The case for publisher Barney Rosset’s place as a hero in post-war America’s battle for freedom of expression is persuasively argued in “Obscene.” Fascinating feature docu bow of Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor recounts the tumultuous career and turbulent personal life of the Grove Press and Evergreen Review kingpin, showing how his legal battles challenged and changed obscenity laws, creating room for literary and film works that pushed the boundaries of established American morality. A lively blend of choice archival materials and interviews, pic could sustain arthouse play before finding a larger audience through broadcast and ancillary.
Following Rosset to the present day, pacey, info-packed film shows him still vibrant and active, despite having spent his entire savings on the press which he lost control of in 1985. No hagiography, docu also tracks his peccadilloes and contradictions. Born in Chicago in 1922, the only child of a Jewish banker and his Irish Catholic wife, Rosset supported left wing causes from an early age. At the progressive Parker School, he founded a newspaper with classmate Haskell Wexler called “Anti-Everything.”
After a year at Swarthmore, Rosset served in the Army Signal Corps. In 1948, he produced “Strange Victory,” a documentary about American racism.
Living in New York City with first wife, abstract painter Joan Mitchell, Rosset moved in a milieu of creative artists and thinkers. Many of them would later help make Grove Press, which he purchased in 1951, a nexus of cultural change.
Among Grove’s initial publications was “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. But it was the printing of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in non-conformist literary magazine Evergreen Review that launched Rosset’s first legal battle over obscenity. Winning that case opened the door for Grove to publish long-banned books.
The postmaster general took umbrage over Grove’s paperback of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” prohibiting it from being mailed. Rosset challenged the postmaster in court. His victory and the subsequent notoriety translated into good sales.
Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” presented a longer and more expensive legal battle. Grove’s move into film distribution with Swedish sex pic “I Am Curious Yellow” catalyzed a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
At the same time as Grove brought to national prominence art and artists of the American and European counter-culture as well as ethnic and Third World literature, bills were being paid with a better selling line of Victorian erotica, furthering Rosset’s reputation as the “old smut peddler.”
Chronology of Rosset’s last years at the press (beset by financial problems, government surveillance, grenade attacks and occupation of premises by enraged feminists) and the role of Grove Film Distribution receive short shrift in comparison with time spent on censorship battles.
Ortenberg and O’Connor assemble a cast of writers, editors and cultural commentators who testify to trail-blazing role of Grove and Rosset’s unique importance, but more interesting are the candid interviews Rosset gave over the years. Prize among them is a chat with Screw publisher Al Goldstein.
Playful editing and well-chosen music tracks give a flavor of the eras in which Grove thrived. Incorporating a variety of different formats, tech credits are uneven.