'Poison' Doesn't Go Down Easy

A taboo-breaking work is defamed and acclaimed

The besieged National Endowment for the Arts is once again under assault. Its sin, in the eyes of the Rev. Donald Wildmon, who has made a career of attacking things he hasn't seen, was providing a $25,000 grant to a $250,000 experimental film called Poison. A jury at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, awarded "Poison" its grand prize. This held no weight with Wildmon, who has said he was first turned off by the movie when he read a description of it as "the most important and acclaimed gay American movie in years." That alone was enough to put the head of the American Family Association in a rage. Upping the ante with characteristic imagination, he denounced the movie for its "explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex." While one of the film's three interrelated stories, inspired by the writing of Jean Genet, involves homoerotic passions in a 1940s prison, anyone rushing out to see an explicit porno film is going to wonder what Wildmon's been eating for breakfast.

This time around, even NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, who has managed to irritate both the art world and the religious right with his hapless vacillations, discovered his spine. He unambiguously defended the artist, calling the movie "the work of a serious artist." "Poison" is not for all tastes--even in Park City it had its detractors--but it's precisely the kind of imaginative, form-stretching and increasingly endangered species of filmmaking the NEA ought to be supporting.

The flap, as these things do, will guarantee Todd Haynes's 16-mm movie a healthy audience. What you will see is a disturbing, highly stylized art film that deals with transgression and punishment--while simultaneously asking us to consider how movies themselves deal with these themes. Boldly selfconscious, "Poison" switches channels among its three stylistically varied but thematically linked tales with cumulative, claustrophobic power.

The tale called "Hero" is filmed in mock documentary style. It's an inquiry into the fate of Richie Beacon (who's never seen), a much-picked-on, 7-year-old boy who murdered his father and was last seen flying out the window. The second strand, "Horror," filmed in the lurid expressionist angles of an old black-and-white B-movie horror film, concerns a scientist who has isolated the sex drive in liquid form. Drinking his potion by accident, he's transformed into a contagious, pustule-dripping fiend known as the Leper Sex Killer. Complicated camp, this section functions as a metaphor for AIDS-but it's also a commentary on the way in which AIDS has been sensationalized by the media. "Homo," in the mythopoetic rough-trade style of Genet, mixes artifice and brutality in its hothouse depiction of a prisoner's sexual obsession for a fellow inmate. In each of these contrapuntal stories about taboo breakers and outcasts, Haynes seems to be exploring the sadomasochistic patterns of society that become internalized and acted out in the individual. "Poison's" rich layers of juxtaposed images can't be easily digested in one viewing. The acting is uneven, the lighting sometimes dim, the tone at times deliberately awkward. But this suggestive, discordant movie takes you places you haven't been.

Haynes, a 30-year-old New York filmmaker who was raised in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley and educated at Brown, made his name with his now legendary 43-minute "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," which used Barbie-size dolls (as well as newsreels and interviews) to dramatize the life and death of the anorexic singer. (Due to legal problems, the film has been withdrawn from circulation.) It was an audacious and surprisingly touching film that shares with "Poison " a similar fascination with the body and its relation to the body politic. There will probably never be a mass audience for the kind of heady, unclassifiable movies Haynes is committed to making--they demand an audience with a taste for cinematic deconstruction, not to mention a pretty bizarre sense of humor. "Poison" doesn't go down easy, and isn't meant to. But we should thank the NEA, not curse them, for helping it on its way.