Booking Film

UNDER THE RECKLESS FEARLESS LEADERSHIP of Barney Rosset, Grove Press established itself as a publishing pioneer in the postwar era. Riding the cresting waves of the paperback revolution and the GI Bill, and exploiting a crucial footnote in the landmark Supreme Court Decision Roth v. United States (1957), Grove effectively and almost single-handedly ended censorship of the printed word in the 1960s, while also introducing a generation of readers to the radical revelations of avant-garde and experimental literature, especially drama. The fascinating story of how Grove Press and its house organ, the Evergreen Review, revolutionized the publishing industry has now been told and retold many times, both in personal memoirs and popular histories. [1] Much less has been written about the company’s attempt to make similar achievements in film. Indeed, when I began researching my own history of Grove, all I could find was a Harvard College undergraduate honors thesis.

This neglect is finally being redressed by Ed Halter and Barney Rosset’s edited volume From the Third Eye, a collection of essays, reviews, interviews, and images from the Evergreen Review focusing on film and television. As Halter’s informative introduction reminds us, Rosset’s interest in film antedated his entry into publishing. He spent World War II in China supervising a film crew for the Army Signal Corps, having been trained at the Paramount studio in Queens by the likes of John Huston and Frank Capra. And after he returned from the war, he produced an award-winning documentary film on racism in the United States called Strange Victory. The film did well on the festival circuit, but Rosset struggled bitterly with the director Leo Hurwitz and the film lost money. Rosset cut his considerable losses and restlessly moved on to publishing, purchasing Grove Press for $3,000 in 1951. For the next decade he would focus on books, but he never lost his interest in film.

He returned to the medium in the early 1960s when he attempted to commission some of Grove’s authors to write screenplays for him to produce, resulting in Samuel Beckett’s only trip to the United States to make Film with Buster Keaton. The other projects fell through, and Grove’s serious, and in many ways ill-advised, foray into the film industry wouldn’t come until the succès de scandale of I Am Curious (Yellow) in the late ’60s, which brought a massive influx of cash and publicity to the company at precisely the moment when the cinematic avant-garde was garnering mainstream interest. Rosset started a film division, hired Kent Carroll from Variety to run it, and began aggressively acquiring foreign, avant-garde, and erotic films, as well as experimenting with innovative ways to distribute them through video rentals, mail order, and the festival circuit. For the next few years, Grove Press would be a major player in publicizing and popularizing radical underground and experimental cinema from around the world.

From the Third Eye reflects this somewhat squinting chronology, featuring only a handful of pieces from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then telescoping into a remarkable sequence of essays and interviews published between 1967 and 1973, heady years for both the Evergreen Review and the global counterculture. There is far too much to summarize here but it’s well worth pointing out some of the highlights of this stimulating collection, which invokes a period when the cultural, political, and sexual meanings of revolution were chaotically converging in the pages of Grove’s groundbreaking journal, which was at the peak of its popularity and influence.

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The volume opens in 1958 with Amos Vogel’s energetic and insightful account of the first International Experimental Film Festival held in Brussels in conjunction with the World’s Fair. Founder of Cinema 16 (which Grove would eventually acquire) and the New York Film Festival, Vogel was a frequent contributor to the Evergreen Review and both his expertise and elitism are on display here, particularly in his cranky critique of the New American Cinema, “13 Confusions,” published in the June 1967 issue of the magazine and then followed by a range of responses from Daniel Talbot, Parker Tyler, Annette Michelson, Richard Schickel, Gregory J. Markopoulos, and Jonas Mekas.

With Hollywood in retreat and barriers to entry — both economic and technological — falling, this was something of a Golden Age for the cinematic avant-garde, and the energy and urgency of the burgeoning underground is especially well represented in this collection by fascinating interviews with the likes of John Cassavetes, Dennis Hopper, William Klein, Marguerite Duras, and Jean-Luc Godard. Collectively these interviews exhibit the radically experimental and participatory ethos that informed the expanding underground film community during this highly fruitful period. It produced its share of failures, and many of the films themselves are hard to watch (not to mention hard to find) today, but it also produced some masterpieces, many of which were distributed by Grove (a convenient list of which is provided in an appendix).

Like the company and its catalog, the collection lacks diversity, but it is worth noting the evidence of efforts to remedy this liability. Particularly revelatory are three remarkable pieces by pioneering journalist Lita Eliscu, including a review of Norman Mailer’s Wild 90 (1968), which calls Mailer “that little boy who, mysteriously enough, is somehow always unanimously considered the Ringleader.” Eliscu still doesn’t get enough credit for her pioneering work with Crawdaddy (1970) and The East Village Other (1969), and it is heartening to see her prominently featured here. The collection also includes a lengthy review-essay by Julius Lester on Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi (1968), which powerfully chronicles the transformation in African-American cultural and political identity effected by post-colonialism and the rise of the New Nations. Lester, the radical writer and Civil Rights activist who passed recently, was the first African American to hold a permanent editorial position with the Evergreen Review.

If many of these essays poignantly invoke a past whose radical possibilities have long been foreclosed, others reveal the degree to which Grove’s stable of authors and critics foresaw the future. I was particularly impressed by Nat Hentoff’s 1969 essay on cable television, which accurately predicts that “as many as ninety percent of American homes will be hooked into a cable system within a decade.” As Halter affirms in his introduction, Grove attempted to innovate a number of new technologies and business models, including video rental and an experimental “cinemagazine” that would be a kind of visual media version of the Evergreen Review. The company also innovated image-heavy film-books that anticipate the marketing and modes of access of DVDs. Grove in effect foresaw a digital multimedia era in which it would not participate, at least not under Barney Rosset.

Given Rosset’s proclivities, there is, of course, a lot of sex in this collection — from John Lahr’s interview with Vilgot Sjöman, to Parker Tyler’s essay “Do They or Don’t They? Why It Matters So Much,” to Robert Coover’s review of Suck Magazine’s “First Annual Wet Dream Festival,” to Sara Davidson’s profile of self-styled sex gurus Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, to Norman Mailer’s ponderous review of Last Tango in Paris titled “A Transit to Narcissus.” Mailer’s narcissistic critique of Brando’s narcissistic performance closes out the volume. This would be the last issue of the Evergreen Review until its recent resuscitation under John Oakes, and Mailer’s palpable disappointment that he doesn’t get to see “Brando’s real cock up Schneider’s real vagina” echoes the anachronistic urgency of Tyler’s discussion of screening sex. Ultimately, these selections index an interregnum in film history between the end of the production code and the rise of the ratings system, when the cinéma vérité aesthetic of the avant-garde overlapped with the clinical voyeurism of hard-core pornography under the sign of the sexual revolution. It was a brief interval, brought to a messy end by the ghettoization of the X-rating and the sexual politics of women’s liberation, the very same forces that contributed to the demise of Grove Press under Barney Rosset.

We now have the privilege to revisit this volatile interregnum in a documentary form that echoes the aesthetic and political preoccupations of the experimental cinema of the period. Halter confirms in his introduction, “[t]he ‘you-are-there’ mode of documentary reporting was one of Evergreen‘s most distinctive features,” and this mode harmonized with the aesthetic of much of the avant-garde film under discussion in these pages. As Halter notes, many of these reports are like “mini-movies themselves,” both documenting and participating in the experimental aesthetic of underground cinema. They are well worth the price of admission.

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Loren Glass is professor of English and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. The paperback reissue of his book, Rebel Publisher: Grove Press and the Revolution of the Word, was released from Seven Stories Press this month.

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[1] See, for example, Barney Rosset’s My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship (2017), Richard Seaver’s The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age (2012), Al Silverman’s The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors, and Authors (2008), and Michael Rosenthal’s Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset, America’s Maverick Publisher and His Battle against Censorship (2017).

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