Censor and Sensibility

Andrew Hultkrans on Obscene

Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor, Obscene, 2007, still from a black-and-white film, 90 minutes. Barney Rossett.

If you need another reminder that book publishing and New York City aren’t what they used to be, you could do worse than to immerse yourself in Obscene (2007), an affectionate documentary portrait of the life and times of Grove Press and Evergreen Review publisher Barney Rossett. A thinking man’s perv with a patrician air, Rossett almost singlehandedly challenged the stultifying cultural puritanism of 1950s America through his publication of and landmark legal victories in defense of previously censored or criminally “obscene” books by D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs.

As an early advocate of Beckett and the Beats, Rossett did as much to inspire the personal politics and social upheavals of the ’60s as Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. Over the years, driven by amphetamines, Cuba Libres, and a hungry eye for erotic excess, he married and divorced Abstract-Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, had his office bombed by anti-Castro fanatics, brought the steamy Swedish “art film” I Am Curious (Yellow) to these shores, published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was monitored and harassed by the CIA, and made and lost fortunes several times over. Unabashed and unbowed in a far less interesting city, Rossett still lives in a fourth-floor walk-up on Union Square.

Filmmakers Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor weave this envy-inspiring narrative from archival footage, Rossett’s own amazingly well-preserved 8-mm films and reel-to-reel tapes from the ’30s through the ’60s, and new interviews with Amiri Baraka, Jim Carroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Erica Jong, Ray Manzarek, Michael McClure, John Rechy, Ed Sanders, John Sayles, Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Rossett’s editorial colleagues and acolytes from Grove’s glory days.

Obscene opens at Cinema Village in New York on September 26 and in Los Angeles on October 24.