SXSW Review: Obscene A Solid Documentary

Barney Rosset is a name you most likely aren’t familiar with. If I were to tell you that you should see a documentary about a book publisher from the '50s through the '70s, you might yawn and try to change the subject. But Barney Rosset was no ordinary book publisher. He was probably one of the single greatest champions of free speech this nation has ever known. And few still remember his name.

Obscene is a documentary that aims to set the record straight, to remind this country what kind of debt we owe Rosset for the fortune he made and spent by publishing books. When this country was vehemently enforcing strict moral standards on what other people could read, write or watch, Rosset was getting behind and publishing notable writers of what was considered pornographic material, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. By publishing such works of "filth" as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch and the poem Howl, Rosset endured court case after court case brought on by those who strove to preserve the purity of America at the expense of its freedoms.

This film follows Rosset from childhood into the army into the publishing career he accidentally stumbled upon on into nefarious fame, fortune, governmental investigation and ultimately bankruptcy and ruin. All the while it strives to show his methods, illustrate his intentions and manages to exalt one of this country's greatest, and sadly forgotten, heroes. As far as content goes, the film is a fascinating look at a delightfully enthralling subject.

As a film, however, it drags a bit. There’s a bit too much superfluous information and some story threads that just kind of come and go. There are some great interview segments culled from a number of sources, including an old, in-depth interview on the infamous late night New York City cable access shock-stravaganza Midnight Blue (which is pretty fascinating, especially if you know the significance of that show’s own sordid history). But while there is plenty of old information and interviews in the film, there are few segments with literary luminaries of the time speaking about Rosset and his dedication to protecting their work.

Ultimately the film is an informative, but somewhat “talking head,” documentary on a subject of great interest to those with a predilection towards literature or civil rights, but won’t set the world ablaze for those who aren’t. It’s a case of the subject matter exceeding the presentation, and I can only really recommend it to those who have an interest in these fields already.

Grade: B


C. Robert Cargill - - - Email Me