Angels on the Ceiling
A Review of 'Poison' (1991) by Todd Haynes
The film Poison (1991) by Todd Haynes has been a personal favorite for over a decade. Based loosely on writings by Jean Genet, the French criminal championed by the Parisian literati until his release (from a barbarously long sentence handed to him for being an incorrigible thief) saw him catapulted into the world of belles lettres (an extraordinarily gifted outsider, a reprobate that Jean-Paul Sartre referred to as being "rotten with genius"); the film is considered a landmark in "queer cinema." It is, indeed, a remarkable, if somewhat puzzling at times, piece of art.
Genet authored several classics of contemporary literature, among them Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), Miracle of the Roses (1946), and The Thief's Journal (1949)—the first of which, Our Lady, was destroyed by prison staff while it was in manuscript form. Genet simply rewrote it from memory, on the side of paper sacks. It is, nonetheless, an incredible artistic achievement, made more so by the circumstances of its execution.
The interwoven narratives, each stylistically different than the others, are taken from these works, although the stories of the film, save for the prison story involving "John Broom," a cinematic stand-in for Genet, would suggest modern entertainments, such as old fifties monster movies.
The first narrative, the prison story, features a young "John Broom" (played with a kind of strange, detached stoicism by Scott Renderer) being transferred from his old prison to Fontanelle; sitting, looking bored and apprehensive and even hostile, while being questioned by a corrections officer as to his engaging in homosexual "vices." Broom affirms this in a manner to suggest that he is already defiant of the then contemporary moral qualms against same-sex love. The film has opened with a scene in which little hands, those of a grasping, lurking and curious child, slide across the elegant, valuable possessions of what we assume to be foster parents.
These thieving little hands are discovered by two grotesques; the putative foster parents. They scold and accuse the little John Broom, and a revealing of his horrified expression, his sense of deep and abiding shame at being discovered while engaging in his own peculiar sin—his "poison," if you will—gives us the lynchpin of the entire film.
This is a movie about outsiders, terminal outsiders; society's "shamed"; whether this is because of sexuality, criminal tendencies, or, as in the story involving a young boy who kills his abusive father, simply because they seem to be some alien "other," is irrelevant. Like the author of the fictions wherein their turbulent and tragic existences began, they are thieves peeping at the window of a world they can never, truly, be a part of. They are outcasts, and outsiders looking in; vulnerable to the Philistine cruelties of a not compassionate, really clueless world they exist on the fringes of. But, as in the case of John Broom, they often have their own, albeit stark, "other" world.
The prison narrative, which has a completely different cinematic look than the other segments it interweaves, looks as if it is filmed on a television studio set. Shadows are deep, and colors, especially outdoors, are a deeper, more significant spectrum of shades. The landscape of the prison grounds is, quite obviously, false.
Broom recounts for the viewer his experiences as a young prison punk, or "fish": marrying another man, he comments in his narration:
Prison was not new to me. I'd lived in them all my life. In submitting to prison life, embracing it... I could reject the world that had rejected me.
We are treated to scenes of a young Broom being married off, complete with veil, to his new husband. But this is a memory at a youth prison, and John Broom is now a grown man. Fontanelle prison is virtually indistinguishable, in his mind, from the former, and the audience may indeed confuse his memories with what is, in the film, supposed to be the present narrative. Broom seems aloof, taciturn, and unaffected by his surroundings. Until, that is, the reintroduction in his life of Bolton (the late James Lyons), a man he desires.
Bolton was a young punk Broom picked on at the reform school. His memory (surely imaginary) is of himself as a tall, strapping young man, his hands resting imperiously on his hips, lording it over the skinnier, weaker Bolton.
"Stay out of my way, Bolton!" warns the young Broom. But when he meets Bolton again, roles have reversed, and Broom is now the smaller man.
Bolton comes across as eminently affable. By contrast Broom is unfriendly, cool and reserved and seemingly, always on edge.
"From Baton to a shit hole," says Bolton. "But guys are straight with you here. You know what's what."
Broom responds, "Don't be too sure."
As if to confirm this suspicion that all is not right, we are treated to a scene in the exercise yard, wherein a tough-talking heavy bullies a skinny, effeminate man, degrading him verbally, and sexually assaulting him before spitting all over him. Later, we have a taste of one of Broom's memories of prison abuse. "Chanchi," a prison gang leader played with grinning malevolence by a young John Leguizamo, sexually abuses another young inmate, sucking his finger and then reaching into his uniform pants. The look on the young inmate's face recalls the look of surprise and shame across the face of the child at the film's opener. It is the central, provocative and lingering issue that Poison deals with: the "poison" is SHAME; social opprobrium; that is, the moralistic constraints of a society that strangles those born "different," or, on the fringes of what is acceptable. Post Reagan-era America, that was a powerful, defiant message, and it resonated with as many people as it appalled.
If the prison sequence seemed, undeniably, an art-house relic of ages past, the second, detailing the story of a young boy, takes aim at what were, during the period, tabloid television programs and pseudo-documentaries that "recreated," for titillation purposes, the details of a sordid crime, typically one that had occurred in an upscale, suburban, all-American neighborhood, bristling with "family values"; the rot hiding beneath the well-manicured lawns and trimmed hedges of Reagan's America, as examined in other contemporary films, such as Blue Velvet (1986).
We learn that Richie is a veritable alien among these people, that he was, according to one youngster, just the kind of kid you wanted to see "get creamed." We learn from his mother Felicia, who is likewise interviewed for this pseudo prime-time crime documentary segment, that he was a "perfect baby," a "perfect child," but that "his father hit him, just like any other kid." Felicia, played by Edith Meeks, faintly resembles actress Laura Dern from Blue Velvet. She seems vaguely neurotic.
From "Coach Wete" (Rob LaBelle) we learn that Richie was frequently bullied; from one young friend, and from the narrator, we get an explanation of how and why he was trying to spank Richie when the gym teacher intervened. "Something about him just pushed me," the young boy seems to suggest.
By far the most entertaining and visually grabbing of the sequences is the one conceived as a black-and-white Fifties monster science fiction shocker, with a brilliant scientist, Dr. Graves, (played excellently by the late Larry Maxwell) isolating the "sex drive"; much to the delight of his new assistant, an attractive, perky young woman named Nancy Olson (played by Susan Norman), a fellow research scientist interested in his work. In a moment of embarrassment, he accidentally and comically mixes up his serum with his coffee. Ingesting the deadly "sex drive," he begins, like a leper, to radically deteriorate.
A number of old-fashioned horror film angles are utilized, along with the black-and-white photography and period costumes, making this a Fifties story. It could hardly be anything else, as the plot is a metaphor for the intolerance and bigotry meted out in America's post-WW2 society: the long hatred for homosexuals, yes, but also, simply the intolerance toward the "alien" in our midst; the subversive, the radical, who could infect us with his disease, be it of the flesh, or simply of the mind.
A comic-grotesque scene has the rather Pollyanna-like Nancy taking Dr. Tom, who by now has the visage of a comic book monster, out for a hot dog at a curbside restaurant. While the two of them eat (they formerly have run the gauntlet of locals who stare them down with horrified looks), Tom begins to drip puss from his bursting sores all over the table. Getting up angrily (Nancy has lectured him on the way there about not "being afraid of be out in society"), he runs away, leaving Nancy to pursue him as the now contagious "Leper Man" makes the news for spreading his weird, unknown disease.
This writer's personal, favorite scene, and what he would claim to be the most memorable, is undoubtedly the balcony scene.
Dr. Graves has just confronted Nancy that he is indeed the "Leper Man" that the news is broadcasting about. At first angry, she asks him why he didn't confide in her before that he was contagious. He replies that he was afraid he'd lose her. Later, at his apartment, the stricken man is confronted by the forces of tolerance and understanding in the form of the police outside his door.
He goes out onto the balcony and makes a speech.
I'll tell you something. You think I'm scum. You think I'm dirt, don't you? Don't you? Well, I'll tell you something: everyone of you down there is exactly the same! Only you'll never know it. You'll never know it. Because you'll never know what pride is! Because pride is the only thing that lets you stand up to misery! And not this kind of misery, but the kind of misery the whole stinking world is made of!
The scene ends, of course, with Graves jumping, assuring his death. Lying in the hospital, his last words are taken directly from Our Lady of the Flowers: "I can hear angels farting on the ceiling."
Nancy, the pert, Pollyanna-like paen to Fifties feminine perfection, is nowhere to be seen. He dies in darkness, the camera lying with him in bed, capturing the shadowed movement of his final, whispered and inscrutable pronouncement.
The prison sequence ends more obscurely. Broom and Bolton are recounting (while Bolton shows off his excellent, though scarred physique) Bolton's criminal exploits. Bolton, while explaining to Broom that you should, "Never crash a church. It's just bad luck," is confronted by John Broom in a passive manner about "that goof of yours, Nick." Bolton, for some strange reason, takes umbrage with this, and protests that he "does his jobs alone." Broom continues to chide, which leads to Bolton calling Broom, the "biggest fucking fruit around here."
Later, Broom physically overpowers Bolton (given the disparities in size, this scene does not seem realistic), and rapes him. This is a powerful final ending to the doomed prison partnership, Bolton being put back in his place as a punk by someone he must have considered an equal or friend. Broom has already admitted that,
Something about my memory of Bolton disturbed me but I could not put my finger on just what it was. All night long I built an imaginary life of which he was the center, and I always gave that life, which was begun over and over and transformed a dozen times, a violent end.
Indeed, the voice-over narration by Broom at the conclusion of the sequence explains that Rass, a prison bull, has taken Bolton on an escape attempt with him. Bolton is shot and killed. Salvation, in the form of true love and friendship, a reprieve from Broom's sense of isolated alienation, is cut from him. The dream did end violently; the "imaginary life" was, truly, just that.
The Richie Beacon story also ends with tragedy and violent gun play. A tableaux of a dollhouse door with a horrified face in it is juxtaposed against an extreme close-up of Richie's father spanking his huge rear end, bent over his knee. Preceding this, Richie has opened the door to see his parents having sex. Both scenes are similarly surreal, suggestive of a scene from an old horror film (the giant eye blue-screened over the open door). The dollhouse dimensions of the door point toward the inversion of bourgeois values, making a satirical and obviously phony, mocking point about the goings-on behind such closed doors. This is not perfected, toy store town of Barbie and Ken dolls; it's a place where fathers abuse their children after chugging too many beers. The whole thing could be the interplay of events in Richie's childhood mind.
(It should be noted that director Todd Haynes first came to attention with an experimental student film, The Karen Carpenter Story, which featured the biography of the anorexic and late singer reenacted with literal Barbie and Ken dolls. The resultant lawsuit, supposedly over copyright infringement, saw the film suppressed.)
At the end of the Richie Beacon sequence, Richie shoots his father. He then jumps from the window. Unlike Dr. Graves however, Richie (who, according to a young friend claimed to be from another land, where his father was a king) actually...flies away. He was, apparently, as literally alien to this world as he was figuratively so.
At the time of its release (1991), Poison was the focus of a targeted campaign by "family values" crusader Rev. Donald Wildmon. Aghast that the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts was used to finance a small part of the budget, he rallied his loyal followers against the perceived government funding of "gay pornography."
Indeed, there are a number of scenes, particularly in the prison sequence, that deal in a brutal, graphic manner with homosexual rape and abuse: one man has pinned another to the floor; we see his bare buttocks grinding away. Men wed teen boys, and in one infamous scene, a young man is forced to stand there while a prison gang hurls spit into his open mouth. The scene is punctuated, though, by a beautiful rain of what look like red leaves or even rose petals raining down after. (The stark horror here, contrasted with the beauty the artistic mind can make of it, was central to the work and life of Genet.)
That said, there is little in Poison that will shock today's audiences. We are more jaded; or, perhaps, more tolerant, depending on your perspective. Wildmon's campaign did not dampen the success of the film. Indeed, the added controversy simply stoked ticket sales, and audiences for showings of the obscure little art house piece were reported as quite large. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film festival that year. It is, of course, a small kind of cultural relic; a lost and forgotten gem, pointing out the social mores and failings of yesteryear.
Poison is about the lives of the three characters, the aliens and "others" of the interwoven narratives; the isolated, those refuse who are pariahs and alone through dint of sexuality, social status, or violation of norms and cultural taboos. They are the "poison" in the bloodstream of conventional, rigid and paternalistic, yet ultimately hypocritical, bourgeois society. And we, dear readers, are pointed out as being, the poison from which they all, ultimately, perish. And so, the mirror reflecting the horror shows only an image of ourselves.
We can end with the quote with which the movie begins.
"A child is born, and he is given a name. Suddenly, he can see himself. He recognizes his position in the world. For many, this experience, like that of being born, is one of horror."