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Obscene (2007)

6.9
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Ratings: 6.9/10 from 177 users   Metascore: 73/100
Reviews: 6 user | 24 critic | 7 from Metacritic.com

A look at the life and work of American publisher Barney Rosset, who struggled to bring controversial works like "Tropic of Cancer" and "Naked Lunch" to publication.

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A look at the life and work of American publisher Barney Rosset, who struggled to bring controversial works like "Tropic of Cancer" and "Naked Lunch" to publication.

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A Giggling Freedom-Fighter to Remember
8 September 2008 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

San Francisco's Roxie Theater had a week's run of "Obscene" at the beginning of September 2008. I sat in an audience of four during the Sunday matinée. This seemed a sad turnout for a major documentary on the eccentric, revolutionary, beyond-category Barney Rosset (Barnet Rosset, Jr.), a publisher and film champion who reshaped American letters during his Grove Press years. Without him certain of your important freedoms would only be theories on paper.

How much opposition did Grove Press and its EVERGREEN REVIEW magazine present to the Establishment? "Obscene" shows CBS reporting the 1975 findings of a U.S. commission which investigated domestic espionage by the Central Intelligence Agency. The investigators found that the CIA had exceeded its charter and the law in its domestic surveillance. The number three target for its illegal eavesdropping was Rosset's Grove Press.

Have you seen "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004)? Rosset published only one chapter of Che Guevara's memoirs in THE EVERGREEN REVIEW and his office got bombed the next night. "Obscene" tells us that Doubleday, already the publisher of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), feared to abrade public opinion by printing the autobiography that the Muslim leader had told to Alex Haley. Grove Press issued the book in 1965, just after Malcolm's murder. THE NEW YORK TIMES declined to review it. Contemplate those events. Measure the distance we have traveled as a people. You may thank Barney Rosset for helping us along. He's still alive. He can hear you.

A compulsive defender of your civil liberties, Rosset published D. H. Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER in 1959. (French motion picture: 1955; British movie: 1981). He followed with Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER and William Burroughs' THE NAKED LUNCH (film adaptation by David Cronenberg in 1991). He could have gone to prison each time, as Dwight Eisenhower's gloating postmaster general reminds us in "Obscene".

Imagine those thrilling days of yesteryear when Ike chaired the military-industrial complex. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. poisoned the atmosphere with nuclear testing. A maze of federal, state, and local law prevented you from reading about Connie Chatterley or from ever seeing some of America's most experimental writing. Brusque men arrested and prosecuted and jailed anyone who imported or published or sold such works.

Today I can find a working plastic replica of Jana Cova's vagina in an tourist store. I can watch a "Sex and the City" episode with Charlotte ogling a penis-shaped vibrator. In the 1950's Hugh Hefner would have been locked up for menacing the republic had he shown pubic hair in PLAYBOY. Barney Rosset changed that atmosphere of hypocrisy,repression, and an outward conformity to rigidly limited ideals. He didn't labor alone, but he did act pivotally.

Consider the enlightened Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. While we warred on poverty and escalated troops in Vietnam, Ralph Ginzberg got a stay in the slammer for mailing ads for EROS from the township of Middlesex, New Jersey. That postmark decisively convinced the Supreme Court of 1966 that he was not serious in intent. Edward Mishkin also did time for offending New York State with sadomasochistic imagery believed by the Court to lack redeeming social significance.

Justice William O. Douglas protested in a dissenting opinion that we cannot determine what significance such images may have for an individual. "Obscene" shows Congressman Gerald Ford demanding Douglas's impeachment for such views. Ford damns Douglas in part because he published an article in Rosset's EVERGREEN REVIEW. House Republican Leader Ford does not discuss the content of the article, merely the venue.

Grove Press put out the standard editions of Bertolt Brecht, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Pauline Reage, and the unexpurgated Marquis de Sade. Rosset brought new, major talent onto the American intellectual scene, including Samuel Beckett, Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones, Dr. Eric Berne, Jakov Lind, Yukio Mishima, Harold Pinter, and Amos Tutuola. Hubert Selby, Jr.'s thorny but eloquent LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN gets referenced in the "Obscene" end title song (the book hit celluloid with Jennifer Jason Leigh in 1989). Rosset did not make a fortune out of expanding our literary heritage, however. He impoverished himself in court case after court case, defending his--and your--First Amendment rights.

You may associate his Grove years with hardcore pornography. That cash flow paid bills, particularly in the 1970's. Brecht and Beckett do not bring Nora Roberts-sized incomes into a publishing house. In the film Rosset confesses to Al Goldstein that he published material which turned him on as well as kept his press solvent.

The film reveals that Barney's first love remained film. It copiously uses his home movies to illustrate his life. His maiden professional creative effort was the 1948 picture "Strange Victory", documenting violent racism in the U.S. and linking that vicious mindset to the Adolf Hitler we had supposedly defeated. The movie played one run in one theater.

"Obscene" discusses Grove's release of the Swedish radical import "I Am Curious (Yellow)" (1967). However, we do not hear about Rosset's other plunges into movie distribution with the pre-Stonewall "The Queen" (1968) and Yukio Mishima's "The Rite of Love and Death" (1966).

I met Barney in 1985 at the American Booksellers Association convention. Our bashful firebrand had a perpetual giggle in person. You get a touch of it in the film--but only a touch. That distinctive trait normally faded out during recorded interviews. I shook his hand at the Grove Press "booth" (some chairs around a lawn table under an umbrella). Shortly thereafter Ann Getty and Lord George Weidenfeld dumped him from Grove.

The documentary functionally stops there. It does not discuss Rosset's Blue Moon Books, which roused libidos and raised hackles by publishing more erotica from familiar names such as P. N. Dedeaux, as well as books by Martin Pyx (cited in Amazon as "a cult author"), Daniel Vian, and others Barney brought newly on board. Writers you couldn't have read in this country fifty years ago.


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