Obscene: Barney Rosset Vs Our Way of Life

17 mins read

We’re still benefiting from the freedoms that we have because of what Barney Rosset did and the battles he fought.
— John Waters

People say he’s won a lifelong crusade against censorship, but I would say no, he’s won a lifelong crusade against hypocrisy, in all forms.
— Peter Rosset, son

The last analyst I went to said to me, ‘Barney, I now say goodbye to you. I love you. You’re a tragic hero. Goodbye.’
— Barney Rosset

It seems that every year brings with it a new documentary that shines a loving light on a little-known cult figure, someone who has achieved a special degree of prominence within a particular community on the fringes of the mainstream. If you were a Los Angeles DJ at the epicenter of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution (The Mayor of the Sunset Strip), an underground singer/songwriter with a tragic history of mental illness (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), a designer of space-age cars and cartoon T-shirts (Tales of the Rat Fink) or a Slovenian philosopher with rock star appeal (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, ˇZIZˇEK!), then you inevitably inspired one of your devout fans to pick up a camera and bring your story from the margin to the centre.

Obscene, the feature film debut by former publishers Neil Ortenberg and Dan O’Connor that has its world premiere at 2007’s Toronto International Film Festival falls into a slightly different category. The film’s subject, Barney Rosset, the founder and publisher of the controversial and iconic Grove Press, may indeed be a little known figure, but the prominence of his accomplishments reaches far beyond the boundaries of his chosen profession. In addition to relentlessly challenging the establishment and helping to give purpose and life to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, Rosset had perhaps a more profound impact on the face of American literature than any other individual in the last fifty years. This richly layered, visually compelling and ceaselessly intriguing documentary is dense with insight into the life and career of a man who made it his mission and sacrificed his fortune to defend freedom of speech and artistic expression from the puritanical powers that be.

Ortenberg, founder of Thunder’s Mouth Press, co-founder of NationBooks and former executive vice president of the Avalon Publishing Group, and fellow Avalon publisher Dan O’Connor have both known Rosset for years and had worked with him most recently on The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, published in 2004. They resigned from Avalon later that year to found their film company, Double O Productions, and to bring Rosset’s story to public attention, because, as they put it, “of our intimate relationship with Barney. We were both viscerally aware that we were sitting on a great American story that we wanted to rescue from obscurity — to bring a complicated, contradictory personality out of the shadows of ‘publishing’ and to recognize his decisive impact on American and world culture.”

Barnet (Barney) Lee Rosset Jr., the son of a wealthy Chicago banker, was a central, albeit behind-the-scenes, figure in the civil rights and counterculture movement from the 1950s through to the late 1970s. By that time, he had come to represent such a threat to established social mores that Grove Press, his highly influential boutique publishing company, was revealed to be one of the top three targets under illegal domestic surveillance by the CIA.

But Rosset’s tendency to agitate the government began much earlier. The FBI first investigated him when he was still in his teens. Dynamic, intelligent and highly engaged, he was a natural leader at his progressive, left-leaning, experimental high school, where he found time among his many extracurricular activities — senior class president, amateur filmmaker, captain of the football team — to head the American Student Union and edit the school newspaper, The Sommunist, (formerly The Socialist and The Communist) for which he once wrote an article declaring John Dillinger a hero.

Fervently iconoclastic and a firm believer in the power of art and literature to foment revolution, he wrote an English paper in his freshman year at university on Henry Miller’s erotically charged Tropic of Cancer, a notorious book published in France in 1934 but banned for decades in the United States, entitled “Henry Miller vs. ‘Our Way of Life.’” Even at the tender age of eighteen, Rosset was deeply inspiredby the vitriolic political stance of the book and its philosophical attack on moral and social conventions. He described it as “an insulting book to everybody” written by a man who “had a contempt for this country that I shared.”

That contempt would lead Rosset on a lifelong campaign fighting for freedom of speech and cultural expression. Among his greatest achievements were his long, hard-fought and persistent First Amendment court battles to publish Allen Ginsberg’s seminal anti- American screed “Howl,” D.H. Lawrence’s long banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Miller’s excoriated Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs’s insanely indecent Naked Lunch. The 1964 Supreme Court victory that allowed Rosset to publish Tropic of Cancer (after a three-year battle) is widely regarded as a watershed in First Amendment rights rulings. It is due directly to Rosset’s dedicated efforts — including his willingness to sell off his own personal assets to finance the legal proceedings — that these classic and highly revered works of literature, indeed some of the most acclaimed English language works of the twentieth century, were made available in the United States.

He brought to print a number of other highly notable books that, in the eyes of America’s more prurient cultural watchdogs, tore open the envelope of taste and decency, perhaps the most notable being Pauline Réage’s seductive sadomasochistic novel The Story of O. A longtime cinephile who had flirted with filmmaking earlier in his career, Rosset also made a small fortune distributing the soft-core Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), the first porno movie to achieve mainstream commercial success in the US. A high school friend of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Rosset published books of scripts by Godard and Truffaut, produced Beckett’s Film (starring Buster Keaton) and published magazines that incorporated photography and design with literary fiction and essays. In 1972, Rosset came under fire again, this time from Congressman Gerald Ford, who publicly attacked Grove’s raunchy yet highly literate alternative magazine Evergreen as nothing more than a smut rag.

Rosset didn’t just stand up for the counterculture, he lived it. With a political perspective that was unwaveringly opposed to conservative orthodoxy, he embraced the ability of art and literature to express and encapsulate the entire range of human experience, to stroke the libido as much as the intellect. One female employee recounts entering Rosset’s office at around ten o’clock one morning to find him behind his desk with a bottle of wine and a copy of Screw magazine. Grove’s highly successful line of Victorian erotica, which one former editor describes derisively as nothing more than “purple prose,” was as much a part of their catalogue as any of the five Nobel Prize- winning writers they published over the years.

Cherishing the pain and ecstasy of the human experience in any form seemed to be Rosset’s modus operandi. In 1953, still licking the emotional wounds from his tumultuous open marriage to abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, Rosset read a play that he described as “the story of a marriage gone into sheer boredom while waiting for something to happen. I said to myself, ‘This is the human condition. This is it!’” Grove Press would publish Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1954 and all of the author’s other works in the decades to come.

“Publishing is popularly imagined to be a gentlemanly occupation,” Ortenberg and O’Connor explain. “One of the things that made Barney dangerous as a publisher was his egalitarian disregard for the borders between high and low culture. In the same year that Grove’s Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize, Barney was being profiled in LIFE magazine as ‘The Old Smut Peddler.’”

Rosset was named a Commander in the French government’s l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1999 and has long been a legend in the publishing industry. A short list of writers in Grove Press’s very sizable stable included Harold Pinter, Pablo Neruda, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby Jr., Bertolt Brecht, Malcolm X, Jorges Luis Borges, Jean Genet, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. But given his massive contribution to American literature and contemporary social history, and the fact that he’s managed to survive to the age of eighty-five despite a lifestyle that took him directly from the bar to the office virtually every morning, why has it taken until now for Rosset’s story to be told?

Ortenberg and O’Connor answer the question succinctly: “Can you name another film about a publisher? Can you name a publisher? It’s in the nature of the work that even somebody as influential as Barney would not become a household name.

“Barney’s story is one that needed to be told and we were not the first to attempt to tell it. Other writers and filmmakers had made aborted attempts over the years. Anybody who has tried to collaborate with a living subject will appreciate our difficulties. Nobody but a fool wants to have a film made about himself, and Barney is no fool. We spent the better part of two years cajoling the degree of cooperation that is on screen. Somebody once characterized Barney as a man with a ‘whim of steel.’ The man who stood up to governments was not going to be easy prey for first-time filmmakers.”

Ortenberg and O’Connor may be novices in the documentary world, but you’d never know it from the film’s engrossing structure and exacting focus, not to mention its dynamic visual sensibility and fantastically appropriate period soundtrack. “One of our goals was to portray the Barney we know, the Barney that held court at Billy’s Topless, a crummy joint on 6th Avenue where he befriended and even hired some of the strippers, the Barney whose lifelong identification with Chicago as ‘Second City’ made him the least pretentious and most revolutionary American publisher of the twentieth century. And we wanted to adapt that sensibility to the content, pace, editing, graphics and music of the film.”

The co-directors collaborated with the experienced husband/wife team of Alexander Meillier and Tanya Ager Meillier (cinematographer and editor, respectively) to design the film’s vibrant and highly energetic fusion of sound and image, often interweaving Grove Press’s signature cover design imagery — a series of abstract expressionist artwork by illustrator Roy Coleman — throughout the film. It’s hard to think of another movie about books that is so visually kinetic.

“It was a very challenging film to edit,” the directing duo explains. “We had access to Barney’s archives and over sixty years of film and recordings, combined with numerous recent interviews…. Our heavy reliance on graphics and montage to convey both information and tone required subtle imagination and creativity.

“Tanya had the single greatest impact on the final form of the film. Beyond taking the disparate elements of the film and riveting them together, her feel for pace and music is spot on. Alex was very much involved with the editorial direction of the film…. [He] has a comprehensive grasp of digital technologies, which the film takes full advantage of. We could not have made a film of this ambition and complexity without those tools.”

Ambition and complexity are essential elements in telling the story of a man who has so often epitomized both, who set out on a personal mission to save some of the greatest literary works of our time from being silenced, who lost his company in an ill-advised attempt to salvage it, and who, in piecemeal fashion over the years, sold off his entire fortune, more than a mile and a half of beachfront property in the Hamptons, to accomplish it all. A tragic hero indeed.

“Barney was a cultural impresario and a curator of changing values,” Ortenberg and O’Connor conclude. “He had the unique combination of resources and will to promote unpopular and forbidden works. One of the questions we wanted to answer in this film was, ‘What sort of person would challenge the world in the way that Barney did, repeatedly courting self-destruction?’”

The answer to that question may very well be the last great maverick in American publishing, and possibly American culture in general.

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