What would a wannabe radical college kid's dorm room be without a copy of Naked Lunch, or at least Lady Chatterley's Lover, a Che poster and some porn? Those items are all easy to come by now, but that wasn't always the case. One of the unsung free-speech advocates who united (and distributed) those totems of liberalism or libertinism is longtime Grove Press owner Barney Rosset (pictured with Samuel Beckett).
Born to a wealthy Chicago family, Rosset was an overachiever who also pulled strings to get into a special Army filmmaking unit that documented World War II. He became an activist against racism, and after his service took up book publishing. His Grove Press printed Waiting for Godot in English in the United States for the first time. Rosset was interested in a wide variety of European writers and Americans abroad, including Henry Miller and his sexually graphic novel Tropic of Cancer (then available in Europe for years). He launched an assault on U.S. obscenity laws by issuing D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. In spite of the legal expenses of fighting for the book's literary merit, he pursued more risqué works including Miller's Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch — and spent a lot of time in court.
Eventually, Grove made some money publishing not-so-hardcore S&M porn in its Victorian Library series (and also published The Story of O). Even on the verge of bankruptcy, Rosset spent his iconoclastic life fighting battles against racism, published controversial black writers (The Autobiography of Malcolm X) during the Civil Rights era, fought contemporary standards to publish Beat writers, and continued to publish sexually frank writing (including erotica/porn) he happened to like.
Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's Obscene is not nearly as risqué as the work Rosset is known for distributing. Footage from an extended interview with former Screw Magazine publisher Al Goldstein is funny, but seems like a forced effort to get crass banter and a younger face on screen. More entertaining is President Gerald Ford thumbing through pages of nude photos in Rosset's Evergreen Review, denouncing it as smut. The documentary barely attempts to find a link between pornography and literature containing obscenity, suggesting both confront societal hypocrisy. The U.S. government viewed Rosset as a political and moral subversive and spied on him. In the end, it wasn't possible to separate that he distributed pornographic literature and films, commissioned and printed the now-ubiquitious portrait of Che Guevara, and published writers like Bertold Brecht, Harold Pinter, Octavio Paz and a great number of literary stars. Even in his 80s, Rosset is charming and candid about his life. Given that he was born rich, he seems to have lost far more than he made. As he notes, he also lost plenty of his court cases. But he comes across as a remarkably principled man in wildly changing times. — Will Coviello
Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press
7 p.m. Fri.-Sun., Jan. 23-25; through Jan. 28
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net