Obscene

2008, Movie, NR, 97 mins

Review

Obscene, Barney Rosset
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Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg engrossing documentary about the life and times of publisher Barney Rosset, who spent much of his career advancing the cause of free expression, is a flawless match of style and subject.

Born into a wealthy Chicago family, Rosset grew up to be a restless free thinker with the means to drift through life, fraternizing with writers, artist and political rebels until he figured out what he wanted to do. The answer came in the form of a peace offering from his second wife, painter Joan Mitchell, who had just left him: A small, Greenwich Village-based publishing company called Grove Press, whose three-book catalogue consisted entirely of vintage obscuriana, was for sale. Rosset bought it and in 1958 published D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, copies of which the US Postal Service confiscated on the grounds that it was pornography rather than literature. Rosset went to court, won and proved the old adage about bad publicity. Chatterley was a hit and Grove Press had a niche: Politically and socially controversial literature and non-fiction, including Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Allan Ginsburg's Howl, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a portion of Che Guevara's diaries and Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn. Rosset created a separate imprint, Black Cat, to publish Victorian erotica; introduced a 1961 television production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel; and briefly branched out into film distribution, starting with 1967'S censorship-defying I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW). He founded the magazine Evergreen Review, whose text and illustrations rivaled those of Grove Press' most provocative books; hosted a radio show; and made and lost several fortunes, at one point keeping Grove afloat by selling off chunks of prime East Hampton real estate he bought as a young man. Rosset made friends and alienated people in equal numbers, was spied on by the FBI, indulged liberally in drugs and alcohol, burned through four marriages and eventually sold Grove Press, only to be unceremoniously fired by the new owners.

Rosset is a hugely entertaining storyteller (the clips from his appearance on Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue are hilarious), and Ortenberg and O'Connor assembled a lively mix of archival materials and interviews with a wide-ranging selection of Rosset's friends, former employees, admirers and acquaintances. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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