In the galaxy of young directors, there's a short list of the brightest stars that critics recite like a litany: Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Kenneth Branagh, Jane Campion. Every season, another auteur - John Singleton, John McNaughton, Richard Linklater, Tony Spiridakis, even Kevin Costner - twinkles briefly and then recedes into the cosmic fabric. Welcome this summer's addition to the aesthetic astronomy: 30-year-old writer-director Todd Haynes, whose stellar second feature, Poison, is now playing at the Alliance Film/Video Project on Lincoln Road.
The potent Poison is actually a combination of three smaller films, a trio of tersely named shorts of vastly different styles and substances. The mock-documentary "Hero" reports the strange case of Long Island schoolboy Richie Beacon, who murdered his father with a handgun and then ascended to heaven through an open second-story window. "Horror," modeled on the lurid black-and-white of tacky monster movies (receding hypno-spirals superimposed over screaming newspaper headlines, for instance) relates the story of an idealistic young researcher who is tragically transformed into a hideously disfigured murderer. The third strand, "Homo," is the straightest (pun intended) of the sections - a loyal, lyrical adaption of Jean Genet's Miracle of the Roses.
Rather than have his films follow one upon the other in festival form, Haynes has chosen to let them coexist within the same space; all three parts are chopped up into segments and then shuffled together. Formal innovation is nothing new to Haynes - his first film, Superstar, used Barbie doll animation to tell the story of Karen Carpenter's anorexic death. But the tripartite experiment of Poison possesses a startling sophistication, and sorting through its facets poses a formidable challenge. The film has the breakneck pace of late-night TV, and the secure sense that the remote control is handled by a higher force. Scenes of Genet's prison romance appear on the heels of "interviews" with Richie Beacon's neighbors, and are succeeded by the frantic Dr. Graves (Larry Maxwell) of "Horror" lurching down an alleyway, skin already showing leprous blemishes.
As the lack of rhythm in the integration becomes evident, the connections between the sections emerge not methodically, but in surges, revealed in the joint of one particularly illuminating juxtaposition or another. The three main characters - Richie Beacon from "Hero," Dr. Graves from "Horror," and Broom from "Homo" - are treated as pariahs and must search for alternate sources of emotional support. The ostensible reasons differ: Richie must contend with his small size and troubled home life; Dr. Graves has his monstrous reputation as the Leper Sex Killer; and Broom his homosexuality and criminality. But taken as a package, which is clearly the intent, the trio inks in a composite portrait of a segment of society ravaged by misunderstanding and relegated to the perimeter, the gay community, especially those who must live with AIDS.
Haynes's identification of his protagonists with those ravaged by AIDS is most explicit in "Horror," in which the experiment that dooms Graves involves isolating the human sex drive, and the leprosy that afflicts him consists of general lesions and sores. The same tension between the individual and society recur in "Hero," where the puny, murderous child shatters a traditional taboo and, perversely, is rewarded for it, rising away from the earth with the grace of an avenging angel. The relentless thematic reiteration has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to "Homo." The most accomplished section cinematically, it is nonetheless the weakest of Poison's three parts; outpaced by its more sensational neighbors, it begs for a noncompetitive context.
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The winner of the top prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Poison marks a significant advance over Superstar, most notably in Haynes's beautifully composed shots. In one of the final installations of "Hero," Haynes subverts the documentary form to show the shooting of Richard Beacon, Sr., by his seven-year-old son. Filmed from the perspective of the child, blurred and partial, the scene unfurls like a cross between Talking Heads' "And She Was" video and the experimental montage work of Birgit and Wilhelm Hein. It has the half-grasped certainty of a dream. Aware of the texture of his vision, Haynes pays last respects to the phantasmagoric with a closing title-card quote, taken from Genet: "A man must dream for a long time to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness."
Written and directed by Todd Haynes; with Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, James Lyons, Scott Renderer.
Playing Friday through Tuesday and September 20-24 at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. at the Alliance Film/Video Project, 927 Lincoln Rd, Ste 113, Miami Beach. Admission is $6, $4 for Alliance members. Call 531-8504.