straight reading of the film and inviting queerness.
It is my contention that Poison actively works against any heterosexual reading of the film through its assault on structure and, by extension, ideology. Comolli and Narboni tell us that “Because every film is part of the economic system it is also a part of the ideological system, for ‘cinema’ and ‘art’ are branches of ideology” (688). Cinema can never escape ideology — it will always be embedded with an ideological position because of its place in the economic system. Then it would stand to reason that making queer film necessarily involves mucking up cinematic structure since cinematic structure is completely shot through with heterosexual ideology. Haynes implies that one simply cannot make a queer film with a straight structure when he says, “I think it has been documented in film theory that conventional narrative form adheres to and supports basic ideological positions and structures in society and enforces heterosexual closure and romance in films. For me, it’s the way the narrative is structured, the way that films are machines that either reiterate and reciprocate society — or not” (Wyatt 8). The structure of a film can choose not to reiterate society and its ideology. In this way, films become “straight” due to their structure, and “queer” due to their subversion of that structure.
Haynes subverts not only heterosexual structure, but also the typical heterosexual narrative — his phrase “heterosexual closure” is central in understanding Poison‘s narrative subversion. Because the film is 90 minutes long but tells three fractured narratives, “heterosexual closure” is very hard to achieve. There simply isn’t enough time for Haynes’ characters to couple or learn something or grow by the end in the way that characters in mainstream cinema do. Principal characters in mainstream cinema have the entire 90 minutes devoted to their growth as people. The characters in Poison are not afforded the luxury of time, and therefore redemption becomes more difficult — they do not get to grow as people. As I noted earlier, the main character in each narrative is an abject subject: the queer thief, the diseased doctor, and the young masochist. Each one, in heterosexual narrative cinema, would have the opportunity to grow or be redeemed. They would have the opportunity to change their ways or realize their mistakes. Yet in Poison this doesn’t happen. Each narrative ends with loss: “Hero” ends with Richie vanishing out of a window after killing his father, Bolton dies at the end of “Homo,” shot down by a prison warden as he tries to escape and “Horror” ends with Dr. Graves jumping to his death. None of the characters “clean up their act.” They just leave or die — they have no remorse and they are not redeemed.
Each abject character is denied redemption but ultimately has a transcendent experience as a result of their transgressions: Richie seemingly transcends this world, as he is never heard from again, Graves, on his death bed, sees an angelic vision and Bolton achieves what Laura Christian calls “Genetian sainthood” by being covered in spit (103). This last image of the spit-soaked Bolton is the climax of the film and deserves special attention. In a flashback, John watches as Bolton stands with his arms at his side and mouth wide open while the other prisoners wait a few paces back, ready to play a sick game of target practice with their spit and Bolton’s mouth. They hock loogies, summoning up from the deepest recesses of their sinuses their most disgusting phlegm. And the spit starts flying. They gleefully jump up and down, and eventually Bolton is covered with spit and, with his mouth still open, sinks to his knees. He stares straight up to the sky and as the camera tilts upward, the spitters’ heads are only visible in the lower half of the frame when they reach the full apex of their jump. The sky behind them is a pastoral blue. It as if they are angels, raining down their glorious spit from the heavens. And Bolton stays on his knees, receiving the spit as flower petals start to flutter to the ground, mingling with the spit in an ecstatic fusion of the perverse and the beautiful. Through his willingness to occupy his abjected subjecthood, Bolton becomes divine because “for Genet, transcendence is achieved through transgression . . . For the Genetian saint, then, the abject is no longer something to be ejected, but ‘the point where the scales are tipped toward pure spirituality'” (102-3). It is through a communion with and willing appropriation of the abject that characters are able to spiritually or bodily transcend. Queers aren’t cleaning up their act in Poison; in fact they’re getting dirtier.
The irredeemably abject characters in Poison reflect Haynes’ aversion to the idea of the “clean” or “acceptable” gay or lesbian. He says he was “frustrated with this defensive, fearful acceptance of the terms that AIDS imposed on what being gay meant: provoking gay people to clean up their act and become unoffensive to society” (7). Rather than “finding a nice, safe place that society will give you” during the AIDS crisis, Haynes advocated instead for a more militant approach. In commenting on Genet’s fascination with transgression and his own feelings about homosexuality, Haynes admits, “I felt that it was so sad to be weak and apologetic about who we were as a result of AIDS when the fucking society was letting us die. So it was like, Look around, people don’t give a shit about you. If the only power we have is the power to upset that norm, then let’s use it and not try to iron it out.”
But is that politically effective? Laura Christian rightly questions if the repeated transgressions by the characters in Poison actually have the power to upset the norm: “The mode of queer performativity modeled by Genet and valorized in Poison may enable the deject to reappropriate the injurious terms that have been used against him, but it does not facilitate a direct challenge to the norm” (117). I would argue, however, that it does have the power to upset the norm — the homosexual norm. By refusing heterosexual closure and suspending structural expectations, Haynes allows for a space in which to critique efforts to normalize or recontain these abject, queer characters. In experimenting with a queer aesthetic, Haynes crafts a structure that resists normalization itself. Neither the film nor the characters can be redeemed.
This is especially important now, in a time when the push for gay rights, focused primarily on securing marriage equality, leaves behind other sexual minorities in favor of promoting the naturalness of the white, middle-class cis-gendered gay or lesbian. Through repeated transgression, the characters in Poison call attention to the shortcomings of the gay rights movement. By refusing redemption, Haynes allows for consideration of other constructions of queerness that have typically been denigrated or left behind, sacrificed in the name of progress: “[The drive to normalize queerness] leads to the production of normative discursive regimes (the promotion of a vision of the ‘out and proud’ individual who has succeeded in achieving a ‘healthy’ relationship to her or his sexuality) no less constricting than the heteronormative discourses they seek to challenge” (118). In the drive to cleanse oneself, a validated subjecthood usually comes at the cost of establishing “the other.” “Inevitably, such regimes also end up producing their own dejects at the limits of political community” (118). Declaring oneself an “out and proud” gay or lesbian unavoidably results in the establishment of other queers as unworthy of political inclusion.
Poison‘s focus on abjection, then, is essential. It helps combat the pervading influence of the normalization of homosexuality. In foreclosing redemption, the viewer is left with the questions: what is the importance of being redeemed, and who is doing the redeeming? Poison advocates that queers should resist normalization and the return to the “clean” and “proper” self. Not only is being “clean” and “proper” politically exclusionary, but it is a lot less fun.
Christian, L. “Of Housewives and Saints: Abjection, Transgression, and Impossible Mourning in Poison and Safe.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 19.3 57 (2004): 93-123.Project MUSE. Web. 07 Dec. 2011.
Comolli, Jean-Luc, and Jean Narboni. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 686-93. Print.
DeAngelis, Michael. “The Characteristics of New Queer Filmmaking: Case Study – Todd Haynes.”New Queer Cinema: a Critical Reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. 41-52. Print.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “Beyond the Shot.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 13-24. Print.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 24-40. Print.
MacDonald, Scott. “From Underground to Multiplex: An Interview with Todd Haynes.” Film Quarterly62.3 (2009): 54-64. JStor. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.
Poison. Dir. Todd Haynes. Prod. Todd Haynes. By Todd Haynes. Perf. Edith Meeks, Millie White, and Martha L. Smith. Zeitgeist Films, 2011. DVD.
Wyatt, Justin, and Todd Haynes. “Cinematic/Sexual Transgression: An Interview with Todd Haynes.”Film Quarterly 46.3 (1993): 2-8. JStor. Web. 1 Nov. Haynes. By Todd Haynes. Perf. Edith Meeks, Millie White, and Martha L. Smith. Zeitgeist Films, 2011.