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What is Obscene? Arthouse Films Documentary About Obscenity Trials

posted by Nell Minow

Arthouse Films, a terrific new company specializing in documentaries about art, has released an important documentary called Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rossett and Grove Press. As was once said about another film, this one has “something to offend everyone.” Rossett published allegedly obscene books by everyone from William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, and Henry Miller to the “anonymous” works of Victorian pornographers. Many of these works are now considered classic texts, studied by scholars and appreciated by millions of readers. And of course, by today’s standards, they are by no means considered shocking or fringe.
Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in the New York Times:
Appropriately framed by Mr. Rosset’s raucous 1989 interview with Al Goldstein, the colorful publisher of Screw magazine and no stranger to litigation himself, “Obscene” is a warm, entertaining compendium of counterculture voices (including Jim Carroll and Amiri Baraka) and literary landmarks. It’s the story of a man who follows his own drummer — usually with rum and Coke in hand — and believes in “nourishing the accidental.” We should all be grateful that he does.
Rossett’s story is an integral part of the cultural tumult of the era and a precursor of the culture wars of today. He was a pioneer in publishing — and in First Amendment law. His courtroom battles are as important as the works he published. To paraphrase the words attributed to Voltaire, “We may not agree with what he said — we may find it disturbing, disgusting, or offensive — but I would defend to the death his right to say it.”

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