Obscene (Arthouse Films) (2007)

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Released 18-Mar-2009

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Interviews-Cast-Looking Back with Barney Rosset (24.50)
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2007
Running Time 97:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Daniel O'Connor
Neil Ortenberg
Studio
Distributor

Madman Entertainment
Starring Amiri Baraka
Lenny Bruce
William S. Burroughs
Jim Carroll
Al Goldstein
Erica Jong
Ray Manzarek
Barney Rosset
John Sayles
Gore Vidal
John Waters
Case Slip Case
RPI ? Music Askold Buk


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Madman Entertainment continues the high quality of its Arthouse Series with Obscene, a documentary on publisher Barney Rosset and Grove Press, the publishing house which he operated in its heydays of the 50' to 70's.

It is difficult to know what might have happened for America, and then the rest of the English speaking World had not Rosset decided to take up an offer from his ex-wife to take over a failing publishing house (it had three books!) and create the modern Grove Press, a bastion of free speech since the early 50's. Would the great and controversial works of our time have still managed to be widely read and published without the persistence of this man? Maybe , maybe not - for it was the relentless determination of Rosset to challenge censorship in the face of considerable opposition which allowed banned works to be published for the first time in the U.S. and paved the way for the new and interesting writers to come.

Rosset came from a wealthy background and, as the film is keen to point out, gradually sold off all his landholdings in the Hamptons in order to keep the company going. He joined the army in the Second World War and became a wartime filmmaker, despite a lack of experience. After his marriage to abstract expressionist painter Joan Smith failed he took up her suggestion to run Grove Press, a dying little publisher.

Obscene is the story of Rosset and Grove - it is a story of long drawn out court cases and sometimes financial success. At college Rosset was obsessed with Henry Miller and, in particular, the book Tropic of Cancer. He realised that the frank depictions of sex and adult language would have prevented the book being published in America so he set about easing the book into the country by publishing an old chestnut - Lady Chatterley's Lover. Upon publication the book was banned and Grove was charged with breaching obscenity laws. After a court case, indeed a series of court cases, the book was declared by the Supreme Court to be suitable for the American public to read. It remained on the shelves and primed Rosset for his battle over Tropic of Cancer. The success of that legal war led to the publication of several books in the U.S. which were formerly considered unpublishable. The benefit of having a growing publisher was to be able to fund the court actions, sometimes in several states of America, although Barney's associates expressed the view that Grove was more of a legal defence company than a publisher!

Sexually controversial literature wasn't the only focus of Grove. Barney formed a lifelong friendship with Samuel Beckett after reading a French copy of Waiting For Godot and became the publisher of the work in America bringing a cornerstone of 20th century theatre to a waiting, if not exactly willing , audience.

Grove began publication of the Evergreen Review which was a collection of stories and poems by emerging writers and became a source of its own controversy with it's embrace of the free love, free drugs and free speech era.

Obscene the film picks out key episodes in the life of Rosset : Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, Beckett, Howl by Allan Ginsberg and Burrough's Naked Lunch. In the 70's Rosset went back to his love of film and promoted the Swedish soft porn flick I am Curious (Yellow). Ironically, this arthouse nudie pic earned enormous amounts of money and enabled Grove to keep publishing it's controversial works. Some questioned why he turned a treasure trove of erotica into a part of the Grove Publishing stable and Rosset never had a really good answer. He just liked the books!

As a documentary Obscene is an indispensable piece of history for anyone interested in the development of free speech and literature. It is a brisk 90 odd minutes brought to life with the use of archival footage and comments from the aged, but remarkably sprightly, Rosset.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality

Video

   Obscene is compiled from a variety of sources with different aspect ratios. The cinematic aspect ratio was 1.85:1 and this release conforms to that ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

The film is an amalgam of archive material and modern interviews. One of the interesting aspects of the film is that Rosset has been interviewed at different periods of his life. He appears larger than life, though silent, in early home movies and a major part of the interview material comes from an Midnight Blue segment from 1989. The quality of the video varies according to the source. The Midnight Blue interview looks every inch like a late-80'zero budget video tape with all the attendant problems such as colour bleeding, chroma noise, compression artefacts and a general washed out look. The modern footage fares much better. Shot on HD it is accurate in colour and reasonably sharp.

Image quality aside it is remarkable that Rosset still has some of this footage from the 40's and 50's.

There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
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Shadow Detail
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Audio

   The sound for Obscene is English Dolby Digital 2.0 running at 224 Kb/s.

This is perfectly adequate for this film which largely consists of interviews. The voices are clear and easy to understand making the absence of subtitles only a minor irritation. Only once did I have to rewind to pick up what Barney was saying.

The music comes from the period. Ray Manzarek from the Doors is one of the interviewees so it is no surprise that The Doors turn up on the soundtrack. Also Dylan, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon and X are used to great effect. Interestingly it is not major hits but album tracks that get a play. Of course, X's Adult Books is a perfect fit for the film!

The sound transfer is without noticeable flaws. It appears to be in audio sync.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

There is only one real extra on the DVD.

Looking Back with Barney Rosset (24.20)

This is a filmed interview with Rosset taken on digital video. It is presented in a 1.85:1 letterboxed transfer which is not 16x9 enhanced. The interview is split into various segments and the talkative Barney gives us further insights into his character. A strange character it is too. Barney tells us about his chronic bedwetting, his first sexual experience and his dog Spike, a bull terrier, which he bought to kill all the poodles in his area!

Definitely worth a watch.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

  This film has been released in an identical form in Region 1.

Summary

    Obscene is one of those documentaries which is a revelation. We take Beckett, Pinter and Miller for granted as if they strolled unhindered onto the book shelves. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without free speech advocates like Rosset these writers may never have been able to gain major publication and literature may have stayed unchanged.

The DVD quality is fine in both sound and vision terms. The flaws in the quality relate back to the source.

The only extra is remarkable in showing how mentally nimble Barney remains after all these years.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayPioneer PDP-5000EX. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR605
SpeakersJBL 5.1 Surround and Subwoofer

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