“The whole world is dying of panicky fright.” The opening on-screen text of Todd Haynes’s Poison promises an unsettled experience. Yet these words also might as well be predicting the puritanical response to the film that erupted from conservative quarters. After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, Poison became a minor sensation, provoking the smug ire of “culture war” commentators like Senator Jesse Helms and the Reverend Donald Wildmon, the head of the Christian fundamentalist American Family Association, who sight unseen denounced its “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.” (There is nothing pornographic or even particularly explicit in the film.)
One might logically assume that these are not the target viewers for a film like Poison, which, as one of the key works of the movement that B. Ruby Rich would name the New Queer Cinema, courted controversy with its content and invited bafflement with its form. Yet the bright and brash progenitors of the New Queer films were not just making films for queer audiences—they were inherently confronting the opposition. During the nineties, daring and bold visions by out filmmakers—also including Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Rose Troche’s Go Fish, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, and Christopher Münch’s The Hours and Times, to name but a few—were gaining notoriety, simply by being what they are. Their confrontational aspect was not incidental but rather part of the point: heterosexist “mainstream” culture could still choose to look the other way, but LGBTQ directors were finding their voices and would not be silenced. Such films all but welcomed denunciation by intellectual Lilliputians on the right who latched on to the fact that they were partly funded through NEH government grants. Yet during this code-red moment in history, when gay people were succumbing to the ravages of AIDS in shocking numbers, and the U.S. government, under Republican control for more than a decade, was doing fuck-all about it, how could any serious artist or moral thinker respond to moral tsk-tsking with anything other than an erect middle finger? Yes, the world was dying of panicky fright—frightened by difference, entrenched in its own bigotry—but gay men were also literally dying.
Our current, schizoid moment is marked both by increasing queer acceptance and by a concurrent politesse that invites mass cultural risk aversion. True queer cinema is all about taking those risks and breaking taboos, however, and this is the subject of the latest edition of the Queersighted series on the Criterion Channel, which features Poison. Because true risk-taking has become so rare in our movie culture, it may be hard to recall or describe what it was like in the early nineties for a young, unestablished filmmaker such as Haynes to so unapologetically confront the moment. Poison is a movie about fear that’s entirely fearless. And despite the brouhaha it caused upon its premiere, the film cannot and should not be reduced to the sensation around it. What’s most radical about it remains intact all these decades later: its aesthetic ambition and its willingness to plunge viewers into a conceptual gambit left completely up to us to decode.
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