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Obscene (2007)

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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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Credited cast:
Amiri Baraka ...
Lenny Bruce ...
Himself (archive footage)
Himself (archive footage)
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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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27 February 2009 (UK)  »

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A publisher from a time when 'maverick' meant something
27 September 2008 | by (Berkeley, California) – See all my reviews

Barney Rossett was the son of a Chicago banker who went to the highly experimental Francis W. Parker School and was always a maverick, in days when the word still meant something. But he was also, early on, a public success. He became president of the class, editor, captain of the football team, where he played with is best friend, the great cinematographer and fellow progressive Haskell Wexler. "In grammar school I was already checked out by the FBI as a local troublemaker," Rossett says. The school itself was so progressive the teachers arranged for students to sleep with each other and Barney slept with his first love that way. Rossett shot shaky 16 mm. films of Europe with his family traveling there in 1937, which we see (his father gave him the bad advice that the camera should always be kept moving). Rossett was in the army in WWII as an ill-prepared filmmaker; he wangled his way in with the likes of Frank Capra and John Huston, and well knew he was out of his depth, but still got some good stills in the aftermath of the war in the Pacific, and he saw a still beautiful Shanghai--full of young pretty women.

Barney Rossett always loved film--and much later achieved some of his greatest financial success by distributing the controversial I am Curious (Yellow). Right after the army, Rossett brought out a documentary film called Strange Victory depicting how racism in America meant that Hitler had followed the soldiers back home. No one would touch it. He rented some theaters in New York and showed it and that was that. His film career was a bust. But after Swarthmore College he was living in the village and chance led him to buy a tiny failing publishing house a girlfriend found down the street called Grove Press--it only had three titles, Melville's novel 'The Confidence Man,' some writings of the 18th-century English novelist 'Aphra Behn,' and a volume of the poems of Richard Crashaw.

The importance of Barney Rossett and Grove Press for the cultural growth of America in the crucial years of the 50's, 60's and 70's is incalculable. The books he published! 'Lady Chatterley's Lover,' then, harder to defend in court, Henry Miller's 'Tropic of Cancer,' later, even more radical, William Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch.' All of these were court cases that Rossett, with the support of the literary establishment, won. Samuel Beckett: the novels and the plays. 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' (this too very radical at the time). The memoirs of Che Guevara. Working with Beckett is Paris Rossett had inklings of the genius of the man and learned he was also sweet. "I thought this was probably as good as it gets, and I was right," he says in the film. They became good friends.

Grove published French avant-garde writers like Robbe-Grillet, Genet, and Ionesco; American Beats Kerouac, the aforementioned Burroughs, and Ginsberg (whose City Lights San Francisco Howl court case was another 50's landmark for publishing freedom. The press published works of Pinter, unexpurgated Marquis de Sade, Kenzaburo Oe. Beckett led to Pinter and Pinter to Mamet, like a baseball play, in Rossett's view. Other important authors are: Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones, Dr. Eric Berne, Jakov Lind, Yukio Mishima, Bertolt Brecht, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco, Amos Tutuola. Hubert Selby, Jr. The press was the country's most distinctive for its quality and audacity. After Grove was famous, Rossett bought a library full of Victorian pornography and began publishing that. And it was a steady provider of income; but whether it was high art or not, what he brought out was material that he personally believed in. It just happens to have been some of the most daring and important stuff of the last half century.

He didn't do it for the money and he wasn't a good businessman. The court cases were draining. In the 70's Grove Press was attacked by a radical feminist group who tried to take over half the business, claiming it published misogynist texts that were unfair to women. Some maybe were. The Story of O was in the list. There was a move to unionize and there was a bombing. All this was destructive. Rossett once owned an estate in the Hamptons and a mile of East Hampton beach front property. He had to sell it all off. He is sorry that he sold the press, which happened in 1985. The purchasers, Ann Getty and Lord George Weidenfeld , didn't tell him they would kick him out, but they did. He's "broke" now (the film shows him going up a lot of stairs to a big lower Manhattan apartment). Despite one colleague's fears that he'd die young because of his penchant for amphetamines and rum and Cokes, he's very much alive at 86 and has just finished his autobiography. The documentary, which was made by two young men who're maverick publishers themselves, has a lot of interesting period footage, including an interview with Rossett on Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein's old cable television show, "Midnight Blue," in which Mr. Goldstein rudely quizzes Mr. Rosset about his four marriages and, as Charles McGrath puts it in an excellent recent article in the NYTimes, "in general interviews him not as a major cultural figure but as a fellow smut peddler." Rossettreplies with good humor and unguardedly. There are appropriate songs by Bob Dylan, the Doors, Warren Zevon and Patti Smith. Footage of the Hampton estate and the family, when his elder son Peter was a tow-headed boy and Rossett cavorts on the beach and on the lawn with a favorite German Shepherd, are sad to watch because it's all lost now.

But the books live on. And so does Rossett's magazine, 'Evergreen Review,' which was a bible of the Seventies and attacked Gerald Ford(it inspired Jim Carroll, one of many interesting talking heads), and which he did not sell. It can be found online at

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