BARNEY’S WALL, a feature-length documentary now in post-production, probes the psyche of literary bad-boy, Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, whose legendary censorship battles smashed sexual taboos and blew open American culture and politics to let in avante-garde writers and thinkers. Grove Press and its in-house publication Evergreen Review introduced millions of young intellectuals to the hippest currents in literature, theater, film and revolutionary politics.
The film employs as a portal an unknown late-life 15’x12′ surreal collage-mural, painted by Barney in his late ’80’s in his NYC East Village loft.
What makes a rebel? In the film, artists, a neurologist and a shaman labor to decode the symbols, dioramas and clues to Barney’s obsessions and life, embedded in his 3D wall mural. Is the mural a joke? An acid trip? An hallucinogenic visual memoir? By turns humorous and poignant, this unconventional and timely bio-doc of the firebrand who bequeathed America the 60’s, Beckett, Burroughs, and the Beats affirms the power of imagination, resilience, and unfettered free expression, reminding us that it takes only one defiant visionary to marshal a passionate army of resistance against cultural repressiveness and overreaching government authority.
The back story: Barney Rosset had one simple credo by which he lived and worked: Artistic expression is sacrosanct. Writers and artists are heroes. Their ideas will enlarge your life. And what they create should never be censored.
Flamboyant, principled and provocative, Barney changed the cultural landscape of America. His defiant publication in the early 1960’s of D.H. Lawrence’s then-banned Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burrough’s Naked Lunch landed him in costly First Amendment battles that led all the way to the Supreme Court. These relentless crusades broke the back of that era’s literary censorship laws, which were abolished in landmark decisions. Grove went on to publish now canonical, then avant-garde, authors ranging from Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet to the Beats and Malcolm X, and – after yet another First Amendment battle – to the distribution of the classic erotic film, “I Am Curious Yellow”. At his death in 2012, every major publication in America lauded Barney Rosset as one of the country’s most effective advocates of the right to read, publish and create without fear of intimidation, retribution or humiliation.
In 2010, after Columbia University acquired his archives, a life-time collection of correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and films, Barney Rosset began to paint his 12’ x 15’ three dimensional mural on one wall of his East Village loft, an obsessive endeavor considered by many to be his visual autobiography. He was 88.
BARNEY’S WALL documents the emotional power of the mural through the commentary of an eclectic cast of avant-garde writers, editors, artists, filmmakers, publishers, actors, musicians, and lifetime friends and family of Barney who were invited after his death by the filmmakers to freely ’riff’ upon his last masterpiece. The cast’s wildly imaginative, and frequently humorous interpretations and free associations are a celebration of the art of self-expression and an affirmation of Thoreau’s observation that it is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.