Obscene Film Review

Submitted by K H Brown on Thu, 26 Jun '08 1.53am
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Daniel O'Connor, Neil Ortenberg (directors)
Running time

Where do the boundaries of obscenty lie for you? Consider a few possibilities:

1. D H Lawrence, with Lady Chatterley's Lover
2. William Burroughs, with The Naked Lunch
3. Assorted Victorian S&M novels by anonymous
4. Al Goldstein, with Screw magazine

If you answered that they are all obscene then this hagiographic documentary about Barney Rosset, who published the first two through the Grove Press, will probably not appeal to your sensibilities.

If you answered that the Lawrence and Burroughs are acceptable, but have increasing problems with Victorian erotica of dubious literary merit, which Rosset published under another imprint, Black Cat, or with Goldstein's unapologetic out-and-out porn, then you are probably the target viewer for the film.

But if you feel that any attempt to distinguish between what is and is not obscene is likely to be a dubious and self-defeating proposition – as I do – then you might find yourself having some questions that this film does not address.

The story begins by introducing Rosset at his Chicago high school, where he was a classmate of cinematographer and filmmaker Haskell Wexler. A trip to Europe with his parents, during which Rosset visited and filmed France, England and fascist Italy amongst other countries, apparently convinced him that war was inevitable. Committed to progressive causes and with a strong anti-authoritarian streak from the start, that encompassed viewing bank robber John Dillinger as a hero, he soon co-founded and edited a school journal whose title quickly morphed from The Communist to Anti-Everything.

It's at this point that the first unanswered question emerges: having finished college Rosset was drafted into the army. He tells us that his father, whom he did not get along particularly with, used his contacts to get him a place in the army film corps which he fully admits not really having the prior experience for. One can't help wondering if some working-class kid who had worked hard to get himself a 8mm camera and to learn the trade was thereby denied his rightful place and sent into the infantry.

Anyway, after the war Rosset migrated for a time to Paris, where he met the first of his four wives, before relocating to New York where, after spending some time moving in artistic circles, he wound up owning the Grove Press, at that time with a repertiore of a few books, and The Evergreen Review.

This is where the heroic phase of Rosset's life and career really begins, as he sought to challenge the conformity and hypocrisy of Eisenhower-era America with the release of one challenging novel after another, from Lawrence, onto Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer – which Rosset had long been fascinated with and had written a college paper on at a time when it could only be imported into the US clandestinely – then Burroughs. On each occasion, he had to fight the courts every step of the way, selling the land that had been given him as an inheritance to shore up Grove's precarious finances.

Following Burroughs, it became that just about anything went, at least as far as literature went. So Rossen turned his attention to back to his other long-term fascination, film, importing the seminal Swedish sex drama I Am Curious, Yellow. The film produced a box-office windfall even after court fees were taken into account. Yet Grove Press would, ironically, never quite recover from this.

For, like many counter-culture operations, it was not really run as a business in the conventional sense, rather emerging as one man's vision and obsession that brought out his best and worst qualities – the worst including conducting shouting matches with wife number two or three and working methods built around copious quantities of amphetamine and rum and coke.

Around about this point, as the CIA began to take an increasing interest in the operations of Grove Press another of the unanswered questions emerges as Rosset became involved in battling against a combination of feminists and unionists who wished to change the way the press operated.

His argument is that they were CIA stooges certainly seems plausible, but in terms of his progressive politics one feels that the filmmakers needed to provide more context here: Was it that the US labor unions of this time were simply out for themselves? Or was it that Rosset was moving from progressive poacher to self-protecting gamekeeper? Was it that second wave feminism potentially exposed a certain male hypocrisy in positions like Rosset's, in that when talking with Goldstein on the latter's Screw TV around about 1990 after the sale of the press he comes close to admitting to being something of a sadist himself? Or was it that Rosset saw a hypocrisy in some of these feminists, that they were imposing their own double standard by moving to restrict the freedoms of one half of the population in the name of the other?

Whatever the case on each occasion, I found myself wanting to know more than I was being told.

The third unanswered question I had centres around the likes of Goldstein, with whom Rosset apparently had some sort of argument – not that this would be difficult, given Goldstein's highly abrasive personality and outright fuck-you mentality – and the post I am Curious Yellow development of hardcore porn in the US: when Rosset was fighting against the system and for freedom of expression in the 1960s, where were his limits? That, as one interviewee recalls, he encouraged Grove's publicity department to push the Black Cat publications to be reviewed as literature in the same manner as Samuel Beckett implies that he did not, yet the very fact of having this other imprint perhaps suggests otherwise.

In the end, Rosset thus emerged as the 50s/60s generation's version of Larry Flynt, John Waters or Max Hardcore, pushing things as far as he could, but not as far as they would be taken later. And, while he is undoubtedly an interesting enough subject for a documentary, ultimately the questions the filmmakers raise about the contours and business of obscenity in the USA emerge as the more fascinating and pertinent today.

I just wish someone would do a similar documentary about the likes of John Jensor Lindsay in the UK, the self-styled hardcore porn freedom fighter of the 1970s who went to jail for his beliefs, to really bring it all back home. But then that probably doesn't have the counter-cultural cachet...