Barney Rosset is a tragic hero. He says so himself at the end of Obscene, stating—by way of a colleague's parting shot—what the previous 90 minutes of Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's very fine documentary make unstintingly and yet wistfully clear. Beginning with Rosset's 1989 appearance on a delightfully vulgar cable-access show and a question about how he managed to lose his publishing imprint, Grove Press, in an unexpectedly hostile buyout, Obscene then reels back some 50 years, tracing the Chicago origins of a kid who grew up to fight perhaps the pre-eminent publishing battle of the twentieth century: censorship. Much of the film and photographic material is culled from Rosset's stunningly replete archives, and an assortment of artists, publishers, and literati appear to champion and chide the man who first brought Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch to the starving bosoms of the American public. Having sold off every acre of his prime Hamptons real estate in an attempt to keep Grove afloat through the '60s, instead of jillionaire-hood and publishing-board eminency, the 86-year-old today settles for the modest life of a cult figure with some kick left; his lit-and-naked-ladies journal, The Evergreen Review, now exists online.
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