Most people know Grove Press and its onetime sister journal, The Evergreen Review, as the pioneering publishers of Burroughs, Beckett and Brecht, just to name some of the Bs. Grove gave us seminal (in every sense of the word) books such as Valley of the Dolls (the 50th-anniversary edition of which will be published in July) and Please Kill Me (the 10th-anniversary edition of which comes out in April). What’s not so well known is that Grove’s firebrand publisher, Barney Rosset, was a cinema buff who launched a trailblazing film division in the mid-’60s. In May, to mark a new collection of Evergreen essays, BAM will screen 29 titles distributed by Grove and/or championed by Evergreen, including rarities by Godard, Genet, Warhol, and Robbe-Grillet (late husband of that 85-year-old dominatrix) .
You may have seen Grove’s most notorious film, I Am Curious (Yellow), when Nitehawk recently screened it as part of its Nitehawk Naughties series. The Swedish import was the subject of one of several obscenity trials waged against Grove, and garnered an X rating when it was released in 1967. It even scandalized Don Draper back then, but John Waters put it best in Obscene, a documentary about Rosset’s trials and travails: “You look at it now and it’s so boring. It’s like a limp dick and ugly girls, really– and talking about communism.” With its inclusion of on-the-scene footage of a Martin Luther King speech, it’s more MLK than it is XXX.
Still, New Yorkers (and Jackie Kennedy) were so titillated by I Am Curious (Yellow) that they flocked to The Evergreen Theater, a movie house on East 11th Street that Rosset had purchased in order to screen the titles he distributed. The film ultimately raked in $14 million, according to Counterculture Colophon, a history of Grove by Loren Glass. After that Powerball-esque windfall, Rosset began acquiring films like wildfire– which, Glass notes, would ultimately help cause his house to burn down.
Needless to say, I Am Curious (Yellow) will be screened at BAM, along with films that held up a hell of a lot better (e.g. Godard’s Weekend and Oshima’s Boy). The lineup was just posted to Facebook by the makers of a new Rosset documentary, Barney’s Wall. Among the highlights: Jean Genet’s impressionistic contemplation of prison sex, Un Chant d’Amour; Susan Sontag’s directorial debut, Duet for Cannibals, about a young couple ensnared in games of erotic intrigue; Dennis Hopper’s post-Easy Rider flop, The Last Movie, which he made partly under the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky; Andy Warhol’s The Nude Restaurant, which is exactly what it sounds like; Lionel Rogosin’s follow-up to On the Bowery, a docu-fiction set in South Africa titled Come Back, Africa; and a documentary about the Black Panthers and their quest to free Huey Newton that seems especially timely in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are also docs about Godard and Evergreen contributor Norman Mailer. (Unfortunately, one of Grove’s standout titles, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, didn’t make the cut.)
As recounted in Counterculture Colophon, Grove pushed its releases to academia, inviting colleges to host campus film festivals. But not all of the brand’s endeavors were highbrow: the porn-peddling, mail-order Evergreen Club invited members to “have a nostalgic ‘blue film’ festival right in the privacy of your own den or living room!”
Rosset’s plunge into pornography is another thing that helped hasten his demise, Glass notes. In 1970, a group of feminists led by ex-employee Robin Morgan famously took over his office on Mercer and Bleecker (a costly upgrade from the previous headquarters at 80 University Place). They demanded unionization and accused Grove and Evergreen of “dehumanizing women through sado-masochistic literature, pornographic films, and oppressive and explorative practices” against female employees. Their manifesto demanded “no more using of women’s bodies to rip off enormous profits for a few wealthy capitalist dirty old straight white men, such as Barney Rosset!”
The arrest of the occupiers tarnished Grove’s reputation as a publisher of radical activists such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara. The sit-in, court battles, financial mismanagement, and a nagging CIA investigation–the agency went so far as to keep reviews of I Am Curious (Yellow) on file– eventually led to the company’s takeover.
Evergreen ceased being a bastion of film criticism and coverage when it stopped publishing in 1973, but it will find new life this year. Publisher John Oakes, who got his start at Grove, is planning to reboot the magazine as an online-only concern edited by critic and novelist Dale Peck. And next month, a new book, From the Third Eye: An Evergreen Review Film Reader, will gather essays by the likes of Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer, Parker Tyler, and Amos Vogel. The compendium, edited by critic and Light Industry founder Ed Halter with the help of Rosset before his death in 2012, will offer “incisive essays and interviews from the late 1950s to early 1970s,” according to publisher Seven Stories. “Articles explore politics, revolution, and the cinema; underground and experimental film, pornography, and censorship; and the rise of independent film against the dominance of Hollywood.”
Though Grove’s film division is a thing of the past, the imprint continues to honor its legacy as a champion of boundary-pushing cinema. During its heyday, Grove was known as a pioneering publisher of paperback screenplays by auteurs such as Truffaut and Kurosawa. When I was an editorial assistant at Grove’s current parent company, Grove/Atlantic, I did what I could to further this tradition by acquiring three screenplays by Todd Haynes. You can guess who I’ll be rooting for at the Oscars.