Paul Goodman Changed My Life
Directed by Jonathan Lee
When I mentioned the writer Paul Goodman to an older friend, he cried, “My God, I haven’t heard his name in years. In the 60s, you couldn’t avoid him!” The tone of his second sentence was slightly exasperated, and based on Jonathan Lee’s new documentary, Paul Goodman Changed My Life, Goodman was very adept at exasperating people. Novelist, poet, public intellectual, playwright, urban planner, Gestalt therapist, bisexual family man and inveterate cruiser of sailors, Goodman tried to be so many things at once that he didn’t get the attention he felt he deserved until his book on male delinquency, Growing Up Absurd, made him famous in 1960. After that, Goodman spent a heady decade as a kind of rumpled professor Pied Piper of the 60s youth movement, but his engagement with that movement led to disillusionment before his death in 1972.
Lee doesn’t shy away from criticism of Goodman as either man or writer—smart talkers like Ned Rorem, Grace Paley, Judith Malina and others level with us about his habitual kvetching, his neglect of his family, and the outright condescension to young women in Growing Up Absurd, as if they were some lower order in relation to the young men he admired and craved. What’s most striking in Lee’s film is the beauty of Goodman’s poetry, which is believably said to have inspired the poetic forms taken by Frank O’Hara and the whole New York School.
To read Goodman now, you have to be vigilant at the Strand Bookstore or go to Amazon to pay for over-priced paperbacks, and though some of his ideas are dated and some of his prose can be klunky, he’s worth connecting or re-connecting with. I sometimes feel like I like the idea of Paul Goodman more than the reality of most of his writing, but it is this cheering idea of him as utopian sexual and societal prophet that Lee’s film brings back most seductively.
Opens October 19 at Film Forum