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Of Housewives and Saints: Abjection, Transgression, and Impossible Mourning in Poison and Safe
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Camera Obscura 19.3 (2004) 92-123

Abjection, Transgression, and Impossible Mourning in Poison and Safe

Laura Christian


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Figure 1
James Lyons as Jack Bolton in Poison (US, 1991). Courtesy Killer Films

In the opening sequence of Velvet Goldmine (dir. Todd Haynes, UK/US, 1998), future glam-rock trendsetter Jack Fairy stands in front of a mirror and, having been brutalized earlier by a pack of schoolyard bullies, smears the blood from his split lip into a glistening, cherry-red smile, satisfied in the knowledge that "one day the whole bloody world would be his." This is a signature Haynes moment: Fairy converts the corporeal sign of his abjection into the brazen emblem of his star power. The very stigmata that brand him as a pariah literally provide the raw materials for his transformation into a flaming proto-pop icon.

Though characterized by extraordinary stylistic diversity, the films of Todd Haynes have maintained a consistent focus on the theme of abjection. This is as true of the so-called women's films as it is of his more explicitly queer works. The release of Far from Heaven (US/France, 2002), in fact, makes it possible (if it was not so before) to discern in Haynes's oeuvre a pattern of alternation between two key problematics, each of which approaches the issue of abjection from a different angle. The first concerns the performative resources provided by the condition of abjection or rejection by the social order at large. Jack Fairy's tactics of resignification, for example, unmistakably recall the performative strategies adopted by the outcast characters in Haynes's earlier film, Poison (US, 1991). Based on the autobiographical novels of Jean Genet, and intercutting three different narratives rendered in three distinct visual modes, Poison introduces us to a host of marginal figures who, in masochistically embracing their abjection, ascend (or perhaps one should say descend) into Genetian sainthood.

The second problematic to which Haynes's films repeatedly return concerns the psychosomatic costs of a too-forceful repudiation of the abject, or of the constitutive exclusions that are a precondition for the achievement of normative femininity. Safe (US/UK, 1995) and Far from Heaven, for instance, take up the cinematic conventions associated with the maternal melodrama (the former in a much quieter way than the latter, to be sure) in order to foreground that which cannot be accommodated within the bounds of bourgeois domesticity—life-threatening illness and racial and sexual otherness. In Safe, Carol White's (Julianne Moore's) body itself becomes the site of the abject's disruptive return, which manifests in the form of environmental illness.

This essay examines Haynes's handling of the abject in Poison and Safe, with a particular view toward the question of what kinds of political work these films perform. Poison and Safe form a complementary pair, in my view, despite their discontinuous treatment of gender and their striking formal differences, because both lay out in paradigmatic terms the issues that have continued to preoccupy Haynes in his more recent films. Both works were also palpably born out of the first phase of the AIDS emergency in the United States. Poison opens with a quote from Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers: "The whole world is dying of panicky fright." This intertitle sets all three of the film's narratives in an atmosphere of mass panic, while clearly referencing the extradiegetic scene of the AIDS pandemic.

Safe, too, has generally been read as an AIDS metaphor. After all, environmental illness is a recently identified syndrome (often referred to as "twentieth-century disease") that, like AIDS, compromises the immune system. AIDS itself is only referenced a handful of times in the course of the film, but its very absence from the plot makes it one of the film's most powerful structuring elements. One of the arguments I wish to make here, however, is that the relationship between the major problematics to which Haynes's work again and again returns is not so much a metaphoric as a metonymic one. That is to say, it does not so much suggest an analogical relation between the condition of femininity and that...



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