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Alvin Li on Todd Haynes’s ‘Poison’

‘I first saw it in a private screening room in my college library, deep in the suburbs of New England. It changed my life.’

Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, film sill. Courtesy: Zeitgeist Films

Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, film sill. Courtesy: Zeitgeist Films

I was not yet born when Todd Haynes’s Poison had its theatrical release, so I didn’t have the luxury of watching it on the big screen; instead, I first saw it in a private screening room in my college library, deep in the suburbs of New England. It changed my life. Compared to Haynes’s other works – such as Safe (1995), his brutal necropsy on normative femininity in suburban America or Velvet Goldmine (1998), with its unapologetic celebration of camp – Poison is hardly his best, but it occupied a unique place in the new queer cinema movement of the early 1990s. Weaving together three tales – ‘Horror’, an overzealous scientist’s transformation into a sex killer, shot in the style of trashy B-movies; ‘Homo’, a Jean Genet-inspired romance involving two men in a prison; and ‘Hero’, an investigation into the disappearance of a seven-year-old from his home in Long Island, which parodies sensationalist television documentaries – the film is not a blunt critique of an oppressive social order. Instead, it probes the tipping point at which transgression becomes acceptable, even necessary. Poison constantly returns to haunt me: a reminder of the political work we must continue to perform in a stinking world never short of – in the words of Genet – ‘panicky fright’ about the radical and the extraordinary.

Alvin Li is a writer and contributing editor of frieze, based in Shanghai, China.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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