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The Reeler Blog

Obscene in Toronto

(L-R) Samuel Beckett and Barney Rosset on the set of Beckett's Film, c. 1964 (Photo: Double O Productions)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Premiering this week in TIFF's Real to Real program, Obscene is a frank, high-flying chronicle of maverick Grove Press founder Barney Rosset, whose anti-censorship battles of the 1950s and '60s resulted in the first American editions of banned books like Lady Chatterley's Lover, Waiting For Godot and Tropic of Cancer as well as the distribution of the risqué Swedish cinema import I Am Curious (Yellow). The film marks the directorial debuts of Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O'Connor, themselves veteran New York publishers whose close alliance with Rosset (not to mention chats with the likes of Gore Vidal, John Waters, Jim Carroll and others) offer unprecedented access to the 85-year-old's archives and reflections on life, love, business and the perils of publishing the word "cunt." The Reeler caught up with the duo the day after their film's Toronto bow.

THE REELER: You two both have publishing backgrounds. What inspired you to turn around and pick up a documentary, especially one about a subject with whom you're already so familiar?

DANIEL O'CONNOR: I think that is the reason, at least for me. The primary reason was not to make a documentary, but to make a documentary about Barney. He's 85 years old; we don't know how long he's going to live. Many of the principals have already died; if we had made this film 10 years ago, we would have been able to interview a lot more people who were of central importance to the story. We knew it was a great story, and we had the access and the resources to do it.

NEIL ORTENBERG: Our relationship with Barney created a scenario where we were probably the only people who could have done this film.

DO: Other people tried.

NO: Other people tried, and for various reasons probably mostly having to do with...

DO: His combativeness.

NO: Yeah -- his difficulty and his desire to control everything. It didn't work. But also, part of the reason we made this film, coming out of publishing for so long and watching it change and become conglomeratized and swallowed up by large companies that put greater emphasis on marketing -- it changed. And this gave us an opportunity to portray a time that really doesn't exist anymore. It's also not just a publishing story. It's really a story about what it means to believe in something and be willing to fight for it. That's what the story to me is really about. In a culture that is so oriented toward technology and iPhones and gadgets and bullshit like that, people still yearn deeply for some kind of meaning in their life. That's what fighting for something you believe in is, and that's what Barney did. It could be publishing or anything else.

R: The film stresses that nostalgia for the '50s misreads that era -- it was a very repressive time. But we experience that same repression today. In that way, Obscene feels very contemporary.

NO: We just saw this movie Heavy Metal in Baghdad, about this heavy metal band in Iraq that was willing to risk their lives for their music. It's just an example. Or the PATRIOT Act. In some ways, things are censored today in a much more insidious way by just marginalizing them or by co-opting them.

DO: There wasn’t one person we interviewed who didn't volunteer -- we didn't even have to ask -- that today was worse politically and culturally than at any time in their lives. They all felt that we had regressed since the early '60s. One of the many ironies of this film is that Barney's instrument for fighting censorship in the '50s and '60s was books. Today that would not be his instrument, because paradoxically, the expanded freedom has completely devalued books; they don't have the value that they did when thousands of people rushed to the stores to buy Tropic of Cancer. It's readily available.

R: So to what degrees would you call Obscene a portrait, a warning against complacency or maybe even a call to action?

NO: I'd say it's all of those. I hope the film resonates with an audience in a way that inspires them to reach back in their souls and say, "What the fuck am I doing with my life?" Rather than try to make a lot of money. Is there something more meaningful for me that I could also do? Hopefully it's an inspiration to apply some of the passion that Barney had in a contemporary way.

DO: That's the thing about Barney that gets lost when we focus on the fight against something -- repression, censorship, whatever it is. Barney lived large; he was a monster of curiosity and he wanted other people to have that experience living in the world. And I think it's the narrowness of American life that he was hoping to expand for everybody.

NO: I'll bring up Heavy Metal in Baghdad again: If Barney was in his prime today, he'd be making films in that way. He'd be risking his life, he'd be risking his own money. He'd be out there on the front lines or wherever.

DO: He'd be running Vice Magazine.

Posted at September 13, 2007 12:45 PM

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