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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner27/02/2009

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 97 mins

Fascinating documentary about a true American hero whose name deserves to be better known than it is.

What's it all about?
Co-directed by Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg, Obscene is a documentary about Barney Russet, an American publisher whose tireless work with Grove Press resulted in the landmark publication of controversial works such as D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. The film also looks at Barney's work with Evergreen Review magazine and contains a wealth of archive footage, televised interviews, and home movies, while the talking heads include such luminaries as John Waters and Gore Vidal.

The Good
The film is told entirely through Rosset's own words (he's still alive), primarily through interviews, although he also seems to have dictated his life story, as he's often seen playing a recording on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Rosset's early love was apparently film, but he drifted into publishing almost by accident and the film takes you through each of the early court battles, beginning with Chatterley in 1959.

The fascinating thing is that by the time of each new court case, the previous work that Rosset fought so hard to defend is held up as a modern classic, so that by the time of The Naked Lunch (the film includes some superb clips of Burroughs reading from his own work), Tropic of Cancer was lauded by the same people that had sought to ban it, and so on.

The Great
The film doesn't shy away from the more embarrassing sides of Rosset's character - for example, he's shown giving a cringe-making interview to Al Goldstein on a late night underground cable TV show, in which Rosset confesses to an unhealthy fixation with The Story of O. It's also revealed that a line of essentially pornographic novels helped keep Grove Press afloat in times of financial crisis, although Rosset also admits that he published them because he liked them.

Worth seeing?
Obscene is a fascinating documentary about an unsung hero of American literature. Worth seeking out.

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Content updated: 27/01/2020 15:42

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