Friday, November 8, 2013

Whitney Strub's "Obscenity Rules"

Whitney Strub is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark. His first book, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, recently arrived in paperback, alongside his new book, Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression, which combines a legal history of obscenity doctrine with a cultural history of the poet, publisher, and pornographer Samuel Roth, whose 1957 Supreme Court established the obscenity doctrine that still fundamentally governs American sexual expression today.

Strub lives in Philadelphia and took a decidedly overwrought approach to the film adaptation of Obscenity Rules:
When my first book came out, I actually did receive a call from a producer. I didn’t really pursue it, and I still occasionally wonder what glorious imaginary futures I thus missed out on; could that be me on Drunk History? Damn.

That said, I’ve been watching a lot of Godard’s aggressively self-deconstructing films from his 1970s Maoist phase, and perhaps it’s warped my mind, but nonetheless, the last thing I would ever want to be responsible for is a stately historical biopic about middle-aged white guys discussing The Big Social Questions of Our Times or whatnot; next thing you know, we’ll have another deathly dull 150-minute snoozefest and I’ll have to pretend I loved The King’s Speech at cocktail parties, because the people who made it will be there. I’d gladly take the Hollywood money, but I’d feel bad for unleashing something like that onto the world.

So since this is my fantasy anyway, I’d dispense wholly with casting to type and just plug in a bunch of my favorite performers; if that means the entire Supreme Court of the 1950s is played by cast members from The Wire, well, damn right. Idris Elba has been pretty sadly (if surely lucratively) underutilized ever since anyway. Beyond that, Elliott Gould could play any part he wanted—though my preference might be Chief Justice Earl Warren. Give him the old neo-Philip Marlowe spin, I’m liking this.

Samuel Roth, an avant-garde poet turned smutmonger, could be the perfect role for one of those midcareer lightweight actors looking to show some gravitas; maybe Matthew Perry? Though the immortal Fred “The Hammer” Williamson has apparently languished in third-tier schlock this whole century, so he could be another contender; he knows how to chew the scenery, but who knows how he handles pathos? In the scene where Roth’s 5-year prison sentence is affirmed, we’ll find out.

Much of the roles would be lawyers and judges; for the sleaziest one, I’d see if James Carville were up for a cameo. Maybe Bill Clinton, too, since he exudes the right kind of smarm. Roth’s long-suffering wife Pauline is probably a fairly thankless role, but Jennifer Jason Leigh is the greatest actress of her generation, so if anyone could breathe some fire into it, it’s her.

Now the perfect filmmaker for this absurdist madness would be Fassbinder. Among the living, Paul Schrader’s sweaty sex obsession could work, as long as he kept Bret Easton Ellis away from the screenplay. But my nod goes to Lynne Ramsay, whose sustained delirium in the recent but overlooked We Need to Talk about Kevin was a real cinematic feat (I love her earlier work, too). Courtroom movies are almost always boring, so her fever-dream approach would help.

To be sure, this will be a terrible career move for all involved, but if it winds up as viewer-friendly as Godard’s Numéro deux, I will be filled with delight. And will never work again in that town.
Learn more about the book and author at Whitney Strub’s blog.

Writers Read: Whitney Strub (January 2011).

--Marshal Zeringue