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After 20 Years, “Poison” Still Packs a Queer Punch

After 20 Years, "Poison" Still Packs a Queer Punch

After the credits for “Poison” were finished running, Todd Haynes took the stage with the IFC Center’s Harris Dew to answer questions about his game-changing film. “It’s sad just to hear the music,” Haynes began. Haynes was just as proud and nostalgic for his film as one could hope for; he stayed modest about the film’s importance while relished in the memories of working collaboratively with a slew of New York artists on a work he could still take pride in. In a brief Q&A following the film’s screening at the IFC Center last night, Haynes took the stage to reminisce about the film and its impact. “Poison,” which was screened on a new 35mm print courtesy of Zeitgeist Films, will screen at the IFC Center in a short run that started Wednesday.

The film is told in three intertwined, narratively unconnected, and stylistically dissimilar strands, each influenced by a queer sensibility and an awareness of the era’s politics. In the story Haynes calls “Horror,” black-and-white, he tells the story of a doctor who spreads leprosy after taking a sip of distilled sexuality he isolated in his laboratory. In another, “Hero,” shot TV news magazine style, a boy is accused of killing his father and fantastical stories are told by the boy’s mother and neighbors about the act and his general demeanor. And in “Homo,” a prisoner finds himself locked up with an old friend to whom he is distractingly attracted. For “Horror,” Haynes watched “psychotronic B-horror films,” “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” and “The Boy with Green Hair.” “I was exposed to tabloid television,” he confessed, explaining his inspiration for “Hero.” And it was Jean Genet’s film “Un Chant d’Amour” and book “Querelle de Brest” that provided inspiration for “Homo.”

While the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, Todd Haynes credited the American Family Association’s Donald Wildmon with helping the film gain the exposure that led to its legendary status. “In those days, the NEA and the New York State Council for the Arts gave money to individual artists,” he said. “I had just made my short film ‘Superstar,’ and there was some interest in funding an artist like me.” Haynes, along with filmmakers like Marlon Riggs, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and others drew the ire of family values crusaders like Wildmon because their work was facilitated by money from organizations that are funded by tax payers. In recent months, New York galleries have shown some of Mapplethorpe’s work and the gallery White Columns housed videos and publicity from the AIDS activist group ACT UP. The theatrical run of “Poison” is not only a chance to appreciate a carefully crafted contribution to queer culture and the storytelling art; it is also an act of political archaeology.

“Poison” is often cited as the centerpiece of B. Ruby Rich-coined film movement New Queer Cinema. Rich used the term to note the trend created by works like that of Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Isaac Julien, amongst others. Haynes touched on the categorization briefly in his Q&A session, saying “I’m proud of it…we were experimenting formally. All the filmmakers were looking at how stories were told.” He also noted how these films were important politically, saying that he was happy people were able to make films like this “A cultural response was necessary…seeing people that passed away, they also serve as a living testimony of their lives.”

The film has a few more days of screenings at the IFC Center. But if New York is far, Haynes just wrapped with his “Poison” producer Christine Vachon on the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” The multipart update of the classic woman’s film is set to air this coming March.

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