When Paul Goodman published Growing Up Absurd in 1960, the United States was tumbling face-first into an era of social unrest and political upheaval. Today, in the midst of Occupy, the Trayvon Martin protests and the fight for marriage equality, it’s a historical moment that rings familiar. Jonathan Lee’s 2011 film Paul Goodman Changed My Life would have us believe that as the idyllic fifties crumbled to chaotic dust, Growing Up Absurd elevated Goodman to a position from which he could lead a generation through a decade of tumult and change. While Lee’s image of Goodman comes off as more than a tad romanticized, the film nevertheless presents a compelling portrait of an oft-overlooked man and his work.
A queer intellectual, adamant pacifist and prominent social activist, Paul Goodman was the unabashed poster child for liberalism in the 50s and 60s. And yet his name has since faded into obscurity, overshadowed by the likes of John Lennon and Allen Ginsberg. Paul Goodman Changed My Life aims to retrieve his name from the depths of anonymity and shine a light on this thinker’s massive cultural influence. Combining footage of Goodman himself with modern day interviews and character footage of the era, Paul Goodman Changed My Life brings to life a man that stood up for his rights and his generation.
The film opens with conservative television host William F. Buckley and Goodman engaged in good-natured verbal jousting. As Buckley rattles off a list of his guest’s most “distracting” qualities — bisexuality, pacifism, anarchism — it’s hard not to be charmed by Goodman. With tousled hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a trademark crooked grin, he looks the part of cheeky champion of youthful struggle. Sprinkled throughout the film, clips from this interview present a stark contrast to the current political discourse. As Buckley and Goodman voice their opposing opinions, they maintain massively respectful of each other. In a decade where Jon Stewart tells Fox News to “shut the f**k up” and Rush Limbaugh calls on women to post their sex videos online, this level of civility alone surprises and engages the audience.
Interviews with Goodman’s contemporaries, friends and academics prove that Lee is not alone in his hero-worship. Dissent editor Michael Walzer compares him to Socrates, while others credit him as the influence behind much of modern poetry. Yet Paul Goodman Changed My Life balances the starstruck praise with a healthy dose of reality. Goodman was a maddening iconoclast with a prickly streak and a touch of sexism. Rather than gloss over his flaws, Lee directly addresses them: incessant bitching, neglect of his children and a complete disregard for the struggles of young women. “A girl does not have to make something of herself,” he once wrote. “Her career does not have to be self-justifying. But if boys do not grow up to be men where will the women find men?”
At times, Paul Goodman Changed My Life is a little heavy on the academia. It lags a bit as the talking heads begin to discuss the intricacies of Goodman’s poetry, which are rather hard to grasp when we only see a brief slice of text flash across the screen or hear a partial recitation. But Lee more than makes up for these shortcomings during his inquiry into Goodman’s exciting and — for the wrong audience — shocking sex life. Though married with children, Goodman was openly queer and frequently picked up men for sex and company. He was among the few uncloseted public figures of the time and certainly left his mark on a lot of people. “I don’t know about his casual pickups,” admitted Judith Malina, one of Goodman’s former patients. “But I’m sure that every one of them profited from meeting a man of such depth, I’m sure that he gave every one of them, even if it was a quick blowjob, his best heart and his best ideas.”
While a lot of Goodman’s political ideas resonate strongly with a contemporary audience, the film does not reference modern issues or activism. As the rest of Paul Goodman Changed My Life is both gripping and beautifully constructed, this omission is a bit of a shame. We could really do with a leader like Goodman, and Lee’s decision to exclude this connection is exasperating.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life won’t, in fact, change your life, but it does paint a lasting picture of a prophetic iconoclast with no reservations. If Lee aimed to illuminate the life and work of a forgotten persona, he overwhelmingly succeeded. Despite undertones of hero-worship and a failure to connect Goodman to the modern day, Paul Goodman Changed My Life highlights an important historical and intellectual figure and is well worth the four dollars.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life screens Saturday and Tuesday at Cornell Cinema. Roger Smith, official blogger for the Paul Goodman website, introduces both screenings.