Breathing New Light: Reexamining Grove Press's Cinematic Legacy
From The Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader
(Seven Stories Press, 2017)
Over a decade and a half in the making, From The Third Eye: The Evergreen Review Film Reader is the first comprehensive look at Barney Rosset and Grove Press’s contribution to film culture, collecting close to four dozen articles of the Evergreen Review’s film section, contextualized with an in-depth introduction by Ed Halter and brilliantly laid out in the distinguished style of the erstwhile magazine. That such a work has finally arrived forty-five years after the demise of the Review is a testament to Rosset’s repeated lament that Grove’s place in film history is overlooked. Film, after all, was Rosset’s first artistic obsession, and he speaks of thinking more in images than in words, although it is undoubtedly the latter upon which his legacy rests. But the legendary publisher envisioned Grove as an interdisciplinary Leviathan, establishing dominion over theatre and film as well as the written word—a “new kind of communications center of the sixties” as Grove’s 1967 shareholder statement asserts with McLuhanesque bravado. Hearing this declaration decades hence, one is inclined to wonder—was it? As an answer to this question, From The Third Eye offers an intimate glimpse into this multimedia machine and its fractured legacy.
Considering a press as storied as Grove, whose very name immediately evokes the literary upheavals of sixties and seventies counterculture, it would be easy for one writing an introduction to fall into dull hagiography. Halter deftly avoids this, opting instead for more obscure and personal aspects culled from his own interviews with the elder publisher, supplying personality and frankness to the legend of Grove in a way other breathless retellings lack. He recounts the revealing story of Rosset’s initial attempt to break into film, producing the 1948 documentary on postwar race relations in America, Strange Victory. The film was a critical hit—W.E.B Du Bois was among its admirers—and won several awards overseas but was barely screened for public audiences and in the end was sold off for a dollar. Rosset’s next cinematic endeavor was an experimental adaptation of Alain-Fournier’s 1913 novel The Wanderer but creative differences with the author’s estate left the project in limbo and he instead merely submitted the screenplay as his bachelor’s thesis for the New School for Social Research.
With the failures of his initial creative forays in the medium he considered his true calling, we can see the kernel of Rosset’s cinematic insecurity, the first edges of a long shadow that he felt loomed over his career. Three years after Strange Victory, he bought a failing West Village press for three thousand dollars. It would be more than a decade before Rosset returned to film—and the six years later he’d be out again.
The collected articles in From The Third Eye range from the late fifties to the early seventies, and feature work from authors such as John Lahr, Lita Eliscu, L.M Kit Carson, and Sara Davidson, accompanied by original artwork and advertisements from the issues. The very first article by Amos Vogel sets the Review’s tone of theory-laden exegesis merged with an underground sensibility as Vogel recounts his visit to the 1958 International Experimental Film Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Brussels. It is an insightful read, containing ethnography of the World’s Fair pavilions (one wonderful flourish: America is referred to as an “incongruous lagoon”), evocative analysis of the emerging Polish cinema and the amusing note that Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation Of The Night started a riot in the theater. Vogel ends it with a foreshadowing of Grove Films fate: despite the awards and acclamations, no one has “so far solved the financial problem of the avant-garde.”
But the bulk of From The Third Eye is writing from 1967 onwards—coinciding with Rosset’s decision to not only go public with the company but considerably ramp up its cinematic efforts: after an early Sixties foray to create motion pictures by playwrights, Grove Films prioritized distribution over production. That year, the company acquired Vogel’s vaunted Cinema 16 Film Library and opened a theater on East 11th Street, with showings of Godard and Warhol heavily advertised in the New York Times. In 1968 the Evergreen Review switched to a monthly format—by doing so, Rosset opened up more column space to be filled with writing about Grove’s own films and books. A healthy portion of the featured pieces can be read as sly self-promotion, what today’s growth hackers might term “native content” reinforcing the avant-garde ecosystem in which Rosset fancied himself apex predator, especially after the resounding success of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow). Vigorously promoted (and protested), the film netted a cool six million in 1969, second only to La Dolce Vita as the highest-grossing import, serving as a temporary rebuff to Vogel’s economic postulation.
Of course, film and self-promotion have always been comfortable bedfellows. The best pieces in From The Third Eye are intra-Grove dialogues and interviews—Lahr’s extended conversation with Sjöman and Davidson’s feature on the married sexologist-filmmakers Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen are standouts, brimming with erotic energy and insightful transgressions. Dennis Hopper, Marguerite Duras, and John Cassavetes also get their brains picked with aplomb. These pieces provide the most esteem to Rosset’s self-styled notion of the “communications center,” as emerging and avant-garde personalities are given the Variety star treatment with ample space to expound their ideas in text in addition to their imagery.
Are Grove’s and the Evergreen Review’s contributions to film overlooked? In the thick of it, they were broadening the availability of imported and domestic experimental cinema, as well as defending their legitimacy in court and were heralded for it. But in relation to the current discourse and accepted wisdom, tallying their influence is complicated. The dialectical format and paeans of countercultural fame are perhaps more associated with Warhol’s Interview magazine than with the Review. Many of the great critics who got their start are remembered for their later works than the early screeds. I Am Curious (Yellow) is known better as a legal metonym for censorship than as a substantial work of cinema. Aside from that surprise hit, little of Grove Film’s efforts made any real money and by 1971 they closed their cinemas and trafficked heavily in X-rated “educational” films. And as the seventies progressed into deeper socio-political strife, even the abashedly leftist Grove had to contend with the fact that it was a mostly male, mostly heterosexual editorship which called the shots.
Yet for all the misgivings (why did they like Norman Mailer so much?) Grove and the Evergreen Review, as this book makes quite clear, undoubtedly forged a unique enterprise in the marriage of text and moving image, bringing criticism to a wider audience without intellectual compromise. Unlike many contemporaneous underground outlets, their articles still crackle with crisp lucidity and a healthy skepticism, encouraging conversation and debate and giving a platform to a diversity of voices. From The Third Eye holds fast to this approach, unafraid to expose the foibles and faults of a venerable and problematic institution but equally determined to showcase the depths of its talent and inquiry.