In 1951, Barney Rosset took charge of Grove Press, and via its flagship literary magazine Evergreen Review he spent the next few decades publishing some of the most important writers of the 20th century—Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Edward Albee, and more—along with some of the most spurious. According to Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor's documentary Obscene, Rosset didn't just help shape his times; he was a product of them. Born in 1922 and raised in Chicago, Rosset fought his boyhood inclination to sympathize with anti-social types like John Dillinger, and instead tried to be an upstanding citizen, with a wife and a college degree and distinguished military service. But once Rosset was exposed to the freethinking European art community and the New York jazz scene, it occurred to him that both he and the American culture at large could handle a lot more free expression than they'd been allowed over the country's first 175 years.
Obscene recounts the tale of Rosset's involvement with Grove Press from the tentative first steps to a bizarre downfall fueled by union trouble, feminist trouble, and alleged CIA-backed terrorism. In the interim, Rosset blatantly tested the U.S obscenity laws, first by publishing D.H. Lawrence's previously banned Lady Chatterly's Lover, then Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer, then William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch. He also distributed the film I Am Curious (Yellow), and brought the writings of Malcolm X and Che Guevara to a wider audience. Throughout, Rosset and Grove made piles of money, which they plowed into court cases and ever-riskier artistic ventures.
Ortenberg and O'Connor don't dwell enough on the ironies and contradictions in the Rosset story: how he couldn't always tell the difference between art and smut, and how he angered various liberation movements because of business practices and published material they viewed as exploitative. Those problems are acknowledged in the film, but dismissed with a wink and a smile from Rosset, still going strong in his 80s. But though Obscene tells the story without fully exploring its nuances, that story is both fascinating and more than a little inspiring. What a world Rosset created, where the disenfranchised and the depraved alike could put what they were thinking down on paper, and find an audience that numbered in the millions.