Paul Goodman Changed My Life (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

paulgoodman sqIn Lee’s presentation, Goodman’s well-known bisexual promiscuity seems less motivated by a concern for general sexual liberation than of the desire to have it all—a privilege explicitly not extended to females, including his wife.

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Paul Goodman has fallen out of the public eye these days, but there was a time (basically the 1960s, give or take a few years on either side) when he seemed to be on every talk show and every book rack, opining on everything from misunderstood youth to why Manhattan should go car-free. Paul Goodman Changed My Life, a new documentary by Jonathan Lee, captures Goodman’s ubiquitousness, as well as the fashionable intellectual bohemianism of the period, and will no doubt stir up feelings of nostalgia for those who were there, and envy for those who weren’t.

Lee is less successful in laying out a case for Goodman’s intellectual bona fides. Instead, Goodman in this film appears to be someone who wrote prolifically on issues of contemporary concern, and capitalized on his good looks and charm to gain the media attention that made him a household name. That type exists in every generation, and I doubt this film will convince anyone they need to rush out and read Communitas for its contemporary relevance—instead, Goodman seems more like someone who crystallized the spirit of a particularly optimistic period in American history, one in which everything seemed possible—at least if you were male.

That qualification is no accident, because the major impression I received from the documentary Paul Goodman Saved My Life is almost certainly not that intended by its creators. My impression is this: Goodman and his New Left cohort lived in such a misogynistic boy’s world that they never considered the privilege that came with their Y chromosomes. Of course, Goodman didn’t invent that attitude, but it’s worth noting that, while he had no problem questioning most assumptions of his day, he was quite happy with a social system in which women were expected to serve the needs of men rather than compete with them.

It’s no surprise, then, that Goodman’s most famous work, Growing Up Absurd, is explicitly focused on males. To its credit, Paul Goodman Changed My Life does not entirely sidestep this issue. Early on, it shows us noted educator Deborah Meier is seen quoting from Growing Up Absurd: “When I say young men and boys, a girl does not have to make something of herself. Her career does not have to be self-justifying. But if the boys do not grow up to become men, where shall the women find men, or the children find real fathers?” Meier’s audience laughs at the incongruity, but in reality it’s no funnier than if Goodman had written that African-Americans did not have to grow up to become adults because no one expected them to have real careers anyway.

In Lee’s presentation, Goodman’s well-known bisexual promiscuity seems less motivated by a concern for general sexual liberation than of the desire to have it all—a privilege explicitly not extended to females, including his wife. Several interview subjects comment on Goodman’s prima donna attitude—which would be called acting out in less refined realms—in the same way that rich people are called alcoholics, and the poor drunks. Urinating on a sports field? Making passes (and more than passes) at everyone and anyone? All part of Goodman’s game, along with going cruising every afternoon, and then congratulating himself for making it home in time for dinner with his wife and kids.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life is a standard talking-heads-and-archival-clips documentary, which is disappointing: Shouldn’t so radical thinker as Goodman deserve a more innovative presentation? Still, most of the materials are well chosen (the archival materials perhaps more than the interviews), and the many television clips are particularly fascinating, because Goodman was a public intellectual of a type in short supply today. The film feels padded toward the end, as the clips get longer and the ideas more repetitive. It doesn’t help that Goodman turned into something of a curmudgeon in his later years, complaining that he couldn’t communicate with young teenagers and hated their music.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life comes with a moderate package of extras: four deleted scenes, a video interview with director Jonathan Lee, an audiotape of Judith Malina reading from her diaries, readings of three Goodman poems, and the theatrical trailer. It’s also having a limited theatrical release; for more information, consult the film’s website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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