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

April 03, 1991|ALLAN PARACHINI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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