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By Sarah Boslaugh
December 22, 2008 

Stanley Njootli, Jr. is a young man at the crossroads: he’s charming and amiable and has a talent for art, but he also a taste for drugs and alcohol and idling his time away in bars. In his early 20’s, Stanley Jr. has already experienced homelessness, and even his drinking buddies tell him its time to go into rehab.  

Stanley’s father, Stanley Njootli, Sr. has a different idea: Stanley Jr. should leave the temptations of the urban world behind and come to live with Stanley Sr. in Old Crow, a small village 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There’s no road access to Old Crow, and also no bars, restaurants, or movie theaters: satisfaction comes from work, family and friends, with radio broadcasts and community dances for additional entertainment.  

Besides the absence of urban temptations, Stanley Sr. believes that if Stanley can reconnect with the traditional lifestyle of his ancestors (the First Nations Gwich’in tribe), he’ll find his identity and sense of purpose. And it will give the two a chance to reconnect as well: Stanley Sr. abandoned his wife and children almost 25 years previously, in part because he did not deal well with the temptations of the “south” (the contiguous 48 states), so father and son are virtual strangers. 

The experiment does not begin promisingly: his first night in Old Crow (by law a dry town) Stanley Jr. goes out to party, finds a source of homebrewed alcohol, and comes home drunk. He’s not at home in his new environment, and his initial attempts at traditional skills, from managing a dog team to ice fishing with a net, do not go well. 

But Stanley Sr. is patient and consistent, and gradually Stanley Jr. comes to appreciate a lifestyle which is very different from anything he’s known, and to take pride in his new skills. The relationship between father and son clearly grows stronger as well, although neither is given to displays of emotion or long discourses about their feelings. Stanley Sr. does articulate his beliefs on the value of the traditional lifestyle while Stanley Jr. communicates by his manner that he’s starting to agree. 

But the stay in Old Crow wasn’t meant to be permanent, and Stanley Jr. returns to Washington State. He gets a meal at Burger King, heads to the mall and goes out drinking with friends, but concludes that it’s not as much fun as it used to be. Although Stanley Jr’s future is uncertain, he chooses to return to Old Crow at the end of the film, and his time there has clearly made him a more reflective and responsible young man. 

Calm is the prevailing mood in Arctic Son, as if director Andrew Walton wanted to reflect the experience of the Gwich’in lifestyle in his film. Excellent cinematography by Jonathan Furmanski and Jeff Stonehouse reveals the northern landscape as spare and harshly beautiful, and Walton allows the story to unfold at a natural pace. He shows the two men slowly journeying toward an understanding which is implied more than stated, and presents it without interpolations by talking heads or voiceovers: what you see are the two Stanleys going about their daily lives and occasionally commenting on them in matter-of-fact terms.  

The elephant in the living room is global warming, which is barely mentioned in Arctic Son. At one point Stanley Sr. notes that the temperature in Old Crow has begun to reach 80 degrees in the summer time. That’s no idle comment, because it can bring about a change in the ecosystem which could destroy the subsistence hunting and fishing culture which is the basis of the Gwich’in traditional lifestyle. It is further threatened by the proximity of Old Crow to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska: the continuing debate about drilling for oil in the Refuge is not just an academic discussion for the Gwich’in since it would threaten the caribou herds which form an important part of their livelihood.  

DVD extras include a family-friendly version which bleeps out the stronger profanity, a 10-minute interview with director Andrew Walton, four additional scenes (one also in a family-friendly version), and a gallery of Stanley Jr’s artwork which, true to his description, is weird, but also shows his potential as an artist. The director’s interview includes background information about the film, including its origins: Walton met Stanley Sr. while researching a film about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was impressed by his intelligence and the depth of his knowledge of traditional Gwich’in culture. Stanley Sr, in turn, wanted to record traditional Gwich’in skills on film before they disappeared.  

Arctic Son was broadcast as part of the PBS series P.O.V. and is distributed by docurama. Further information is available through their web site, email  ( or by calling 1-800-314-8822. 


Arctic Son

docurama films

Directed by Andrew Walton

Color, 2006, 75 Minutes



By Umut Newbury
December 9, 2008 

This holiday season, books like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Naked Lunch” may not be on too many gift lists, but they should be. 

While the trials and tribulations of comedians George Carlin and Lenny Bruce with obscenity are well publicized and known about, the story of one American publisher and the trouble he went through to distribute the three titles mentioned above are almost unknown. 

Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor put the much-deserved spotlight on Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and Evergreen Review, in their debut documentary Obscene.  

Rosset is a Chicago native, born to Irish-Catholic and Jewish parents. Though he did serve in World War II, that’s where the 86-year-old’s similarities end with his peers in the Greatest Generation. Rosset went to radical progressive schools in Chicago and started his subversive activities in high school. He circulated a petition for John Dillinger to be pardoned and ran a newspaper, which eventually became the Anti-Everything Newspaper. Rosset’s first love was film, and through his banker father’s good connections, he managed to serve as an army cinematographer along with the likes of Frank Capra and John Hughes during WWII. His first project after the service was Strange Victory, a feature film about the problem of racism in the U.S. 

Rosset’s foray into publishing was almost accidental. His first wife, Joan Mitchell, after the couple broke up, told him about a publishing house that was abandoned after three books. In Obscene, Rosset puts it rather nonchalantly, “Somehow I acquired it.” Things that occurred afterwards, however, hardly seem random.  

His first great literary find was Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” back when it was a small play in Paris. In 1954, Rosset went to meet Beckett and managed to get the American publishing rights of the play for a ridiculous sum ($100 or $150), but told friends, “you mark my words, someday Beckett will be huge.” 

Rosset then started the Evergreen Review, the radical literary magazine, which was unlike all other magazines at the time. One colleague tells Obscene, “We were rebels; looking for things nobody else would publish.” When City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti got arrested and charged with obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Rosset published the poem in Evergreen as an act of solidarity. For many people, this was the first time they had a chance to read the epic poem, since all the book copies were impounded.  The judge ultimately found “Howl,” not obscene and exonerated Ferlinghetti.  

Rosset’s legal battle against obscenity began with D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” When published in 1928, it created furor in the U.S. In 1959, Rosset chose that as his first fight against censorship. “My god, people won’t publish a book like ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’” he says in Obscene, “which made me vomit. I had guts and I would fight.” All the literary experts of the time got behind Grove Press and Rosset, leading the court to rule that the book was not obscene and “may be out in mail.” 

Next, Rosset tackled Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” Published in 1934 in Paris, the book was banned in the U.S. and literally made it copy by copy across the Atlantic in people’s luggage. In Obscene, Erica Jong brilliantly summarizes the trouble with “Tropic of Cancer”: “If just having a word like ‘cunt’ is going to throw you off the track, you’ll never know what Miller’s all about.” The court seemed less friendly toward Miller and “Tropic of Cancer.” As one witness to the case puts it, “When you went in to testify for ‘Lady Chatterley,’ you were treated with respect. With Miller, you were treated as a member of a shit group.” Luckily for Rosset, the battle culminated in a lawsuit in his hometown Chicago and the presiding judge just happened to be a close friend of his late father. Rosset 2, Censorship 0.  

After those two legal victories, Rosset felt it was time to start distributing William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” which already had been printed, awaiting the result of the “Tropic of Cancer” lawsuit. The lawyers, Obscene informs us, were really afraid of this particular battle. Through the battle for “Tropic of Cancer,” Rosset managed to get the public opinion on “Lady Chatterley” to change from “wicked, perverse,” to a “fine book.” Through the fight for “Naked Lunch,” “Tropic of Cancer” was elevated from “a corrupt mess,” to “a great classic.” Still, “Naked Lunch” managed to prevail in the courts as well. Rosset, quoted early in the film as saying, “I feel personally there hasn’t been a word written or uttered that shouldn’t be published,” succeeded in getting a lot of judges to agree with that sentiment. 

What’s most amazing about Rosset, though, is not just his incredible struggle for First Amendment rights, but also his ability to get a really respectable list of authors under the umbrella of Grove Press. Just like he predicted, Beckett won international acclaim and the Nobel Prize in 1969. Rosset published other Nobel winners, as well, including Kenzaburo Oe, Pablo Neruda and Octavia Paz. 

Rosset’s story is a classic American story, the tale of a wild-eyed man with a lot of guts and some good luck and resources through family to fight the right battle. Obscene is an engaging biography with lots of detail and a star-studded interviewee list. There is the always-charming John Waters convincingly claiming that many in the arts and media “are benefiting from freedoms that we have because of what Barney Rosset did” and an aging Jim Carroll talking about his drug days with William Burroughs. Gore Vidal, Amiri Baraka and Ray Manzarek are also among the famous that chip in with their perspectives on Rosset’s contributions to freedom of expression. 

As thoroughly as directors Ortenberg and O’Connor walk us through Rosset’s early life and three major legal battles, they unfortunately wrap up the later years of Grove Press and Evergreen Review rather quickly and haphazardly. Obscene glosses over the incident when a bunch of feminists attempt to unionize Grove Press. Rosset dismisses them as “FBI agents” but blames the financial fall of the company on the mutiny. At the end of the film, we find out Rosset sold acres of land he owned in the Hamptons to keep the court cases going and that he went broke, sold the company then got fired. The details are murky and confusing. Surely, this wasn’t one of Rosset’s favorite parts of his life story, but it deserved a little more attention. 

Nevertheless, for those of us in the arts and media, Obscene is a wonderful history lesson. The notion of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer” or “Naked Lunch” being banned in the country that made a big enough deal about freedom of expression to make it its very first amendment is itself obscene. Rosset probably won’t get a presidential medal of honor for protecting First Amendment rights, but this film is the next best thing, paying respect to a true American icon that should be a household name.  


Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grover Press

Directed by Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor

2008 Arthouse Films

Color, 97 minutes


By Sarah Boslaugh
December 4, 2008

In his 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, Daniel Karslake examines some of the different ways Christians and Jews interpret the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. The film has two principal components: one follows the stories of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian member, while the other presents interpretations of Bible passages relating to homosexuality and other sexual practices from a variety of individuals. Karslake includes statements from anti-gay Christian ministers and spokesmen such as Jimmy Swaggart and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, as well as from Biblical scholars and theologians who explain what they believe the Bible says about homosexual behavior and how those statements apply to the modern world.  

For the Bible does not attempt to be an even-handed examination of the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality, but it does make a reasoned presentation of the arguments against literal interpretation of certain Biblical passages which have been used to justify condemnation of homosexual behavior. For instance, the well-known verse Leviticus 20:13 is often cited as evidence that Judaism and Christianity prohibit male homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” 

Well, that’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? Maybe not, if you are one of the Biblical scholars interviewed in this film, who interpet the passage in context and with particular attention to the specific words used in the original Hebrew text. The Rev. Steven Kindle of Clergy United points out that similar passages in Leviticus say it is an abomination to eat rabbit or shrimp. Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer notes that Leviticus also says you shouldn’t wear linen and wool together, or plant two crops in the same field. Their point is obvious: when was the last time you saw a Christian minister get all worked up about people who like to eat shrimp or wear clothing made of two different fabrics, let alone assert that those who engage in such practices will burn forever in hellfire?  

The Rev. Dr. Laurence Keene explains that the Hebrew word translated as “abomination” in this passage refers to a ritual wrong, not a moral wrong, in the same sense that eating pork for a Jew is not innately immoral (like murder) but a violation of a ritual requirement. Similar, he explains the famous passage about Onan spilling his seed upon the ground (Genesis 38:8-10) refers to Onan’s violation of a cultural norm: given the Jews’ interest in being fruitful and multiplying, Onan was supposed to impregnate his sister-in-law since his deceased brother was no longer around to do it.  

As is often the case with Biblical interpretation, with this issue it seems that the less you know, the more likely it is to believe that you both know it all and that you know what it all means. For the Bible seems largely to have been created for the purpose of countering this tendency by presenting information and reasoned opinions about how the Bible regards homosexuality, albeit primarily from one side of the discussion. While it won’t win any points for style it serves very nicely as an educational tool and aid to discussion, and is supported by an impressive array of materials downloadable from the film’s web site ( including two study guides.   

Given that homosexuality is a topic which often polarizes people, it’s unfortunate that For the Bible doesn’t include discussion among theologians who hold opposing points of view. It’s not really fair to pit an archival clip of Jerry Falwell making homophobic remarks against reasoned statements from numerous scholars and theologians who believe that Falwell’s interpretation is wrong. I’m certainly not in Falwell’s camp myself, but is that point of view wholly without support from contemporary scholars? Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that all religious faculty at American universities, for instance, are all in agreement on this point.  

It’s been my observation that people’s opinions on sexual matters are often formed not by moral reasoning but by what psychologist Steven Pinker calls “moral rationalization:” that they react to a situation or issue emotionally, then seek to find a moral basis to justify their reaction. If that is the case, then the arguments and interpretations presented in For the Bible will be useful in providing debating points to people who already agree with its point of view, but are unlikely to do much to change the mind of anyone who disagrees. And by so obviously favoring one point of view this film leaves itself wide open to charges of bias, giving those who hold other views an easy route by which to condemn and ignore it.  

A different view of how literalist interpretation of the Bible can affect people is provided by the profiles of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian individual. Although this ground has been covered before, Karslake did find an interesting range of families who have different reactions to their children’s sexual orientation. Most famous are the Gephardt family (as in Dick Gephardt, long-time U.S. Representative from Missouri and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president), and the Robinson Family (as in Gene Robinson, the first gay man to be consecrated as an Episcopal bishop). But there’s at least as much to be learned from the journeys of the African-American Poteat family, the Reitan family (who were arrested as they tried to deliver a letter to Jim Dobson at the Focus on the Family headquarters), and Mary Lou Wallner, who initially condemned her daughter Anna’s sexual preference but became a gay rights activist after Anna committed suicide (motivated, her mother believes, by the rejection she experienced because of church teachings about sexuality).  


For the Bible Tells Me So

Jeremy Walker + Associates/First Run Features

Directed by Daniel Karslake

Color, 2007, 97 Minutes

For the Bible Tells Me So is distributed by Icarus Films. Further information is available through their web site or by calling 718-488-8900.