“Ruminations on Todd”
April 16, 1991
“Ah ha ha ha, ah ha ha ha ha, ah ha ha ha ha ha.” Laughter running on my ear like water against glass. “Ah ha. You didn’t see it? No one told you? Come on, someone must have told you. Let me tell you. Before the theme music — ta da dum dum dum dum — there was me and Christine and Jim. I don’t know how we looked — I looked awful. And then there was a voice” — here Todd pauses to assume a distinguished baritone — “ ‘Here we are with Todd Haynes, director of Poison, and producer Christine Vachon and its star Jim Lyons, all at the center of yet another moral majority controversy.’ Or something like that. Then the credits came up, followed by the theme music and the hosts and suddenly we were on TV. Entertainment Tonight. Thrilling.”
“Did you tape it?”
“Are you kidding?”
Todd and I are on the phone, which is one of the few ways we get to visit in relative private these days, what with Todd at Sundance, Todd on Entertainment Tonight, Todd in Berlin, Todd in OutWeek, Todd as controversy. Like sands through the hourglass, so does controversy-as-commodity dictate the days of our lives.
“How are you?”
“I don’t want too much to be read about the film before people actually see it. That’s what happened when I went to see Silence of the Lambs—”
“How are you?”
“Now L.A. Weekly and the Times are doing—”
“How are you?”
Laughter on my ear like water on glass. “Fine.”
Fame makes different things of different people. For the friend (me) who may count success as being sweetest for having n’er succeeded, the friend (Todd) who does eventually becomes unavoidably bound to the signs of his fame. Passing a newsstand, there is his image on the cover of a magazine. Are the eyes and mouth now made recognizable to others besides myself the same eyes and mouth that reacted to my laughter? The friend who succeeds belongs to the public record; the friend who does not dwells still in the obscure place where friendship is private and where the desire to connect sometimes leads to such ridiculous public attempts to do so as journalism, as in a profile, to be built around the eyes you once knew and the mouth you once knew.
Let me bring in at once the theme that will repeat itself over and over throughout this love letter: I was then (and I have not changed much) a very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent, and hungry black cat.… I am a black boy from Harlem and Norman [Mailer] is a middle-class Jew.… The relationship, therefore, of a black boy to a white boy is a very complex thing.
— James Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”
Todd and How He Grew: in glorious black and white, in living color, on cable, in front of a television. As a guest on Entertainment Tonight, the “real” and fantasy merged. Todd in the context of a “story” that, in ET terms, has the same generic entertainment value as a report on Loni Anderson’s new simple life. Loni and Todd and Iraq and AIDS and the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. One and the same, but not, too. For the boy who grew up in Southern California — home of the Tube — the irony in becoming a member of the cast, of wandering into that small and modest malignancy bristling with dots, is neat, neat, neat. Todd on ET. How was it? “Terrific.”
In Brown University’s Semiotics Program, where the Medium — books, TV, film, theater — was the message, Todd (now 30 years old) became familiar with theory-as-discourse. When I hear the word “theory” I pick up my skirts and run. I do not hear another-mode-of-discourse-in-the-practice-of-the-science-of-language. What I see is French patriarchy (Descartes) deflecting from the proverbial desire to exercise control through the guise of rationalism. But for Todd, theory has always been liberating. At Brown, he starred in Genet’s The Maids (an all male version, as the author intended), made a film based on the life of Rimbaud (The Assassins), wrote a paper on an early idol — Fassbinder. When I hear the word Television, I pack my bags and go. For Todd though, I think TV was the shiny mirror of his upbringing, suburbia’s version of soul: neat, neat, neat. It is that sense of TV as the familiar that informed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his breakthrough film. Its lyricism is the lyricism of the fanzine eye that knows of what it speaks.
Todd speaks. But before Todd speaks you must see his face: somewhat ruddy, somewhat smooth, with blue eyes and a wide smile in it. Todd’s hair: dirty blond, with bangs and sideburns. The look is bell-bottoms and Chad Everett and Goldie Hawn as a Ding-a-Ling. Todd speaks. And as with most people who look for meaning and belief in almost everything, his speech is connected to his physicality in such a way that his slight frame nearly vibrates with what he has to say. He pounds my sofa to emphasize a point; he taps his foot and embraces my hand. Since this is the Interview, Todd says, “Genet was the genesis of Poison. The model of Genet: the artist who is involved in the subject but refuses to be taken in by it. Genet questions my own involvement in the status quo — as a filmmaker with a ‘name.’ ” He pauses. “He also questions my involvement in the gay world which is now stigmatized as the world of AIDS. And he questioned, too, the desire for some gays to ‘clean up our acts,’ to remove the transgression from being gay. This prompted me to want to delve into that world even more in my work. Poison is a look at transgression through different means.”
Todd can do other things beside speak in this way. He is the best illustrator of ’70s hairdos since before Warhol; he was a child model; he cannot convey a story without adding a soundtrack, complete with mood music. There are other languages beside speech, which is one reason why he makes films: to place those different Todd-voices in them. Sometimes I wonder, though, about the source of those voices. Sometimes I wonder, How am I able to speak to this person and he to me? We can speak because of the vise of education; education neutralized us. Language is a privilege but sometimes it is important to upset the balance. How? Race is always a sadly useful way of doing that.
Poison‘s most problematic sections are “Horror” and “Homo.” In Homo, we see an idealized world in which all except one of the characters are white. In “Horror,” Todd uses plastic makeup to disfigure the characters as a metaphor for AIDS. When asked about all this, Haynes shifts in his seat and thinks, silently, for a long time. “It’s always going to be about someone and not,” he says. “I resorted to convention. People are disfigured, but I expanded it into artifice. I wanted the audience to be aware of it as a construct. Like using dolls in Superstar. The horror genre is incredibly moral. And that was meant to illustrate the incredible moralizing around AIDS. People you love contract AIDS and then there is the horror of the disease, which is separate and not separate from them and from ourselves.” Looking at me directly, Todd says, “Race is a complicated issue. But the film is so much about exclusion. I had to choose certain subjects to make central. Genet’s characters were invariably white and not faggy; he was idealizing the source of oppression. I wanted to create a work that, while raising those issues, was an experience that transformed, and was transcendental. What’s more interesting is the experience of trying to transform. We take what society considers ugly and make it beautiful.”
What will the future bring? Haynes understands the value of controversy being a commodity — his career is being built on it. But where he goes in an attempt to transform that into the next level of artistic growth is anybody’s guess; his talent is what he owns. “The next film will be about a woman who lives in a bubble.” He laughs. We both do, with memories of John Travolta and Michael Jackson and all the rest. The frame of TV had returned. We could both see it coming. The joke is on us. “Ah ha ha ha, ah ha ha ha. I don’t live in a bubble — do I? — but I’ve done a lot of research.” ■