Barney Rosset is one of the most important and influential publishers of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most important figures in the history of the battle against censorship in America. Obscene: A Biography of the Life and Career of Renowned Publisher Barney Rosset, directed by first time filmmakers Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor, is a fascinating, fast-paced and funny documentary on the fearless man behind many of the most provocative works of literature and art of the 20th century.
Rosset began his career intending to follow his first love by going into film. He served in the Army’s film corps during World War II, and in 1949, he produced Strange Victory, a documentary film about African-American World War II veterans returning home to an incomprehensible climate of renewed racism. Says Rosset of that experience, “A lot of the film we used we got from the American government … So our government let us have the material which, in a way, said bad things about itself. I admired that!” So even before he became a legend in literary circles, it seems Rosset was subverting the system in the name of freedom, rights and expression, he was employing the establishment itself to expose what was then a very anti-establishment message.
When Rosset became, rather suddenly and impulsively it seems, the publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review in 1951, he also became firmly entrenched in his own war against the establishment and its antiquated moral ideas. Obscene traces the publishing company and the periodical through its tribulations and first triumphs by providing interviews with colleagues, clients, and Rosset himself. It becomes very clear during the lively discussions and remembrances that almost all of the works Grove Press published over the years had little to do with standard business practices or shrewd profit speculation, but had everything to do with Rosset’s personal tastes, literary heroes and strong beliefs about freedom of expression in America.
Throughout his career, Rosset endured lawsuits, death-threats, grenade attacks, government surveillance and all manner of harassment in order to support his rights to publish as he saw fit, and others’ rights to write, produce and create regardless of whether or not their works offended some outdated, puritanical sensibilities. Obscene examines these hardships—and Rosset’s missteps—as closely as it details his successes and subsequent popularity with the counterculture movement and the artists of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The film weaves a score with music by Bob Dylan, The Doors, Warren Zevon, X, Ella Fitzgerald and Patti Smith, into never-before-seen interview footage of, among others, Amiri Baraka, Jim Carroll, John Waters, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenny Bruce, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Henry Miller.
Bonus features on the DVD include the documentary’s original theatrical trailer and seven additional segments, one of which is an excellent extended interview with the man himself. In fact, throughout Obscene, it is Rosset’s segments that are the most intriguing, the most entertaining, and, obviously, the most illuminating.
Rosset explains, “If you want to know the person I am, look at the books I publish.” Given that he was the first American publisher of groundbreaking and controversial playwrights, authors and revolutionaries like Samuel Beckett, Kenzaburo Oe, Tom Stoppard, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X; noting that many of the writers of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs were published by Grove Press and knowing that he fought (and usually won) several times in the highest courts to overrule obscenity bans on such seminal works as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, it’s clear that Rosset is a person for whom passion, conviction and, above all, individuality are the ideals worthiest of pursuit. With the first decade of the 21st century showing a frightening backsliding toward a Draconian censorship of a great many American freedoms, he’s the kind of person we could use more of these days.