Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Obscene is not quite a biography of Barney Rosset, more of a celebration. In an age where the possession of 'extreme pornography' has been criminalised in England, where thanks to the internet more people have access to material that challenges or offends than ever before, and now, sadly, one without George Carlin, this is an important film.

This is, despite the weight of the subject matter, a light-hearted film. Barney, seen largely in earlier interviews, is a joyful man. As founder of publisher Grove Press, Rosset fought for the right to publish "obscene" works, starting with Lady Chatterly's Lover then Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer through Burroughs' Naked Lunch and beyond. He published The Evergreen Review, a magazine that was singled out for condemnation by Gerald Ford, and served as distributor for Scandinavian 'art house' film I Am Curious: Yellow.

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The film is more about Barney than it is about Grove Press, but Grove is, or rather was, Barney's greatest achievement. He published a stack of Nobel Prize winners, many of them for the first time in the US. The catalogue of authors would, in and of itself, be impressive, but the story of Grove is fascinating, if only because the chaotic operation somehow managed to stumble on for so long.

There are several montages of Grove Press covers, musical numbers from a variety of alt luminaries from Dylan to Warren Zevon and stacks of interviews with figures like Gore Vidal, Jim Carroll and John Waters, plus archive footage of Burroughs and Lenny Bruce among others. Grove Press authors from Henry Miller to Malcolm X also feature. Again and again, Barney Rosset changed America, and again and again he succeeded, somehow. As we get to know more about Barney we also get to learn about the motives that drove him to challenge censorship so frequently.

This is an enjoyable film, but not without its flaws. It's certainly an honest portrait, but it only looks so closely. At times it seems a little disjointed, but with two directors credited that's not entirely a surprise. That said, it's a tribute to a celebrated figure of American publishing who almost certainly deserves more recognition. Hopefully Obscene will bring it to him.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2008
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Documentary about Barney Rosset, who challenged obscenity laws most famously in the case of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Read more Obscene reviews:

Keith Hennessey Brown **1/2

Director: Daniel O’Connor, Neil Ortenberg

Year: 2007

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: USA


EIFF 2008

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