At BAM, Celebrate the Works Anti-Censorship Crusaders Championed


A singular figure in 20th-century publishing with no analogue in the 21st, Barney Rosset (1922–2012), who founded Grove Press in 1951, was a frequent visitor to the Supreme Court: The anti-censorship impresario won court battles to print and distribute the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Launched in 1957 as an offshoot of Grove, Rosset’s literary magazine  Evergreen Review featured groundbreaking work by an international roster of modernist and experimental titans. Just as significantly, the journal became a venue for serious discussion of radical cinema — a commitment to the seventh art further signaled by Rosset’s founding of Grove Press Film Division, a distribution outfit, in 1967 (this effort followed a short-lived film production company that the publisher began in 1963). Curated by Light Industry’s Ed Halter (a pal), “From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film” brings together an eclectic, electric roster of titles, many rarely screened, that Rosset produced, distributed, and/or called attention to in his magazine. (The series serves as a warm-up for the May publication of From the Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader, edited by Halter and Rosset.)

The BAMcinématek retrospective launches with a week-long run of a new restoration of Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory (1948), a scornful attack on racism and anti-Semitism in the U.S. produced by Rosset’s Target Films. Marked by the cold fury of its narrators (“Hopelessness is next door to hysteria”), the documentary combines archival footage shot during the Second World War with Hurwitz’s own material — both nonfiction and dramatic reenactments — to draw parallels between Hitler’s rise to power and the growth of fascism here at home in the years immediately after V-Day. “If we won, why do we look as though we lost?” wonders one of the orotund-voiced offscreen speakers, as a collage of billboards reading RESTRICTED COMMUNITY, and other exhibits of national ignominy, flash by.

A veteran of freedom-of-speech fights for his books, Rosset would also go to court for Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 cine-scandal, I Am Curious (Yellow), Sweden’s most infamous export and Grove Film Division’s biggest hit. (A companion piece, I Am Curious (Blue), was released the following year; the colors refer to the Nordic nation’s flag.) Sjöman’s fact-and-fiction-mixing fifth feature, about the political and sexual explorations of 22-year-old Lena (Lena Nyman), was banned in early 1968 by the U.S. Customs Service, objecting to an episode in which Lena kisses her lover’s flaccid penis, for being obscene. But in 1969 a federal appeals court ruled that the film was protected by the First Amendment. The abundant views of genitals in Sjöman’s movie that so outraged American officials culminate in a most unerotic treatment of private parts — and led to tremendous publicity: I Am Curious (Yellow) remained the most financially successful foreign film released in the U.S. for more than two decades.

Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals (1969), the other Grove-distributed project made in the Scandinavian country, aroused neither opprobrium from the government nor much viewer interest. The first of four films directed by the writer, whose landmark essay “Against Interpretation” was published in Evergreen Review in 1964, the Stockholm-set psychodrama tracks a ménage à quatre: Arthur Bauer (Bergman performer Lars Ekborg), a conspiracy-minded political theorist, and his unstable Italian wife (Adriana Asti) toy with Tomas (Gösta Ekman), a naïf recently hired as a live-in assistant to Bauer; soon the amanuensis’s girlfriend (Agneta Ekmanner) is sharing the spouses’ bed. Sontag’s cool, remote feature debut is easy to admire if hard to embrace. Molly Haskell, who reviewed Duet for Cannibals in this publication upon its New York release, puts it best: “Miss Sontag’s style is entirely her own — deliberate, direct, dispassionate, a vehicle for the measured orchestration of her ideas, and the language is simple, stripped of idiom or idiosyncrasy.”

At this political rally, freedom is repeated until evacuated of meaning.

A model of fervent, unrestrained filmmaking, William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969) blasts U.S. imperialism in brash comic-strip hues. The New York–born expatriate photographer and director, who settled in Paris in the 1950s, explained in an Evergreen Review Q&A that the movie’s title character — a side of beef adorned in stars-and-stripes jockwear played by John Abbey — “is all the Westmorelands, the MacArthurs, the pin-up boys of the war.” Dispatched to the French capital, the hard-right superhero whips into a frenzy a group of Gallic supporters, including an extravagantly bewigged Delphine Seyrig and an ivory-tickling Serge Gainsbourg. At this orgiastic political rally, the word freedom is repeated until it is evacuated of all meaning — just as it was in the communiqués emerging from the White House during the Vietnam War.

The most reviled occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his family are lampooned in Tricia’s Wedding (1971), a fruity, druggy, drag burlesque about the nuptials of Richard Nixon’s elder daughter performed by the Cockettes, the outlandish San Francisco theater group. (Look — and listen — for soon-to-be disco deity Sylvester as Coretta Scott King.) The anarchic Milton Miron directed short screens with Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968), a riveting chronicle of a 1967 drag competition. In his haut-homo compendium Screening the Sexes (1972), urbane arbiter Parker Tyler, a frequent contributor to Evergreen Review, praised the documentary for its “quite unconscious dignity”; one of the most striking aspects of this pre-Stonewall document is its lack of sensationalism and genuine, relaxed, nonjudgmental interest in the queer lives of the contestants. Simon could have titled his film I Am Curious (Lavender).

‘From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film’
March 16–31