Director Todd Haynes gives his film 'Poison' fatal doses of aggression

June 13, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic


Starring James Lyons and Scott Renderer.

Directed by Todd Haynes.

Released by Zeitgeist Films.


... One man's "Poison" is not necessarily another man's meat -- particularly this man's.

However despicable the efforts by various conservative fulminators to use the NEA grant that funded Todd Haynes' film as a fulcrum to discredit the entire arts-funding program, the movie itself is a lot less interesting than the debate it so famously engendered earlier this year.

Haynes, who achieved some limited notoriety for a film bio of Karen Carpenter in which all the parts were played by Barbie dolls, is less an artist than a provocateur. "Poison," which opens today at the Charles, seems engineered to create controversy rather than move hearts and engage minds.

Reportedly "inspired" by a variety of Jean Genet texts, the movie is fairly amateurish, and quite repulsive. It is composed of three intertwined stories on the theme of "otherness," each in a separate stylistic vernacular.

Two may be dismissed out of hand. They are a parable on AIDS cast in the form of an exceptionally lame parody of a '50s horror movie; and an equally risible mock-documentary about a child who murders his father. Both are exercises in pure style that achieve an incidental moment or two of wit but soon collapse under the grim weight of their mannerisms. When they are not incoherent, they are boring and predictable.

The third story, most directly drawn from Genet, is problematic, but in a different method. It has authentic characters and, unlike the other two, takes place not ironically but literally, in a French prison during the '30s. There, a young thief, who has considered himself morally superior to the more violent cons, is learning the extent of his own savagery. It's the story of a rape and his discovery that he is willing to commit it.

The rape happens to be between males and it happens to be anal. No matter; rape is rape, and Haynes makes us see the violence and mourn the degradation. That is because he has made us see the characters and share their memories, their culture, their pasts and their dreams of a future. However crude, it is indeed a work of art.

At the same time, it dramatizes two unbearable acts of aggression, the rape being the least unsavory. Ladies and gentleman, as a film critic I've seen a whole universe of perversity and degradation, but the one depicted toward the end of the Genet-sequence of "Poison" was so unbearable even these steel eyes had to look elsewhere.

And for what? I'll look at anything if I can learn from it. But why go into these horrid precincts unless we learn something memorable? That doesn't faze Haynes, who takes us into the lowest of all gutters and teaches us nothing except how to get oneself talked about far out of proportion to one's actual talent.

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