Mar 14, 2008
By C. Robert Cargill
Barney Rosset is a name you most likely aren't familiar with. If I
were to tell you that you should see a documentary about a book
publisher from the '50s through the '70s, you might yawn and try to
change the subject. But Barney Rosset was no ordinary book publisher.
He was probably one of the single greatest champions of free speech
this nation has ever known. And few still remember his name.
Obscene is a documentary that aims to set the record straight, to
remind this country what kind of debt we owe Rosset for the fortune
he made and spent by publishing books. When this country was
vehemently enforcing strict moral standards on what other people
could read, write or watch, Rosset was getting behind and publishing
notable writers of what was considered pornographic material, writers
such as D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs and Allen
Ginsberg. By publishing such works of "filth" as Lady Chatterley's
Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch and the poem Howl, Rosset
endured court case after court case brought on by those who strove to
preserve the purity of America at the expense of its freedoms.
This film follows Rosset from childhood into the army into the
publishing career he accidentally stumbled upon on into nefarious
fame, fortune, governmental investigation and ultimately bankruptcy
and ruin. All the while it strives to show his methods, illustrate
his intentions and manages to exalt one of this country's greatest,
and sadly forgotten, heroes. As far as content goes, the film is a
fascinating look at a delightfully enthralling subject.
As a film, however, it drags a bit. There's a bit too much
superfluous information and some story threads that just kind of come
and go. There are some great interview segments culled from a number
of sources, including an old, in-depth interview on the infamous late
night New York City cable access shock-stravaganza Midnight Blue
(which is pretty fascinating, especially if you know the significance
of that show's own sordid history). But while there is plenty of old
information and interviews in the film, there are few segments with
literary luminaries of the time speaking about Rosset and his
dedication to protecting their work.
Ultimately the film is an informative, but somewhat "talking head,"
documentary on a subject of great interest to those with a
predilection towards literature or civil rights, but won't set the
world ablaze for those who aren't. It's a case of the subject matter
exceeding the presentation, and I can only really recommend it to
those who have an interest in these fields already.