(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Modern Gay Classics on DVD

Longtime fans of independent queer cinema will probably find it hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Todd Haynes' Poison hit the screen. The controversial anthology of three mini-movies exploring the darker side of the gay experience debuted at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and won its Grand Jury Prize. It also won the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Poison is being re-released today by Zeitgeist Films as a special, remastered 20th anniversary edition DVD. Packed with rare extras and a 16-page booklet, it provides an excellent opportunity to re-discover the film or see it for the first time. The success of Poison enabled Haynes to write and direct such popular queer titles as Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and the recent HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce.

The filmmaker's classic opens with the foreboding words, "The whole world is dying of panicky fright." Haynes then intersperses scenes from the stylistically-diverse "Hero," "Horror" and "Homo" over the next 85 minutes. The first is a mock TV news report of a boy who kills his sexually abusive father and then, inexplicably, flies away. "Horror" serves simultaneously as a black & white homage to 1950's B-movies and as a metaphorical account of the AIDS epidemic, focusing on a well-intentioned scientist who isolates the human sex drive with devastating results. "Homo," inspired by the work of gay writer Jean Genet, is a dream-like but disturbing romance between two prison inmates. All three stories are beautifully photographed by Maryse Alberti and Barry Ellsworth.

Upon its release, Poison was denounced by conservative commentators such as Ralph Reed and the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon. They objected to both Haynes' subversive, pro-gay commentary and the graphic nudity and sex depicted in the "Homo' segment, especially since the film had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Of course, many more critics — including J. Hoberman (whose original essay from The Village Voice is included in the DVD's booklet), David Ansen and Richard Corliss — lauded the movie.

Poison also launched the careers of producers Christine Vachon and James Schamus, who have supervised many of the most significant independent films of the last 20 years. Schamus eventually became president of Focus Features, which released Far from Heaven, Brokeback Mountain, Milk and the current Beginners. He and Vachon as well as Haynes are featured in a special 20th anniversary Q&A about their achievements. As made clear by the new, remastered DVD, the impact of Poison has been far-reaching.

1981's German production Taxi zum Klo (in English, Taxi to the Toilet) has left a similar mark on queer film history and was also recently made available on DVD in a 30th anniversary Director's Cut by QC Cinema. It was written and directed by Frank Ripploh, who also stars as a respected schoolteacher with a secret gay life. Set in West Berlin, it has been hailed as "the first masterpiece about the mainstream of male gay life." While dated in some respects and perhaps not the most positive portrait of our community by today's standards, Taxi zum Klo is nonetheless an enduring testament to the gay experience, then and now.

Reverend's Ratings:
Poison: A-
Taxi zum Klo: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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