Last night, I attended the inaugural screening of Rough Cuts: Documentaries in Progress hosted by Thom Powers at the beautiful Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. Yes, there really is such a place. And it is very pleasant, thanks for asking. Programming Director, Brian Ackerman and team, put on fantastic programs, showcasing both foreign and domestic film classics, as well as brand-new fare hot off the slopes of Sundance and other major festivals. Go here to see what they have on tap this summer.
This was the first in a series of works showing for the first time to a paying audience--more to follow in the fall. Audiences get to participate in a Q&A/discussion with the filmmaker(s) after the screening, moderated by Mr. Powers, and weigh in on thoughts they have about the film, their likes and dislikes, etc. An unusually sophisticated film-going population shows up for things like this, so it's always lively and thought-provoking. This evening was the first time one of the filmmakers had seen this assembly, which I wouldn’t really classify as a “rough cut.” It was a very polished, accomplished, quite comprehensive film that will probably have its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. (But I didn’t hear that from Thom.)
In his introduction, Powers spoke of his role as programmer of Documentaries and Mavericks at the Toronto fest. He says that the “work” of watching movies all day (admittedly a dream job, if there ever was one for a film lover), comes when he has to deny a film a slot in the fest—“It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend three or four times a day.” In the course of viewing the thousands of submissions that came to him this past year, he watched Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor’s Barney Rosset vs. Our Way of Life. He says he’s always a bit dubious before viewing a film made by first-timers about an obscure figure or subject. He says that, “More times than not, it involves more love than craft.” But upon viewing Ortenberg and O’Connor’s film, he said that he felt like he was “in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.”
The filmmakers, who have both made careers in the publishing world, weave together the biography of Barney Rosset, maverick publisher of Evergreen Review and Grove Press (now Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press), who fought key First Amendment battles in the 1950s and 1960s to publish works of literature (at the time, deemed works of “obscenity”), such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and to distribute the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), among other ground-breaking works. This was a time, remember, when one could be sent to prison for buying and/or having in one’s possession a copy of one of these subversive books.
Over the years, Rosset exhausted a family fortune pursuing his passions, “publishing dirty books,” and never backing down from controversy, or a court battle. Due to this, he eventually lost control of his own company. This documentary uncovers an invigorating chapter of American cultural history, making lively use of Rosset's personal film collection. Ortenberg and O'Connor's film is an extremely rich tapestry of still and motion archival materials and wonderful interviews with great storytellers like filmmaker John Waters and writer Gore Vidal, and an extensive roster of the writers, poets and artists of the 50s, and the people who worked beside Rosset in breaking the cultural, political and sexual barriers of that repressive decade. (I’ll know when the planet is about to crack in two because Vidal will actually have something nice to say about his native country.)
This will be a must-see for anyone who cares about literature, books, movies, and freedom of expression. And, oh yeah, sexual “debauchery.” As we know, one man’s debauchery is another man’s. . . . Never mind.
In a lovely moment of kismet, I just stumbled upon an ad for “a mind-blowing, must-see exhibition” at the Whitney called THE SUMMER OF LOVE: Art of the Psychedelic Era through September 16, organized by the Tate Liverpool. Feed your head.
Here are some excerpts from the lively Q&A with Thom Powers and co-director, Dan O’Connor following the 100-minute film:
Thom Powers (TP): So, Dan, this is your first film with co-director Neil Ortenburg.
Dan O’Connor (DO): First and last. (laughs)
TP: You said that you don’t even know if you would call yourself a filmmaker.
DO: No, I’m sure I can’t call myself a filmmaker. I just want to make that clear. Really, though, this film was made by four people: myself, Neil Ortenburg and husband and wife editing team, Alexander Meillier and Tanya Ager Meillier. I was telling Thom on the way over here, that the film would not be in the shape it is if it weren't for those two.
TP: You and Neil come from publishing backgrounds. In the credits, it says “in memoriam” of several people and companies, one of which is a publisher for which you used to work.
DO: Thunder’s Mouth Press, recently acquired by Perseus Books who have announced that they will disband the imprint after publishing the most recent slate of books out this fall. And Don Allen, who worked very closely with Barney at Grove died in 2004 and we, unfortunately, didn’t get to interview him—he was extremely close with Barney and was an incredibly influential figure in American letters. And Roy Kuhlman, the pioneering graphic artist and book cover designer also passed away before we got a chance to meet with him for an interview.
TP: I guess it’s somewhat of a haunting reminder of how important it is to get these things while you have the chance.
DO: Absolutely. Even before making this, and certainly during, we would always wish that someone had done this before us. For all kinds of reasons, I wish somebody else had done it! But certainly I wish that somebody had approached the Grove oeuvre before—it’s frankly kind of surprising that someone did not. Many of the significant Grove writers were still alive up until a few years ago and now they’re gone.
TP: That’s perhaps the documentary filmmaker’s obsession—thinking about all the things that you missed. But still, you managed to capture quite a bit. Every time I watch it, I’m taken by the incredible amount and quality of footage you dug up. Can you talk about that part of it, that research phase and the archival work that you did to piece this together?
DO: As part of my publishing career, I had several projects that were archival in nature. We did a book of Jack Kerouac’s paintings, and through the archives in the New York Public Library, we looked through boxes of Kerouac’s notebooks that no one had looked at before because they had been packed away. My life’s been spent going through people’s personal archives, books and papers and I just find it fascinating. For me, that was one of the best parts of this. These things were literally packed away and had never been looked at, never even developed—complete reels of raw footage and other materials that hadn’t been viewed since they were filmed in the thirties and forties. A lot of that stuff just gets thrown away. The process of getting rid of that is actually accelerating today in the film world, and every other medium, as digitization comes to the fore. Archives and libraries are going to be losing vast amounts of information—there just aren’t the resources to salvage all of it.
Read more in a future post about this film and the talented team that created it. And read up on your Barney Rosset—he’s an incredibly important figure in mid-century modern American history and a national treasure. He’s part of the reason you and I can read and see what we want and can even express (and publish) our opinions and thoughts about what we read and see.
As complacent as we might be about this “right,” depending on who’s in power, this can change “our way of life” shockingly quickly. See Agnes Varnum’s recent blog entitled, Trifecta: USA vs. Freedom for some good (and disturbing) reading on this very subject.