despite the seemingly inflammatory title, "obscene" is as far removed from the definition of obscenity as one can get. in fact, one can just easily apply the title to actions of barney rosset's persecutors. the real life prosecutors would have denied americans the fundamental right to read and possess such titles as "lady chatterley's lover," "tropic of cancer," and "naked lunch," to name only a few of the books rosset published and, subsequently, defended in court against obscenity charges.
but this documentary is about much more than grove press and the book (films) rosset published (screened). it tells the remarkable story of rosset himself, who can easily be seen as a tragic figure in the history of american letters (even if such letters were on the fringe of the academy). barney rosset started out with a desire to become a filmmaker - and found he had become a publisher instead. he built a powerful (and eventually financially successful) publishing business in grove press. only to lose it because of his own financial and business ineptitude.
the film is full of numerous surprises - including cameo appearances by ray manzarek (who i got to see in riders on the storm last week!), snippets of the actual trial of howl (a case he did not participate in, but furthered, when he reprinted "howl," in "evergreen review"), background on the iconic image of che, and the story behind the film "i am curious (orange)." the howl litigation, for instance, was a boost to his own legal strategy which focused on one book at a time and using that fresh precedent to push for win with the next, more extreme, book on his list. that strategy succeeded, at a huge financial cost, in the trio of landmark series of cases: "lady chatterley's lover," "tropic of cancer," and "naked lunch."
at one point it occurred to me that rosset could easily be cast as the literary version (where articles in the magazine are actually read) of hugh heffner! the parallels are intriguing. but it's sad to see rosset, now in his 80's, who individually owned miles of the southhampton shoreline at one point (periodically sell lots to finance the obscenity litigation - until there was nothing left), now reduced to walk-up apartment in the village. it's equally sad to see the man who built grove press single-handed, lose it in a hostile take-over. he got unceremoniously fired as a consequence. that, ironically, is obscene.
this is a MUST SEE film for anyone interested in first amendment freedoms (and/or the beat generation, literary outlaws, the sexual revolution, the 50's, the 60's, 70's, and especially the counter culture - used here to describe anyone outside the mainstream)!
check out the brief ny times review, and
the much longer background story on barney rossert.