The NEA Defends Funding of Controversial Film : Arts endowment: NEA chief John Frohnmayer terms the avant-garde work ‘Poison’ ‘neither prurient nor obscene’ in a move to head off swelling criticism from conservative groups.


In an abrupt shift of tactics, the beleaguered chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts on Friday fervently endorsed the controversial NEA-funded film “Poison” as the “work of a serious artist dealing with the serious issue” of family violence.

John E. Frohnmayer, trying to head off swelling criticism of the film from conservative groups, told a press conference that though the avant-garde movie includes depictions of homosexual sex, it is “neither prurient nor obscene.”

“I don’t suppose most Americans would object to their tax dollars being used for a film (about how) violence is destructive to the family,” he said.


“Poison” was made by first-time director Todd Haynes for $250,000, including a $25,000 NEA grant to pay for post-production work. In January, the film won the grand jury prize for dramatic feature at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The Rev. Donald Wildmon, of the Mississippi-based American Family Assn., has attacked it in a letter-writing campaign for its “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.”

Frohnmayer, caught in a cross-fire between artists and conservative groups since he took office 17 months ago, has defended NEA-subsidized works only infrequently, and usually indirectly. By taking the unusual step of calling a press conference to endorse an as-yet-unreleased work, Frohnmayer earned quick praise from artist groups, and predictions from conservatives that he might be only compounding his problems.

“(NEA officials have) given up their usual bunker mentality and now they’re coming out swinging,” said Kerry Knott, an aide to Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), who wants to abolish the agency. But Knott predicted the added publicity “will probably just increase the pressure on the White House to do something.”

Roman Popadiuk, deputy White House press secretary, said on Thursday in response to a question about Frohnmayer that President Bush “still supports him.”

Frohnmayer also insisted that if his job is in jeopardy, “it’s news to me. . . . The President has been supportive of me in public and private statements, in every instance.”

Yet it is also clear that some White House aides are willing to have Frohnmayer ousted to quiet the clamor of conservative groups, which maintain that “Poison” demonstrates that the NEA intends to keep underwriting works they believe have objectionable sexual content.


“ ‘Poison’ shows that the problems of the NEA are pervasive,” said Jim Smith, lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission.

He said his group plans to speak out this summer during deliberations on the NEA appropriations bill. He said the group would call for Congress to oust Frohnmayer and impose specific restrictions on the content of NEA-funded works.

The film includes three segments: one about an abused young boy, the second about a disfigured medical researcher and the third about an abused youth in a brutal French prison.

Reached in San Francisco, Haynes said he was “elated and proud that they came out for the film as strong as they did . . . The film was made to confront the issue of what happens when laws are broken, and people need to see it.”

The New York-based Haynes also acknowledged that Wildmon’s objections could help attendance at the film “particularly if the issue drags on. . . . I think we’re in for some success.”

Officials of groups representing artists’ interests said Frohnmayer’s explicit support was overdue.


“I think it’s great that the endowment wants to keep the record straight,” said Charlotte Murphy, executive director of the National Assn. of Artists Organizations. Frohnmayer “should have done this from the start; I hope he keeps doing it.”

But she said the real test will come if the controversy grows, and members of Congress begin calling for action. “When things become really hot, will Frohnmayer stick to his guns?” she asked.

Frohnmayer noted that the panel of jurors at Sundance included such filmmakers as Catherine Wyler, co-producer of “Memphis Belle,” and Gus Van Zant, director of “Drugstore Cowboy.”

The NEA chairman began his remarks with a description of his own background that seemed an attempt to establish his ties to traditional American values:

“I grew up in a small town in Southern Oregon, played football, sang in the church choir, was loved by my family and learned what I believed are American values.”

NEA officials had originally planned to screen the film for reporters, but changed their mind at the last moment. Frohnmayer declined to explain the change of heart, but officials of conservative groups contended the NEA feared a screening might undercut their arguments about the film’s social merit.


“Poison” distributor Zeitgeist Films plans to open the film in New York on Friday, in Los Angeles on June 5 and in San Francisco June 7, though the current attention being paid it may mean earlier openings, according to Haynes.