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.