Thursday, December 01, 2005

REV: Rosset Begetting Beckett

Samuel Beckett Is Ready for His Close-Up
By PAUL CULLUM , The New York Times, December 4, 2005


AT 83, Barney Rosset could be forgiven if he spent his days dwelling on his adventures of the last half-century. Grove Press, which he purchased in 1951 for $3,000, cracked open the federal censorship statutes by successfully defending the United States publication of D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" in 1959, Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" in 1961 and William S. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" in 1962. The Evergreen Review, begun in 1957, expanded America's literary, political and psychic palette, providing the first widespread domestic access to political figures like Che Guevara and Malcolm X and literary figures like Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter and the Beats. And he published almost all of Samuel Beckett's oeuvre, and served as his American agent for more than 35 years.

Instead, with the help of the Chicago filmmaker James Fotopoulos, the restless Mr. Rosset may finally realize yet another dream project - a sophisticated triptych of films by Beckett, Ionesco and Mr. Pinter, known collectively as "The Evergreen Trilogy" - a mere 40 years after it was first envisioned.

"This is something that's really not in the history books," said Ed Halter, a Village Voice film critic who edited a still unpublished volume of film writings from Evergreen Review and helped the trilogy along. "Here was this guy who is remembered for publishing, but it seems to me he had a much more significant role in the history of film than has ever been acknowledged."

Before he got sidetracked, Mr. Rosset actually seemed destined for a career in filmmaking. His oldest childhood friend is the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, with whom he made what Mr. Rosset calls some "minor-league documentaries" after World War II. He tried to study film at U.C.L.A., but the nascent curriculum was still largely unformed. Enlisting in the Army in 1942, he talked his way into the Signal Corps photographic school on Long Island, where he met Frank Capra and John Huston, before being stationed in Shanghai in the same unit as the future documentarian Ricky Leacock. Cashing in some of the trust fund left him by his father, a Chicago banker, he spent $80,000 in 1948 producing "Strange Victory," a docudrama about postwar racism, directed by Leo Hurwitz.

With the acquisition of Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 library of experimental and avant-garde shorts in 1967 (and later of Vogel himself, in the role of "film consultant"), Grove Press's film division - interchangeably called Evergreen Theater - soon became an equally staunch defender of controversial subject matter. An early selection, "Titicut Follies," Frederic Wiseman's unflinching portrait of Bridgewater State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts, engendered an epic legal battle with state authorities over patients' privacy rights.

But it was "I Am Curious (Yellow)," a Swedish-made feminist fable with graphic nudity, which Grove defended "dozens and dozens" of times in court, that ultimately brought in $6 million and allowed the company to distribute political and foreign documentaries, Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren shorts, as well as unknown works by arthouse staples like Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, Dusan Makavejev, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Glauber Rocha, Robert Downey and others.

When Grove Press was sold to the oil heiress Ann Getty and the British publisher George Weidenfeld in 1985, the film collection of 300 to 400 titles went to the Harvard Archives. (Mr. Rosset was effectively fired a year later, and the publishing house merged with Atlantic Press in 1993.)

Mr. Rosset helped finance a handful of films, including Norman Mailer's "Maidstone," Susan Sontag's "Duet for Cannibals," the documentary "Inside North Vietnam" and Godard's and Jean-Pierre Gorin's "Valdimir and Rosa" - which was pitched as a meeting between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, but was actually a re-creation of the Chicago Seven trial with French actors. But it was the abortive "Evergreen Trilogy" - only now coming into focus - that marked Grove's single foray into full-blown film production.

In 1963, riding high on Grove's literary and legal successes, Mr. Rosset approached eight writers, with the notion of offering them $20,000 each to step out of their usual genre and write a film script. Günter Grass and Ingeborg Bachmann politely declined, as did Genet, a Grove author. Duras turned in a full-length screenplay that at Mr. Rossett's suggestion eventually became the novel "The Ravishment of Lol V. Stein," which he published three years later. Robbe-Grillet's "Frank's Return," also a feature, was almost directed by Mr. Wexler, but was recycled for future projects. This left short scripts by Beckett, Ionesco and Mr. Pinter - all Grove authors, two of them future Nobel Prize winners - which Mr. Rosset envisioned as components of a single work.

"Ionesco and Beckett were the two avant-garde playwrights of their era," he said during a recent phone interview. "Beckett was Irish, of course, and Ionesco was Romanian, but they were both adopted by the French. And then Pinter, I observed with my own eyes that anything he wrote, he brought to Beckett to read and comment on - there was no secret about it - and the same with Mamet to Pinter."

The Beckett section, titled "Film," was directed in New York in 1964 by the playwright's theatrical mainstay Alan Schneider, and financed in part by a fan at Dick Powell's Four-Star Theater. After failing to interest Charlie Chaplin and the Beckett alumni Zero Mostel and Jack MacGowran, they cast the aging Buster Keaton. Beckett, who had never been to America, came to observe the filming.

The comic short is literally a philosophical sight gag, based on the Irish thinker Bishop George Berkeley's principle "To be is to be seen": It follows a man who tries to avoid being perceived at all costs - by pet cats, parrots, goldfish, paintings, photographs and even the all-seeing camera eye. When it played the New York Film Festival the next year, by at least one account it was booed, although Mr. Rosset doesn't remember that part. "That could mean I'm in a state of denial," he said.

"Film" proved so expensive that the other two sections of the planned trilogy were suspended. The Pinter script, a three-handed drama titled "The Compartment," in which two men compete for a woman and control of a closed space, was later expanded to 55 minutes and filmed as "The Basement" for the BBC in 1967, without Mr. Rosset's involvement, and with Mr. Pinter playing one of the combatants.

As for Ionesco's screenplay, "The Hard-Boiled Egg," it was written in a Manhattan hotel room on 57th Street during a blizzard, and represents Ionesco's bemused reaction to American television commercials. Interspersed with an attractive model's instructions on how to hard-boil an egg, pease porridge transforms into lava cascading down a mountainside, carrots grow to monumental size, rivers burst into flame and a two-headed eagle is sautéed alive. That presented more of a challenge.

Enter James Fotopoulos, a Chicago filmmaker and video artist who has completed over 90 works (and at 29 is the same age as Mr. Rosset was when he started out in publishing). Mr. Fotopoulos's sparse, primitive work on 16-millimeter - reflected in the feature trilogy "Zero," "Migrating Forms" and "Back Against the Wall," available on Facets Video - has given way to a green-screen-driven video-compositing style all his own.

"The thing with video is it's so easy that it allows you an almost surgical level of doing things that film never did," Mr. Fotopoulos said. "I never really worked in the traditional filmmaking mode at all, but it's really far out there now. With digital, I can work like I draw - it's that free."

Meeting for the first time in 2003 - after Mr. Halter, the film critic, put them together as possible collaborators - Mr. Rosset and Mr. Fotopoulos recognized in each other a true avant-garde sensibility driven by an old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic.

"Haskell and Fotopoulos are fairly similar in some ways," Mr. Rosset said. "And all three of us actually come from not too big a spread in Chicago."

Mr. Fotopoulos agreed to complete a film based on the Ionesco script, capitalizing on new digital technology, and to approach the BBC about licensing the Pinter play. ("We are currently involved in discussions," a BBC official said.) These are to be combined on DVD with "Film" and its outtakes (heavily featuring Keaton), as well as possibly the Genet film "Un Chant d'Amour."

"Un Chant d'Amour" is a graphic homoerotic prison meditation produced in 1950 as a private collector's item, which Mr. Rosset bought from the producer Nico Papatakis in the mid-70's, along with his feature film "Thanos and Despina." (Both "Film" and "Un Chant d'Amour" are available on video through Mr. Rosset's publishing imprint Foxrock, named after Beckett's old neighborhood in Dublin.)

To further complicate matters, Mr. Rosset invited Mr. Fotopoulos to participate in a free-form documentary combining a trip to Thailand with "Eleutheria," an elaborate, unproduced Beckett play. (The playwright had given it to Mr. Rosset in 1986 and took it back shortly before his death in 1989, leading to a battle royal with the Beckett estate when Mr. Rosset finally published it in 1995.) That film sank under its own weight before Mr. Fotopoulos resurrected it by combining other Beckett material with Mr. Rosset's 16-millimeter China films, Thailand videos (including a Thai drag show), photo archives, short stories, dream journals and the outtakes from "Film." He has now completed the film - which, despite its current title, "Eleutheria," is not the Beckett play - and may distribute it through Phosphorus Films, of which he is a co-owner.

"James and I sometimes call this 'the Fog of Barney,' " Mr. Halter said. "Because when you start getting into Barney's world, it's this labyrinth that you never get out of. He's so utterly connected to so many important things in 20th-century culture that it just doesn't stop. You could go on forever."