Directors: Daniel O’Connor, Neil Ortenberg
Producers: Neil Ortenberg, Daniel O’Connor, Tanya Ager Meillier, Alexander Meillier
Starring: Barney Rosset, Amiri Baraka, Jim Carroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Al Goldstein, Erica Jong, Ray Manzarek, Michael McClure, John Rechy, Ed Sanders, John Sayles, Gore Vidal, John Waters
MPAA Rating: 14A
Running time: 97 min
Imagine if you can, for just a moment for any more than that will likely break your heart, a literary landscape without the likes of D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” That world was avoided thanks mostly to one man: Barney Rosset.
Sometimes referred to as a “Smut Peddler” but more accurately described by current Grove Press editor Ira Silverberg as “the last maverick in American publishing”, Rosset came to own Grove Press in the early 50’s on a sort of whim. Over the next 40 years, Rosset and his publishing company turned into the most influential alternative book press in the United States publishing a long list of, now considered, classic authors and works and even a number of prize winners. Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg’s documentary Obscene attempts to tell Rosset’s story from the early beginnings of his career as a student to where he is today: a man in his mid 80’s reminiscing about what used to be.
O’Connor and Ortenberg’s film starts off with 60’s style visuals, appropriate considering that most of the publisher’s major accomplishments came during the sexual revolution. With full access to Rosset’s personal collection of audio and video archives along with Rosset’s openness to discussing his past and a number of new interviews, Obscene lays out all of the facts. The film chronicles the various trials and tribulations that led Grove Press into the limelight and which also caused the publisher’s eventual downfall. It’s made clear from early on that Rosset was the heart and brains of the operation. So much so that when the company came upon hard times, Rosset sacrificed his personal fortune to keep it afloat and though the plan worked for a number of years, the time eventually came when he could no longer bail out his labour of love.
Thought the film’s running time is crammed full of interesting interviews, factoids and history, it’s rather lackluster. One aspect of Rosset’s appeal is his colourful personality which comes through in both the archival footage and the material he published but the film’s visuals are boring in comparison. The combination of talking heads, archival footage and cross cuts of book covers adequately provides the facts but is rather uninteresting. Thankfully, the subject matter more than compensates for the lack of creativity in the execution.
Barney Rosset is an American luminary. A man well ahead of his time, he fought for freedom of speech and his battles are apparent on every magazine and book stand today yet most people won’t recognize the name Grove Press never-mind the man behind it. Obscene is not the most innovative documentary and as the credits roll, the omissions are obvious (where are the discussion of what – outside censorship – Rosset objects to? What does he find offensive?) but it tells the interesting story of a fascinating literary figure; a man whose accomplishments should not be forgotten.
Click “play” to see the trailer: