NEW YORK -- Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's documentary provides a much-needed account of the life and career of an unsung cultural hero: Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review. This indefatigable literary figure, now in his mid-80’s, is responsible for the first U.S. printings of such landmark works as “Waiting for Godot,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Lady Chatterley's Lover,” “Naked Lunch,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Allen Ginsberg's “Howl.” He was also behind the domestic release of the hugely controversial Swedish film “I Am Curious Yellow.”
Detailing Rosset's life from his stint as an army photographer in World War II to his currently modest existence after depleting nearly all of his wealth in a failed effort to maintain control of Grove, “Obscene” well makes the case for his being one of the leading forces in the battle against the forces of censorship that took place from the '50s to the '70s, which unfortunately persists to this day.
While the film places a little too much emphasis on Rosset himself rather than the specifics of his battles, it presents a fast-paced, entertaining biographical portrait that doesn't shy away from relating its subject's peccadilloes, including his particular fondness for lewd Victorian-era erotica that became a cash cow for the often struggling Grove, and his longtime overindulgence in alcohol and drugs.
The film includes plenty of contemporary interviews with its unrepentant subject, as well as entertaining footage from a 1989 televised interview with porn publisher Al Goldstein, who manages to insult his guest even while paying homage to him.