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Director: Dan Eckman, Daniel O'Connor, Neil Ortenberg

Cast: Barney Rosset


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To countless avant-garde novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, publisher Barney Rosset -- proprietor of the legendary Grove Press -- qualifies as an undisputed hero. Via scores of in-court legal battles, Rosset fought aggressively and valiantly to defend the release of works as varied as William S. Burroughs' novel Naked


To countless avant-garde novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, publisher Barney Rosset -- proprietor of the legendary Grove Press -- qualifies as an undisputed hero. Via scores of in-court legal battles, Rosset fought aggressively and valiantly to defend the release of works as varied as William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, Henry Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer, and Vilgot Sjöman's classic arthouse film I Am Curious (Yellow). As co-directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor, the documentary Obscene builds a case not only for the idea that Rosset was utterly indispensable in the battle for freedom of speech that descended on America in the late '60s and early '70s, but that he deserves hearty praise for championing works that pushed accepted moral standards into theretofore unacceptable territory. Via a combination of extensive archival footage and interviews, Obscene traces Rosset's professional and personal life, beginning with his early years at the Parker School and Swarthmore through his involvement in the armed forces and his presence in the Manhattan avant-garde with wife Joan Mitchell during the late '40s and early '50s. The film places heaviest emphasis on (and devotes most of its screen time to) Rosset's censorship battles for various works during the mid- to late '60s, before moving into an exploration of his troubled subsequent years that were marked by financial difficulty, violent attacks from disapproving groups, government surveillance, and a host of other complications. Interviewees include Rosset, Al Goldstein, John Waters, Gore Vidal, John Sayles, and Ray Manzarek.

Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Mark Deming
Barney Rosset is a man who loves the written word, and in the 1950s and '60s he was willing to do something about it; Rosset was the founder of the literary journal the Evergreen Review and ran the pioneering publishing house Grove Press. In his heyday, Rosset introduced many American readers to some of the most innovative figures in world literature, including Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Pinter and Hubert Selby Jr., but he's best known for his willingness to print books considered too risky by most American publishing houses. Grove Press was the first U.S. publisher to issue uncensored editions of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and Rosset paid for the many court cases that made it possible for these landmark works to be distributed openly and without legal reprisal. Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's documentary Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press offers a thumbnail history of the battle for literary freedom during the era of censorship in America, but it's also a breezy and entertaining look at the changing shape of culture from the end of World War II into the late '70s, and it has a strong protagonist in Rosset, who turns out to be a fascinating and truly engaging character. Rosset's life had already been interesting before he took control of Grove Press and founded Evergreen Review -- he was a combat cameraman during World War II, produced documentary films on race prejudice in America, was a major figure on the New York and Paris art scenes, and lost his virginity to his high school girlfriend after teachers at the progressive school they attended urged her parents to go away for the weekend so they could sleep together. While the issues of free speech and the first amendment are rarely far from the forefront in Obscene, the film leaves no doubt that Rosset deeply believed in what he was doing, and behind the serious work of defending his books in court, Rosset comes off as a man of charm and wit who was more interested in good literature and a good time than in making money. Unfortunately, the movie tends to peter out a bit in its final act; the story of how Rosset ended up practically broke after selling Grove Press is a bit fuzzy, and the film leaves little clue as to what Rosset has been doing since the 1980s (though the interviews make clear he's still spry and lucid well past the age of 80). Thankfully, however, a number of Rosset's friends, colleagues, and admirers are on hand to share great their memories about him and his adventures (including Gore Vidal, John Waters, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Erica Jong, John Sayles, and Michael McClure), and the movie eases along at a comfortable but enthusiastic pace, peppering Rosset's tales from the battlefields of free speech with anecdotes about his fondness for rum and Coke, his enthusiasm for vintage erotic literature, and the wild workaday environment at Grove Press. Obscene is far from perfect, but this tribute to Rosset and his legacy is often funny and fascinating stuff while making clear that our freedom to read what we please was confirmed by men like Rosset who had the courage to take on City Hall if need be, and it's a message that's just as important today as it was when Grove Press published Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959.

Product Details

Release Date:
Original Release:
New Video Group
Region Code:
[Wide Screen]
[Dolby Digital Stereo]
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Special Features

Closed Caption; ; Audio Commentary from Derrick Comedy (Dominic Dierkes, Dan Eckman, Donald Grover, Meggie McFadden, and DC Pierson); ; "The Making Of Mystery Team"; "Who Is Wally Cummings?" Comedy Short; ; Gag Reel/Deleted Scenes Montage; Pre-production Test Scene; Sword Club

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Barney Rosset Participant
Amiri Baraka Participant
Jim Carroll Participant
Lawrence Ferlinghetti Participant
Al Goldstein Participant
Erica Jong Participant
Ray Manzarek Participant
John Rechy Participant
Peter Rosset Participant
John Sayles Participant
Gore Vidal Participant
John Waters Participant
Michael McClure Participant
Donald Glover Participant
D.C. Pierson Participant
Dominic Dierkes Participant
Aubrey Plaza Participant

Technical Credits
Dan Eckman Director,Original Story
Daniel O'Connor Director,Executive Producer
Neil Ortenberg Director,Executive Producer
Askold Buk Score Composer
Dominic Dierkes Original Story,Screenwriter
Donald Glover Original Story,Screenwriter
Meggie McFadden Original Story,Producer
Tanya Ager Meillier Editor,Producer
Alexander Meillier Cinematographer,Producer
D.C. Pierson Original Story,Screenwriter
Derek Sample Sound/Sound Designer

Scene Index

Disc #1 -- Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press
1. McGinty [3:31]
2. Boysenberry [4:12]
3. School [3:46]
4. A Client [5:09]
5. On The Case [4:32]
6. Jordy and The Hobo [3:49]
7. Bowling Alley [3:27]
8. Strip Club [8:22]
9. The Ring [4:47]
10. Little Me [2:03]
11. Breaking And Entering [4:19]
12. Leroy's House [3:17]
13. Kelly's House [7:16]
14. Chase [:57]
15. Low Battery [:08]
16. Baseball Field [1:33]
17. It's Our World [1:52]
18. It's A Clue [4:08]
19. Holden & Charles [3:05]
20. Showdown [6:09]
21. New Mystery Team [8:57]
22. Credits [6:30]

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