Obscene is a docu-biography of Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and American publisher of landmark 20th-century texts like Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The film opens with Rosset saying, “I feel personally that there has never been a word written or said that should not be published,” which made me brace myself for a smarmy liberal invective along the lines of the recent Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson. I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise; while slanted far to the left, the film justifies its views by investing emotionally in its protagonist’s work.
From the 1950s through 1970s, Rosset published books others condemned as “obscene” (the film’s definition being Clarence Thomas-level vague—generally, it seems, the suits loathed sex and curse words). The most intriguing point the film makes about Rosset’s career-long First Amendment crusade, often waged in legal courts against small-minded judges and politicians (Obscene skewers Gerald Ford in particular), is that for Rosset to be progressive in one area, he had to be progressive in all of them. The film links his championing of Henry Miller and Malcolm X by arguing that sexual and racial liberties both constitute freedom. Yet while Obscene contains several hagiographic moments—“He wanted to change the world,” one talking head actually says—it also raises its subject’s more prurient interests. A revealing passage discusses his publishing several anonymous S&M novels. It’s clear he liked the smut in them—but hey, they’re literature too.
My main issue with Obscene, in fact, aside from its reductive summations of various decades—the ‘50s were repressed, the ‘60s let things hang out—is that, for a film about publishing, it spends too little time on books. The film mentions both Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which Grove also published, primarily in terms of their sexual content. Their themes and styles, along with any reason for loving them, get short shrift. By contrast, a documentary like Stone Reader shows its protagonist’s bibliophilia by lovingly lingering over his favorite works; as someone who has read and adored a great many Grove tomes—in addition to authors like Miller and Lawrence, Grove also published Borges, Neruda, Beckett and Stoppard—I could have used more critical analysis and old-fashioned paging through. While Rosset comes across as a quirky old man, I never pinpointed the source of his passion. The closest the film comes to showing it is when Rosset describes a child asking him if Malcolm X was the best book he published, to which he responded, “You’re asking me to choose between my children.”
Grove did American readers an invaluable service, not just by giving them these children, but also by exposing them to material that made them grow up. Obscene is a brief, pleasant time-killer that genially preaches to the choir yet, while it’s always enjoyable, this review’s readers should seek Grove books out first.