Every decade or so (if we're lucky), the American cinema is graced by a daringly idiosyncratic avant-garde filmmaker who, along with his radical attitudes and techniques, has the instincts of a popular entertainer. The last one was David Lynch. The new whiz kid on the outlaw-movie block is 30-year-old Todd Haynes, a subversively gifted New York filmmaker whose 1987 underground sensation, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, made a cast of Barbie dolls seem more hauntingly alive than the characters in most mainstream movies. Though barely shown in theaters, Superstar won Haynes offers from major Hollywood studios. He turned them all down to make Poison, another independently produced feature and the first Haynes film to receive a limited theatrical release.
You certainly can't accuse Haynes of selling out. Poison weaves a trio of disparate stories into a fragmentary, postmodern triptych, one held together (however vaguely) by lurid themes of sexuality, violence, and personal revolt. The movie wants to shock, and it does: The most graphic segment, a homoerotic prison drama loosely adapted from writings by the renegade fantasist Jean Genet, contains an amazingly gross scene in which adolescent delinquents degrade a comrade by spitting into his mouth. At the same time, Poison's cool narrative juxtapositions make it far more ''experimental'' than Superstar was. The movie is constructed as a student filmmaker's academic crossword puzzle: Thematically, we can mesh the three stories in our heads (this one's about violent gay sex as liberation, that one's a metaphor for AIDS), yet the connections are never more than conceptual. Only one of the episodes, a satirical documentary about the mysterious disappearance of an enraged suburban boy, has much resonance on its own. A part of me wishes that Haynes had sold out after all: What's truly revolutionary about this filmmaker his perverse, ironic humanity is only intermittently on display in this quasi-provocative formalist knickknack. The film's trailer features a quote from director John Waters, the original up-from-underground bad boy, who says of Haynes, ''He has restored my faith in youth.'' Maybe so, but now it's up to Haynes not to fade back into the avant-garde woodwork.