That Celluloid Object of Desire
Published on February 2nd, 2012 | by Davin Reich0
“Pretty Poison” is showing from February 3-9 at Film Forum.
Running time: 89 minutes.
“Pretty Poison,” Noel Black’s 1968 contribution to the outlaw couple genre, gets a run at Film Forum from February 3-9, and for those who have yet to experience its dumbfounding spell, the chance to discover this lost gem should not be missed.
Rejected by audiences upon its initial release and relegated to cult status in the shadow of more popular outlaw couple films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “Badlands” (1973), “Pretty Poison” is nevertheless a strikingly singular postmodern take on the genre that still feels ahead of its time.
Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld star as the requisite outsiders whose relationship yields transgressive sparks infused with fatalistic utopian longings. Perkins’s Dennis Pitt is a parolee reintegrating, after prolonged juvenile detention for arson, into the town of Winslow, an anonymous Rockwellian setting. His real crime, though, it would seem, is being a dreamer. To be clear, Dennis sees his fantasies for what they are and knowingly plays with them. In the opening scene his parole officer cautions against his flights of fancy, “You are going into a very real and very tough world. It is no place for fantasies.” The very next scene inverts this warning as Dennis takes voyeuristic pleasure in a female drill squad rehearsing to Stars and Stripes. The screen flashes with cuts of thighs, twirling guns, and red, white, and blue. Dennis’s delight makes clear that he intuits a deeper truth than the one he has just been given–in reality, fantasy reigns. Soon thereafter Dennis falls for one of the girls in that drill squad, Weld’s Sue Ann Stepanek, and the two begin to generate their own unstable brew of fantasies. Dennis pretends that he is a CIA agent and enlists Sue Ann as a girlfriend for local cover to belie his real objective–sabotaging the lumber mill he works at to prevent a toxic spill. In kind, Sue Ann enlists Dennis to investigate her domineering mother’s affairs with men which seem to her to be “dirty, because there is no one to punish them.”
The outlaw couple at the heart of the genre becomes the symbolic vessel by which “Pretty Poison” pursues its themes. Rampant role playing within the relationship and role mis-recognition from those outside of it serve to reinforce not only how we operate as fantastical objects for one another but also, and perhaps more importantly, how our choices (or lack thereof) are in direct relation to the manner in which society objectifies us in its unrelenting web of fantasy.
Despite an economic narrative style, “Pretty Poison” quickly grows dense with meaning in reflecting the complexity of these dynamics. The tales that Dennis spins, which begin as a means of empowerment (and perhaps rebellion), ensnare him in this web. The experience of watching him struggle within it is both exhilarating and harrowing.
The tensions at play in this dynamic are laid bare when Dennis’s parole officer threatens to return him to jail. In a candid moment of vulnerability, Dennis drops his pretenses but invokes those that society imposes on him: “You’re afraid I’ll run away? That I’ll blow up cities? That I’ll rape, burn and destroy property? Or are you afraid that I will re-rehabilitate myself?” This moment makes clear that Dennis’s struggle is one of fantasy. Will society define him as an animal, or will he define himself as a human? This struggle is constantly reenforced by framing which pens, boxes, and crams Dennis in. Repeated shots of him with bars in the foreground illustrate the imposition; despite his freedom, Dennis is a caged animal. It becomes clear that Dennis’s tales are not fanciful disconnection, as society might have one believe, but in fact an expression of a higher ethic that can only find declaration as radical fantasy. His CIA agent, though fabricated, is indeed guided by a higher law. Finding no societal equivalent, Dennis invents it. There is an anarchist of the imagination element at work here, and so it comes as no surprise that the higher law that guides his agent compels him to rectify through sabotage local industry’s poisoning of the water supply.
If Dennis’s fantasies act as a kind of transcendence against prevailing norms, Sue Anne’s function more as straight up transgression. A post-coital conversation reveals that Dennis feels that “The pressures are closing in. I feel them everywhere. Don’t you?” to which Sue Anne responds, “I feel empty.” This emptiness goes hand in hand with her giddy sexual response to murder and could be suggestive of the brutal frames society affords us for contextualizing our desire.
In the bewildering relationship at the heart of “Pretty Poison,” one charged with both whimsy and gravity in measures equal part hilarious, dreadful, and endearing, will transcendence or transgression trump? Despite the outcome, Sue Ann’s streak will have devastating consequences for Dennis. It is an ordeal he will endure not without its benefits. In a later scene Dennis reveals a new perspective with his parole officer, “If the poison got worse, which it always does, then the blindest man could see, would have to see… But people only pay attention to what they discover for themselves.” His words, with their emphasis on seeing, could well be directed at us in the audience. How does fantasy blind us? How can the fantasy of filmmaking help us see?