| Obscene


Daniel O’Connor & Neil Ortenberg

USA, 2007


Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 10 March 2008

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival

A word has never been written nor uttered that shouldn’t be published.

—Barney Rosset

Grove Press was initiated in 1951, and in the ensuing thirty years published a string of incendiary novels and films that would be variably banned or charged with obscenity. This all did well to publicize the works, I imagine, which include Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, and I Am Curious: Yellow. Each of these was eventually a modest success, Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious being the most pronounced example, grossing close to fifteen million dollars in three years, and almost single-handedly doubling the size of the New York publishing house.

I Am Curious was also taken to the United States Supreme Court, and the company’s profits were largely depleted by this and other court cases, including those against Henry Miller’s and William S. Burroughs’ novels. Each of these cases was eventually won after some amount of legal struggle, and although the books’ reputations have in time become more complimentary, volatility distinguishes Grove Press. Its controversies were persistent, and this is why I believe its publisher Barney Rosset is remembered; he is a successful man, but one whose success is measured more in accusatory headlines than in profits. Grove Press was seldom a stable business under Rosset’s government, a furnace that consumed as much energy as it emitted.

Rosset is now in his eighties, but his face retains the nervous, distracted gaze of his youth. He looks you in the eye until he responds, his eyes faltering about, his mouth contriving a smile when you know he’s not really happy. He speaks of his past - as a photographer in WWII, or as a preternaturally successful publisher shortly afterward - with resignedness and not conviction, betraying how others describe him as a publisher some thirty years prior: his decisions radical, his drive relentless and impulsive. He may not have been the most domineering businessman, but he is the sort of person that has apparently spent little time deliberating.

Such mercuriality enabled Rosset’s exit in the 1980s, after he had sold the company. His biography, which comprises the entirety of Obscene, is essential in the history of Grove Press, but it is something that should be distinguished from the company’s output. The publicity that met virtually each of the imprint’s books was a reactionary conservative resistance to the company’s lucid, pornographic output, and I don’t get the impression Rosset domineered this publicity. He did very well to resist this conservatism, but Rosset is no activist although history may suggest otherwise. In Obscene, he is established as a defender of freedom of speech, but Rosset is also a man with an apprehensive interest in Victorian pornography—he has published, he admits, what arouses him.

In a telling instance in Obscene, Gore Vidal says he shares Rosset’s contempt for this country. Rosset never explicitly admits as much himself, but Vidal’s claim is a useful justification for Rosset’s business; it’s almost as if he enjoyed the controversy, the smutty reputation, and the disparaging headlines. Dissent is, perhaps necessarily, analogous to change in Rosset’s mind. Grove Press’ output under his reign is propaganda of pretension, a message of liberalism intended for the open-minded.

Obscene relies liberally on Rosset’s interview on Al Goldstein’s talk show Midnight Blue, which is from what I can tell much more biased than this film, but nonetheless entertaining. The film is careful not to exploit him, as his presence is integral, and as a result Obscene is uncritical. And criticism is necessary in considering Rosset’s career; in the words of John Waters, Grove Press’ greatest success, I Am Curious, is a rather boring affair, with a “limp dick, ugly girls, and [lots of] talking about communism”—this, finally, says much of both Rosset’s intentions and his fleeting success.

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