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Originally published Friday, November 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Obscene": The gutsy publisher who brought the underground to light

"Obscene": A fondly scruffy homage to Barney Rosset, the impish publisher of Grove Press who inspired profound cultural change with books such as "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and "Tropic of Cancer."

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Obscene," a documentary directed by Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg. 97 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum.

Anyone of an age to remember the adolescent thrill of leafing through a copy of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" or "Tropic of Cancer" will delight in "Obscene," a fondly scruffy homage to the man who made them famous. As publisher of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, Barney Rosset picked his battles over censorship with strategic precision, riding waves of prosperity and penury as his business sense constantly shifted between principles and profits.

Grove championed a score of other literary landmarks throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, but it was the books Rosset published that were deemed indecent that sealed the company's reputation as a crusading voice for free speech and an awakening counterculture. In addition to court cases fought and won over D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, Rosset prevailed in placing William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" in Grove's pantheon and successfully battled to reprint Allen Ginsberg's previously banned poem "Howl" in Evergreen.

The focus of "Obscene" remains steadfastly on the man, thanks to a rich variety of archival and interview clips that span his entire career and a slew of colleagues, fiends and enemies. Rosset's impish character is a delightful counterpoint to his history as a tireless advocate to bring the underground to light. The rueful spark of passion shines through most in lengthy segments from a rude and candidly entertaining late-'80s appearance with Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein. It glimmers still in new footage that follows the octogenarian through days he now spends in near poverty, having lost his company and the real-estate fortune he forsook to keep it afloat.

Rosset's life would make a cracking good read in itself. Married and divorced four times, he came to own Grove mostly by accident after early interest in social issues, including the publication of a magazine called "Anti-Everything" and a stint in the Army Signal Corps making combat films in the company of John Huston and Frank Capra. He returned to the movie business in 1968 when Grove made millions distributing the Swedish sex film "I Am Curious (Yellow)" amid another obscenity contest that ultimately landed before the Supreme Court.

The leftist political bent Rosset promoted with books by Malcolm X and Che Guevara also brought the interest of the CIA and a bombing at Grove's New York office. But Rosset's controversies were never about grandstanding — he chose his obstacles and downplayed his business missteps out of authentic zeal that paid off with genuine social transformation.

"I didn't do it to save humanity; I did it to save 'Tropic of Cancer' and Henry Miller," says Rosset about the battle he knew he'd face over a book and author he thought America needed. Humanity did just fine and was probably better off for the torch Barney Rosset carried with grace, guts and good humor.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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