Obscene (2008)



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Barney Rosset acquired the fledgling Grove Press in 1951 and soon embarked on a tumultuous career of publishing and political engagement that continues to inspire today's defenders of free expression. Not only was he the first American publisher of acclaimed authors Samuel Beckett, Kenzaburo Oe, Tom Stoppard, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X, but he also battled the government in the highest courts to overrule the obscenity ban on groundbreaking works of fiction such as "Lady Chatterley's Lover," "Tropic of Cancer" and "Naked Lunch." Ultimately he won and altered the course of history, but not without first enduring lawsuits, death-threats, grenade attacks, government surveillance, and the occupation of his premises by enraged feminists. But the same unyielding and reckless energy Rosset used to publish and distribute controversial works such as Allen Ginsberg's "How!," the Swedish film "I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW)," and the provocative Evergreen Review, also brought him perilously close to destruction.
Documentary , Special Interest
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Critic Reviews for Obscene

All Critics (25) | Top Critics (9)

The focus of Obscene remains steadfastly on the man, thanks to a rich variety of archival and interview clips that span his entire career and a slew of colleagues, fiends and enemies.

Full Review… | November 21, 2008
Seattle Times
Top Critic

Though Obscene tells the story without fully exploring its nuances, that story is both fascinating and more than a little inspiring.

October 2, 2008
AV Club
Top Critic

A compelling documentary about [Barney Rosset] directed by neophytes Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor.

Full Review… | September 26, 2008
New York Post
Top Critic

A warm, entertaining compendium of counterculture voices (including Jim Carroll and Amiri Baraka) and literary landmarks.

September 25, 2008
New York Times
Top Critic

Filled with reminiscence and laughter, this lively and largely adoring documentary looks back on the life and work of Barney Rosset, best known as the longtime owner of Grove Press.

Full Review… | September 24, 2008
Time Out
Top Critic

[A] very fine documentary.

Full Review… | September 24, 2008
Village Voice
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Obscene


The Word Has Never Been Written or Uttered Which Should Not Be Published We are kicking off Banned Books Week with a tribute to Barney Rosset. He is not the most pleasant of people, but he is a hero to the fight against censorship. As the publisher of Grove Press and [i]The Evergreen Review[/i], he led the fight to get [i]Lady Chatterley's Lover[/i] published in the United States. [i]Tropic of Cancer[/i]. [i]Naked Lunch[/i]. [i]I Am Curious (Yellow)[/i], when he branched into film. Basically, his entire career was based on fighting for your right to read whatever you want to. Oh, and his right to publish it, but he didn't make any money at it and indeed lost a fortune on court expenses. He had thousands of copies of [i]Tropic of Cancer[/i] sitting in a warehouse, because he could only afford court battles for one book at a time and he was already fighting for [i]Lady Chatterley's Lover[/i]. Barney Rosset was the son of a banker. During World War II, he worked with the film division of the Army Signal Corps. And after the war, he somehow drifted into publishing. If there was a court case involving censorship in the US in the second half of the twentieth century that involved neither the schools nor actual pornography, odds are pretty good it did involve Barney Rosset. He became the American publisher for such writers as Samuel Beckett and Pablo Neruda. He published Malcolm X and Che Guevara--and got his office bombed for the latter. He pursued First Amendment cases to the Supreme Court--and then had to keep fighting the case in court, because apparently that means less than people think it does. He doesn't seem to have been a very good businessman on top of that, and his attitude toward women was a bit lacking. Though he also assumed that the people trying to unionize his office were feminists teamed up with the FBI. It is true that he was under government surveillance, but that seems to me to be a bit much. The important cases are not always won by the most worthwhile people. Rosset was half-Jewish, but there seems to have been a strong streak of antisemitism to him. When he was a child, his father (the Jewish parent) told him never to marry a Jewish girl, and he never did, though he did marry four other women over the years. Apparently, he used to spend quite a lot of time belittling one of his wives over the office intercom. I mean, I spent quite a lot of the movie very angry at him as a person. He seems to have had a strong sense of entitlement, though he did also seem determined to use that to better the world. One of the things he felt he was most entitled to was his First Amendment rights, and I can't argue that point. I'm not sure he was ever really interested in most of what he published for its literary merit, but I don't really think he had to be for it to be worthwhile. The point was that he thought it needed to be published, and that overcomes a lot in my opinion. And it is true that you don't have to think something is worth reading to think that it has a right to be published. I find [i]Catcher in the Rye[/i] to be remarkably boring, as it happens. I read it in high school, which is when you're supposed to in order to be most moved by it, and I hated it. I thought Holden Caulfield was a whiny little snot who deserved everything bad that happened to him. I've never read [i]Naked Lunch[/i] and probably never will. I could go on. Literature is very personal, and what's meaningful to you is not necessarily meaningful to someone else. But to deny it publication because of the harm it might do? Ridiculous. After all, our government was created in part because of revolutionary literature. It's probably why the First Amendment is, well, [i]first[/i]. Our country would not exist without the Founding Fathers' ability to say and publish what they wanted, and believing what you want just naturally connects to the rest of it. I studied banned books in college, actually. I'm not sure how much I read that was originally published in the US by Grove Press, but I know I received the benefits of Barney Rosset's life work. I do believe in the concept of "age appropriate"; I have argued in favour of the NC-17 rating, for example, and one or two of the books I read for that study, I thought, "Well, I get taking this out of an elementary school. But high school?" However, declaring things obscene and unable to be published or sold in a certain jurisdiction is taking choices away from adults, and that's ridiculous. Now, I don't remember my mother's ever having censored what I was allowed to read, probably on the grounds that, if I was capable of reading it, I could decide for myself if I got the concepts. However, that was Mom's choice. I was her child and her responsibility, and no one had the right to tell her that I wasn't allowed to read things she thought I could. Whatever else he did, Barney Rosset fought to let us all make our own choices.

Edith Nelson
Edith Nelson

"Obscene" is an illuminating documentary about the legendary Grove Press and its longtime owner, Barney Rosset who felt there was "no word uttered that should not be published." While it may seem reductive to think of a single source for the challenges to repression in the fifties, Rosset was certainly responsible for much of it. Amazingly enough, it came down to his being in the right place at the right time after a failed attempt to break into the film business with a documentary about racism called "Strange Victory," made shortly after World War II.(He would get another chance when Grove Press distributed "I Am Curious(Yellow)" in America.) The opportunity of Grove Press arrived through his first wife(by one count Rosset has been married four times), allowing him to not only publish the works of Samuel Beckett, but also courting controversy and court cases by publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, amongst others. That's not to mention the scrutiny from intelligence agencies for publishing the Autobiography of Malcolm X and excerpts from Che Guevara's diary.(The biography of Che I have was published by Grove Press.) He also founded the literary journal Evergreen Review which brought "Howl" to the public during its court case.(In fact, Evergreen Review is still going strong on the internet.) Along with fiction and articles, the magazine contained erotica which so inflamed then congressman Gerald Ford that he called for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for simply writing an article in it. In fact, Grove Press made a lot of money from erotica which made up for its boom and bust cycles. So, it might not come as a surprise to some that Rosset was not on especially good terms with women's rights groups(A televised interview with Al Goldstein framing the documentary does nobody any favors.) and actually fought the unionization of the publishing house.

Walter M.
Walter M.

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