Obscene (2007)


(directors: Daniel O’Connor/Neil Ortenberg; cinematographer: Alex Meillier; editor: Tanya Meillier; music: Askold Buk; cast: William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Amiri Baraka, Al Goldstein, Barney Rosset, John Sayles, Gore Vidal, John Waters; Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alex Meillier/Tanya Meillier; Arthouse Films; 2007)

“An entertaining and engrossing film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The compelling documentary chronicles the publishing career of the always playful and testy 87-year-old Barney Rosset, the founder publisher of the controversial Grove Press. The Chicago-born Rosset bought it in 1951 and based it in Greenwich Village. He’s a radical, whose entire life has been to champion free expression by challenging censorship.

The two directors, Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg, interview Rosset, have a great interview between Screw magazine founder Al Goldstein and Rosset, many interviews with Rosset’s literary friends, plus there’s good use of archive footage. In 1958, Grove published D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The book was confiscated by the US Postal Service on the grounds that it was pornography. For the next few decades (in the late ’60s and early ’70s) Rosset published a long list of great authors that include D.T. Suzuki, William S Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Hubert Selby and many others.

Rosset’s flagship literary magazine Evergreen Review first printed Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” In 1967, Rosset distributed the erotic Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow)” to movie theaters despite threats of it not being allowed to be shown because of the censors.

Rosset’s downfall was a result of union trouble, financial woes, woman lib protests, not being able to always tell the difference between art and filth, government surveillance and alleged CIA-sponsored terrorism. But all the while he continued publishing and was a thorn in the side to right-wing Republicans like Gerald Ford.

An entertaining and engrossing film that touches base with some of Rosset’s inspirational efforts to have a free press in America.