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Conservative Group Renews Attack on NEA : Arts: Criticism over movie ‘Poison’ follows White House pressure on National Endowment Chairman John E. Frohnmayer to avoid further controversy.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A conservative Mississippi-based group led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon has opened a new attack on the National Endowment for the Arts, charging that an award-winning avant-garde motion picture partially funded by the NEA includes explicit anal sex.

The attack on “Poison,” a film by New York-based director Todd Haynes, comes as Wildmon’s American Family Assn. and at least two other conservative organizations have moved to revive last year’s public debate over the NEA.

The new complaint also comes in the wake of White House pressure on NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer. He has been told, sources say, that his job at the agency may be at risk if conservative critics succeed in precipitating a new major public controversy over the NEA’s grant-making practices.

Frohnmayer was reportedly traveling on NEA business Tuesday and the agency said he could not be reached.

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Wildmon’s complaint against “Poison,” for the first time, brings the motion picture medium into the NEA controversy--which had previously primarily focused on photography, literature, performance art and the visual arts. In late February, Wildmon’s group criticized the movie and television industry for producing films it claims have an “anti-Christian bigotry.”

Wildmon has faxed and mailed at least two versions of a letter--dated March 15 and March 18--attacking the film to the offices of representatives and senators. The letters criticize NEA support of “Poison,” which Wildmon characterized as containing “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.”

Filmmaker Haynes is himself gay--a situation that has reignited criticism in the arts community that the conservative assault on the NEA has had a primarily homophobic basis.

Top NEA officials, sources in the agency have told The Times, believe the Wildmon attack on “Poison” may jeopardize Frohnmayer’s position at the agency. The situation is perceived as especially difficult because the NEA--which has weathered several earlier controversies by saying it hadn’t directly funded projects to which conservatives objected--has no room to maneuver. “Poison” was specifically supported by the endowment. The film won the Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

The $25,000 NEA grant to fund post-production,” said an NEA official, “has blown up. And what is (Frohnmayer) going to do, pull the grant back? He is going to take a lot of heat.”

The filmmaker said the NEA’s media arts program, which made the grant in the 1990 fiscal year, was furnished a copy of the film’s script, which included scenes even more daring than some that actually made the final cut.

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In Haynes’ NEA grant application, he described “Poison” as including depictions of prison life “as both cruelly harsh and erotic.” The application said the film would be documentary-like and similar to “the expressionistic style of B-grade horror films” and that it would deal with “unusual and perverse” behavior.

Loosely based on the novels of French writer Jean Genet, “Poison” details three interrelated stories, including a sequence subtitled “Homo,” in which, according to the film’s synopsis, “a prisoner falls in love with a fellow inmate and is drowned in obsession, fantasy and violence.” The picture is scheduled for its New York premiere April 5. It opens in early June at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. The 80-minute feature had a budget of $250,000.

Haynes said the film deals frankly with harsh issues that reflect the reality of prisons--including homosexual forced sex.

“I really feel that films like this have to be made and these issues have to be explored,” Haynes said. “The film is not meant for every general audience. These issues are important and valid. The film does deal with various kinds of social deviance. There is sex.”

But for Frohnmayer and the NEA, the Wildmon attack could not come at a worse time.

Sources directly aware of the situation said top Bush Administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, have warned Frohnmayer that the NEA must steer clear of exciting controversy among conservatives. These Administration leaders, according to a senior White House official and top NEA sources, have been dismayed that Frohnmayer has not intervened in other NEA grants to reject funding to additional controversial artists.

“If he can keep his nose clean, he’s fine,” said the senior White House official of the urgings to Frohnmayer. “If he doesn’t, he may still be fine, but there may be a requirement for the White House to make another assessment. He’s not our favorite agency head. Do we think the agency is being well managed or reformed as much as it could be to break the grip of the arts Establishment on it? The answer would be, ‘No.’ But do we think there is an imminent crisis? The answer would (also) be, ‘No.’ (But) if 16 new grants are made to people who are denigrating Christianity or trashing senators or representatives or giving themselves grants, obviously, that could change.”

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“We aren’t through with this (politically charged NEA controversy) yet,” said Milton Rhodes, executive director of the New York-based American Council on the Arts. “We are going to have many more problems.”

Cee Brown, a founding board member of the Washington- and New York-based National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said the organization criticized the NEA chairman for failing to defend artists in the controversy, including the “Poison” flap. “We’ve seen Mr. Frohnmayer continually sway in the wind, based on the political pressures,” Brown said. “If this ultimatum that he has received from the White House is ‘You’ve got one more,’ that is pretty worrisome.”

Arthur Krop, executive director of the liberal People for the American Way organization, said Tuesday that the latest Wildmon episode establishes that conservatives “want Frohnmayer’s head on a platter. Certainly this is a controversial grant. Unfortunately for the NEA, art is controversial. The ball is back in their court.”

The Wildmon correspondence also included renewed criticism of a decision by Frohnmayer earlier this year to go ahead with a new NEA grant to Holly Hughes, a New York-based gay feminist performance artist originally caught up in the NEA controversy last year when the arts agency stripped her and three other artists of funding. The Hughes grant has been attacked in the last three weeks by Wildmon, Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Until several weeks ago, NEA and other sources said, Frohnmayer appeared to believe that he could somehow satisfy both the White House and the arts community, which has angrily complained that the endowment has already narrowed the scope of projects it will support to an unacceptable degree.

“It is finally dawning on John that he can’t walk down the middle and that he is going to have to pick a side,” said a source familiar with Frohnmayer’s recent private statements.

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Sununu, top NEA sources said, initiated the tightened White House controls on the NEA late last year when he ordered Andrew H. Card Jr., his top assistant, to “get control” over the NEA.

Frohnmayer thwarted one effort by the White House to place a new second-in-command at the agency, but he now has a new “senior deputy chairman” who also is reportedly a White House designee.

Anne-Imelda Radice, former head of the division of creative arts at the United States Information Agency, was named to the NEA’s No. 2 post earlier this month. Frohnmayer has spoken favorably of Radice, who is seen as possibly destined to be acting chairman if Frohnmayer departs.

The situation has begun to rouse criticism from liberals that President Bush has been unwilling to defend either the arts in general or the NEA in particular. In a Washington speech last week, New York University president and former congressman John Brademas questioned Bush’s commitment to the arts. Brademas was co-chair of a special commission set up by Congress last year to examine the NEA.

Brademas compared Bush’s defense of the NEA to the assignment of anti-aircraft defenses to protect Israel and Saudi Arabia from Iraqi missile attacks in the Persian Gulf War.

“You and I know that when the Scuds were fired at the NEA,” Brademas said, “No Patriots were fired from the White House.”

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Times Staff Writer David J. Fox also contributed to this article.

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