Film Review: Paul Goodman Changed My Life

Intensely watchable and informative documentary about visionary New York intellectual Paul Goodman.

How one wishes those determined but somewhat directionless Wall Street protesters (as of this posting) could be all shown Paul Goodman Changed My Life. The subject of this marvelous documentary could certainly have told them a thing or three about what to do, as well as think.

In the opening scene, a clip from William F. Buckley’s television show “Firing Line,” that lofty pundit describes his guest, Goodman, as among other things, “a pacifist, a bisexualist, a poverty cultist, an anarchist.” Goodman expresses an objection only to “poverty cultist,” but the man was in fact so much more.

Born in 1911, he was a prolific writer and thinker who, although not famous worldwide and barely remembered today, was an integral part of Manhattan’s intellectual world for decades. In 1960, he wrote the bestselling book Growing Up Absurd, which became a bible for an educated generation and radically addressed the burgeoning youth culture which would so change things. Additionally, he published dozens of poems and essays and co-founded Gestalt therapy, all the while living, as he had for decades, as an out gay man, while raising a so-called traditional family of his own.

Jonathan Lee’s film is an admirable, fully rounded portrait of this kaleidoscopic, horny brainiac, who could hold his own and best wits with the most formidable minds of his time, while attempting to seduce apparently everyone who came his way. It’s a picture as well of an ever-morphing New York and the world around it, with Goodman’s deep involvement in protest movements, significantly anti-Vietnam. (He gave a fiery speech to arms suppliers The National Security Industrial Association, decrying them for ruining the country, which was famously outlined in his A Causerie at the Military Industrial.) Then there were his amazing visions for a utopian future, as illustrated by his 1947 book Communitas with his new designs for living (a book still taught in schools today), and his radical thoughts regarding education reform.

However, such are the ever-changing vagaries of political chic that Goodman seemed to outlive his time and was already considered old-hat by many radicals in the 1960s, who found him, well, not radical enough. His incredible energy and creative output became stilled and it’s a shame that he died, severely depressed, in 1972, just as the gay “liberation” movement was starting, to which he undoubtedly would have had so much to contribute, having been a staunch, outrageously brave (sometimes even embarrassing) queer pioneer his whole life. His radiantly honest poetry in this regard was especially striking and courageous, and influenced so much of what was to follow in this field, as in the work of Frank O’Hara and those after him.

Goodman emerges as a brilliant yet troubled nonconformist, eternally at odds with everything around him, and yet unable to live any other way than his own. Interviews with his wife and children are especially revealing and heartbreaking, particularly when dealing with the devastating death of his young son, Matthew. Lee has also rounded up seemingly every surviving acquaintance of Goodman’s, from composer Ned Rorem to fabulous theatrical pioneer Judith Malina.
-The Hollywood Reporter