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Poison

Rated NC-17, 85 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 30, 1991

The Sundance Film Festival, that prestigious enclave of independent film juries, awarded Poison its top dramatic prize this year. But that distinction is hardly enough to thrust a film out of the art house circuit and into the popular dialogue, no matter how deserving it may be. No, the credit for that has to go to Rev. Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association philistines who used Poison to attack the NEA's funding polices. The film, which links three separate stories which are connected by their themes of transgression and punishment and the primacy of the body, acknowledges an inspirational debt to the works of Jean Genet and makes no attempt to disguise either its homoerotic passages, sadistic brutalities or AIDS metaphors. In an increasingly rare instance of NEA backbone, chairman John Frohnmayer unequivocally defended the funding selection. And thus, Poison came out of the gate as something of a cause celebre. Haynes is no stranger to controversy. His previous film was 1987's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a bio-pic about the Carpenter family's rise to celebrity and Karen's growing obsession with food and independence -- filmed entirely with a cast of Barbie and Ken dolls. That movie is now out of circulation due to legal injunctions from the Carpenter family. With Poison, Haynes continues his fascination with the body politic and disconcerting storytelling. Three apparently unrelated stories are told simultaneously throughout Poison. The first is “Hero,” the story of seven-year old Richie Beacon who kills his father and then, as reported by his mother, flies off through the upstairs window. The story is shot like a television news report using talking head interviews with Richie's mother, his teachers, classmates and suburbanites next door. The second story, called “Horror,” is filmed in black-and-white in the style of a 1950s monster movie in which a researcher isolates the liquid form of the human sexual drive and then accidentally gulps it down while distracted by a female admirer. He becomes a repulsive figure of pustular contagion and is transformed into the Leper Sex Killer. “Homo,” the third, is the episode most inspired by Genet's writing and concerns a male prisoner's obsession with a fellow inmate. All three episodes focus in some way on taboo-breakers who trangress the social norms. The way the individual stories are intercut builds connections between the seemingly discrete tales such that they begin to converge in ways that were not readily apparent. Repeated viewings, I'm sure, would enhance the connections, so smartly are they conceived. “The whole world is dying of panicky fright” are the words that open the movie. Poison makes the fear palpable. Poison's director Todd Haynes will be in attendance at two opening weekend screenings (Friday, Aug. 30 at 7pm; Sat. Aug.31 at 9pm). Haynes will present the film at each of these two special shows and be available for discussion following the screenings.
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