“Obscene” is the correct title for a documentary about Barney Rosset, a small-time revolutionary who had that word thrown at him so many times that it almost became a mantra. In the psychedelic era, when anyone over 30 was not to be trusted, Rosset was a middle-aged Jew who started his own publishing business and became an improbable hero for creative freedom. He revived old classics and took a chance on new ones, which made a place for vulgarity in serious literature. His influence has held up well through the years and what was once shocking has become standard: Next time you see Howard Stern seducing bras off of college girls, think of him.
That might suggest that Rosset was just a smut peddler, but he was nothing of the kind. Although printing controversial books like “Tropic of Cancer,” “Naked Lunch” and various others was an incredible risk at the time, Grove Press became a kind of pioneer that pointed American literature in a new direction. That such writings became mixed up in Supreme Court cases that redefined American censorship is what “Obscene” is really about – the thin line that separates art from porno. One of its beliefs is that the effect of art depends on its frankness: When Lenny Bruce reads the unexpurgated version of “Tropic of Cancer” during his stand-up routine for laughs, he makes the edited version feel emasculated and silly.
Other classics like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Howl” turn up here, but “Obscene” deals with more than exercises in expletives. After Samuel Beckett’s play about two moronic vagrants became a hit in France, Grove Press’s print version of “Waiting for Godot” brought it to America and made Rosset a rich man. Even farther beyond its time was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was rejected by mainstream publishers and didn’t even get reviewed by The New York Times until the paperback came along. Like the others, it became a classic in about a year.
The movie celebrates many books, but does it carefully, so that they don’t overshadow the man who helped make them famous. When each of them creates some scandal or another, Rosset does his part and defends them as art: He introduces a televised version of “Waiting for Godot,” stands up for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in court and is seen in photographs with Henry Miller. “Obscene” loses its balance at the end, which calls attention to unnecessary shots of Rosset and the family dog in home movies, but all those interviews that narrate the bulk of the movie (which include everybody from Amiri Baraka to John Waters) are worth it – it’s saying something when some of the biggest laughs in a film come from Gore Vidal.
There is also a detour in the movie that looks at Rosset’s short stint as a film distributor. The most successful one, an erotic import from Sweeden called “I Am Curious (Yellow),” became a box-office hit that astonished ticket buyers but disappointed critics. In an unfavorable review, Roger Ebert wrote: “What I’m curious about is how Barney Rossett and his pious pornographers at Grove Press got away with it.” At least now he’ll know.