Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Documentary explores Grove Press, Barney Rosset, and "banned books"


Back in the late 1970s, I lived in the Cast Iron Building in Manhattan, at 11th St and Broadway.  A few buildings toward the west in those days, there was a townhouse that housed the Grove Press, known for publishing avant garde and risky books, as well as the Evergreen Review, all founded by Barney Rosset.  The Bhai faith was on the street, and across the street, in another antiques store building, the United States Chess Federation had been housed in the mid 1960s, when I first started playing in tournaments. I did not know at the time that the Grove building had been bombed and burglarized in 1968 – all this at a time when NYC residents were increasingly concerned about residential security. (A building housing the Weathermen had a much bigger explosion, nearby, in 1970.)

I even sent a typed query to Grove about my own novel manuscript, “The Proles”.  Surprisingly, I got a “not interested” letter back quickly. 

The 2007 documentary “Obscene”, directed by Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg,  from “Double O Films” (distributed by Arthouse films to theaters in early 2008), traces the career of Mr. Rosset.  He did publish William S. Burroughs and “Naked Lunch”, already covered here, and fought the courtroom battle, but this film traces the evolution of obscenity law in book publishing way back, to uncensored versions of  “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” (D. H. Lawrence), and “Tropic of Cancer” (Henry Miller).  “Naked Lunch” was merely the third such case where Rosset showed “redeeming social value” by building on the idea that “past is prologue” (as one of my chess buddies  -- who would help me get a job at a critical point -- always said). 
I wasn’t aware that people had been going to jail for bringing “bad books” into the country then, before the 60s.

The documentary also discusses the controversy over the Swedish 1967 film “I Am Curious (Yellow)”, by Vilgot Sjoman, followed by a sequel “I Am Curious (Blue)”, both of which I rented from Netflix a few years  ago.  The documentary shows the most explicit scene from the first of these films. 

Here is the official site

The University of Texas has a reading from Miller’s book: 

Let me mention another documentary film from 2000 that I saw in Minneapolis at the University, "Book Wars", by Jason Rosette, about used book sellers in the East Village in NYC.  

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