A ‘Poison’ Pill for NEA? : Todd Haynes’ Film Sparks a New Arts Battle


You could call Todd Haynes, 30, a quintessential Valley Boy.

He grew up in Encino, learning to read and write at Lanai Road School, and later attending Gaspar De Portola Junior High--both as Valley as can be. Eventually, Haynes got his diploma from the alternative private Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

As will happen in Southern California, he ended up having gone to high school with someone who became a star--Elizabeth McGovern, whom Haynes and people who knew him in high school described as his best friend.

The possibility that his creative work would ultimately find itself at the center of a political controversy over federal government funding of the arts never occurred to him--then, anyway.


Weekends as a Valley teen-ager, Haynes recalled a few days ago, he virtually lived at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles and at the Fox Venice Theater. He developed a passion for film that, he said, made Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and the late German New Wave director R. W. Fassbinder loom parent-like.

Of the fascination with Bergman, Haynes said, “I’m embarrassed about that now.” Fassbinder, he said, was a taste acquired later. He mourns the passing of the Fox Venice as one might lament the death of a childhood friend. “I guess,” he said, “that I was raised to go into the movies.”

He went public with his homosexuality in high school and said that his family--a middle-class unit that includes an intact parental marriage, a sister, Wendy, 27, and a younger brother, Shawn, 20, a student at USC--supported him completely.

He left the Valley and Los Angeles after high school, and except for a brief return to Southern California when he took some time off from Brown University (where he received a degree in art, film and modern theories of art), he has lived in New York City ever since.

He is scheduled to visit Los Angeles again on April 18 for an appearance at a UCLA screening of his second film, “Poison.” It is an intercut trilogy with strong gay and heterosexual erotic themes, based loosely on the work of the late French writer Jean Genet. It deals, directly and metaphorically, with issues from AIDS to forced homosexual relationships and family disintegration.

It has three scenes depicting homosexual anal sex or erotic interactions--one with the actors naked. There is a scene showing a young boy watching his mother make love to the family gardener. In another, a group of reformatory inmates spit into the face and mouth of another youth.


The picture won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but had, until less than three weeks ago, seemed destined for certain art film obscurity.

The UCLA screening was scheduled weeks ago. But that was before “Poison” emerged as the newest aggravating factor in the stubborn controversy over the legitimacy of government support of the artistic media that has kept the National Endowment for the Arts on the political hot seat in Washington since early 1989.

The matter initially sent Sundance officials diving for cover. The festival first declined to permit release of photos of Haynes receiving his award at a podium prominently decorated with Sundance logos. Later, the festival issued a statement saying it “strongly supports filmmakers’ freedom of expression and firmly stands behind the (NEA) support of Todd Haynes.”

The Sundance statement also said that, “like all films, some people may not like ‘Poison.’ But that is not at issue here. The ability to express an independent vision through film is the basis of the Sundance program. The Sundance Film Festival will continue to be a place where these visions can be explored.”

NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer has selected “Poison” as the battleground on which he will defend his position--in question in the wake of a rocky relationship with senior White House officials--as head of the government arts agency.

With the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Assn. taking the lead, conservative groups contend that an NEA decision to give Haynes a $25,000 grant for the film is sufficient grounds for Frohnmayer’s firing. Last Friday, Frohnmayer called a press conference to stand his ground. The “Poison” episode is the first in the long-running NEA controversy to involve film. Frohnmayer’s defense of Haynes was also the first time the NEA chairman has pointedly come to the aid of a specific artistic work under right-wing attack.


The arts endowment held a screening of “Poison”--which is scheduled to open in New York later this week--Monday in Washington. While the showing was intended primarily for reporters, it was also attended by representatives of at least a half-dozen conservative religious and political organizations.

A second showing, for congressional staffers, was scheduled for Tuesday. How “Poison” plays to Capitol Hill is likely to have a great deal to do with whether Frohnmayer remains in office and whether new attempts are made to rein in the NEA legislatively. None has yet materialized, but the “Poison” flap could affect government policy on public support of the arts.

After they sat through the 80-minute Haynes film on Monday, two of the organizations represented--televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention--renewed calls for Frohnmayer’s ouster.

“I’ve seen more artistically meritorious productions on ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’ ” said Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Baptist group.

“Now that we have seen it, I’m not at all ashamed or concerned about speaking directly to the movie,” Smith said. “It was perverse and denigrating and violent and homoerotic. Frohnmayer . . . is not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. Most Americans would be both perplexed and outraged that their tax dollars would be used for trash like this.”

Artist groups greeted Frohnmayer’s defense enthusiastically last week, but the one national arts group that has publicly called for Frohnmayer to quit because of earlier disputes with the creative community declined to rescind its statement. Joy Silverman, interim director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said Frohnmayer’s actions to support the film have not yet established enough consistency to make it possible for artists to trust the beleaguered NEA chairman.


That all of this has occurred as a proximate result of a film he made has left Haynes perplexed but not necessarily surprised. When Genet died in 1986, it was a blow to Haynes, for whom the Frenchman had been a hero figure and a favored author.

In deciding to make “Poison,” Haynes said, “I really felt compelled to know more about what (Genet’s) feelings and ideas would have been about what is happening currently in our world--things such as the extreme return to the right and, certainly, the AIDS epidemic. It was my feeling to try to take (as inspiration) some of the themes (that permeate) his work, addressing transgression and the whole nature of deviance.”

While a gay sex-laden prison sequence subtitled “Homo” was what first attracted the attention of conservatives, led by Wildmon, Haynes said other elements of the film are richer in symbolism and have a broader thematic focus. “Horror,” another of the three story lines, was filmed in black and white to emulate the look and feel of 1960s B-movies. The genre imitated by “Horror,” Haynes said, relied on “overly determined moralistic narratives that would take care of some threat to society, and I was struck by how much it reminded me of representations of AIDS in the mass media.”

In the sequence, the central character, Dr. Thomas Graves, isolates a serum that controls sex drive and then inadvertently drinks it, leading to his own infection with a leprosy-like disorder.

The three story elements are so extensively intercut--the third is entitled “Hero”--that viewing “Poison” is almost like flipping channels on a cable television selector box. “Filmgoers today are very sophisticated, especially the video-fluent filmgoer who flips around, recombining stories, on a daily basis,” Haynes said. Such a person, he said, “knows how to read a story on a fragment (and can) see a fragment of a horror film and know where he is.”

Haynes graduated from Brown in 1985 and moved to New York determined to get into film but unwilling to follow traditional career pathways working at entry-level production jobs for fear such an approach would be too conventional. Instead, he found work crating and uncrating artworks at galleries to support himself.


At one time, he concluded his own approach to film would never be commercially viable and resolved himself to a career in teaching. But eventually, he formed Apparatus Inc., a nonprofit organization, with another New York filmmaker, Christine Vachon, producer of “Poison.”

In 1987, Haynes made the 43-minute “Superstar,” a production in which the entire cast was Barbie dolls--with furniture and other set elements fabricated by Haynes--and treated issues of anorexia framed by the death of singer Karen Carpenter.

Because the film relied on the unauthorized use of the Carpenters’ music, its run was short-lived. Attorneys representing the Carpenters demanded the film be withdrawn, but not before it had achieved a certain prominence in avant-garde circles.

When the time came to apply for NEA funding for “Poison,” Haynes said he was put off by a controversial requirement implemented by Frohnmayer last year under which artists had to certify in writing they would not create obscene work.

Haynes recognized that, depending on the political perspective of the critic, “Poison” might have a problem. The NEA, he said, received a copy of the film’s script, among other application materials. The NEA declined to comment, except to say that an internal inquiry was attempting to discover if the script was in the agency’s possession.

Given his reservations--Haynes signed the certification, but attached a disclaimer--the filmmaker said he found himself bemused by Frohnmayer’s decision to draw a line in the sand in front of “Poison.”


“I was stunned by the ambiguous message I was getting from the NEA. I wonder, given Frohnmayer’s really affirmative reaction to ‘Poison’ and his rallying to freedom of expression what he’d have to say about (requiring the anti-obscenity certification of artists) in looking back,” Haynes said.

“His statements seemed to waver on a daily basis. I really didn’t know where he stood. They had every opportunity to reject the grant and every bit of information about what the film included was in their hands.”