Thursday, March 1, 2012

68. OBSCENE (2007)

Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg's profile of publisher Barnet Lee "Barney" Rosset, Jr. -- the man behind Grove Press, who recently passed away last February 21 at the age of 89 -- is fascinating if not altogether satisfying viewing. While OBSCENE does a perfectly fine job of characterizing Rosset from all angles, it takes a more purely political stance than a cultural one, which makes an impressive case for him as a patriot of the arts and a provocateur, but somewhat less of an impressive case for him as a patron of those authors who most truly defined the course of the literary century.

Grove Press was such a rich imprint that, in all probability, no single film could adequately detail the depth or breadth of its cultural impact. The filmmakers attentively trace Grove's growth from the English-language acquisition of Samuel Beckett to its purposeful licensing of the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, which led to legal battles that systematically laid the groundwork for Rosset's planned publications of Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER and William S. Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH. But while the film closely attends the enormous expense that Rosset undertook to fight the US Courts on the matters of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, there's little time left to showcase the clients whose work benefitted from those battles: writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Hubert Selby Jr., John Rechy (who is interviewed) and particularly Pauline Réage (THE STORY OF O) are barely mentioned, and company translators like Richard Howard are not mentioned at all. The omission of Selby is particularly bewildering in retrospect as the filmmakers choose to roll the end credits over Gene Pitney's song "Last Chance To Turn Around," which gave Selby's classic novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN its title.

Likewise, too many of the film's name interviewees (Gore Vidal, John Sayles, Erica Jong, Joseph Strick, Amiri Baraka - the former Leroi Jones, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc) pop up to say only one thing, and -- like too many films documenting those cultural forces arising from NYC (Andy Warhol, for example) -- OBSCENE seems to go out of its way at times to document Rosset's carelessness, laziness and drug use at the office rather than come to terms with his sense of vision and his love of books, which are the real reasons he should be remembered and appreciated.

Even so, Grove Press fans will want to see this and will learn from it. And if you're unfamiliar with Grove Press, I can only tell you they were seminal in terms of my orientations as a novelist and writer, and it was always my dream to be published by them. OBSCENE is as good a place as any to start learning about it.

Viewed on Netflix. 

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