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USA, 2008, 97 Minute Running Time
Genre/Subjects: Documentary, Social Issues
Program: Documentary FilmsLanguage: English
DIRECTOR: Daniel O'Connor, Neil Ortenberg
Producer: Alex Meillier, Tanya Meillier, (executive) Neil OrtenberEditor: Tanya MeillierCinematographer: Alex MeillierPrincipal Cast: Amiri Baraka, Lenny Bruce, William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll
Grove Press founder Barney Rosset is honored in this tribute to the eye-opening crusade he led against obscenity laws in the 1950s and 1960s—and its consequent impact on American culture. Not exactly a household name, Rosset was nevertheless a singular force of the era—responsible, for instance, for exposing no less an icon of taste than Jackie Kennedy to such breakthrough works as the Swedish softcore porn flick I Am Curious Yellow. Above all, he cultivated public interest in art legally defined as obscene and fought the necessary battles—sometimes going all the way to the Supreme Court—to secure First Amendment rights. Rosset made it possible for some of most daring voices of the twentieth century to be heard, including Lenny Bruce, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and Malcolm X. And although Grove Press was perhaps best known for publishing sexually explicit works like The Story of O, Rosset’s legacy is remarkably literary, encompassing classics like Waiting for Godot and A Confederacy of Dunces.
Archival clips supplement interviews with such iconoclasts as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gore Vidal, Amiri Baraka, Michael McClure, and Erica Jong, who discuss how Rosset shaped contemporary culture. But Obscene is also a riches-to-rags story, chronicling how this son of a wealthy banker’s lack of business acumen led to financial failure and the forced sale of his beloved press in the 1980s. In the candor of the memories he himself shares with directors Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor, however—including his sly admission that he “did it all to save Henry Miller”—the eighty-year-old Rosset shows that his fearlessness and defiant sense of mischief remain intact.
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