Paul Goodman Changed My Life

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): ****

Paul Goodman didn't change my life. Unfortunately. But I wish he had. Born 30 years before me (in 1911), he published his famous work, Growing Up Absurd, around the time I was attending a Christian Science school (Principia College), a place at which a fellow like Goodman -- proudly bisexual and "out" (before the use of that word had even come into being!) -- would not have found favor. Once I abandoned that foolish religion and began to grow up (absurd or not), I did learn something of Goodman and read an occasional essay of his.

Now, seeing the fine documentary that first-time filmmaker Jonathan Lee has assembled, I realize how ahead-of-his-time the man was, and how -- as a married bisexual with children who fairly constantly gave in to his homosexual impulses -- his life and mine were relatively similar (in that regard, at least). Had I but known more about this man and his astounding capacity for understanding and writing about so many things (education, urban planning, civil and sexual rights) in so many forms (poetry, novels, essays and ground-breaking non-fiction books), he would have, should have, been my hero.

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Lee's film makes you understand the importance of Goodman at the same time as you understand how difficult a guy he could be. And not just around his own family. We hear from everyone from Judith Malina (of The Living Theater) to the late Grace Paley and William Buckley, Ned Rorem, Deborah Meier, Noam Chomsky and a lot more. By the film's conclusion, we see a fairly rounded view of its subject, and while we can appreciate him fully, we don't have the nagging sense (that arrives with some biographical documentaries) of watching an exercise in hagiography.

The only thing missing is Goodman himself. We so wish we could hear from him about some of these sexual subjects. As outspoken as he was in his day, the rest of polite society was not, and so the very questions we'd ask him now (and he'd certainly answer), were never brought up then. What a shame that we were unable to make nearly full use of the man as we might have. He was, as one interviewee labels it, "inconvenient."

I think it may have been Deborah Meier who also points out how women simply do not seem to exist in the world of Growing Up Absurd -- even though he was married to one (and then another), and had sired a daughter with whom he was close, to boot. From what we learn here of his politics, one imagines that he would heartily approve of the current Occupy Wall Street movement. Of his sexuality, as one friend recalls, "He made passes at everybody: at men, women, at their mothers!"

paul goodman and wifeLee's film is not at all linear; it jumps all over the place yet is never hard to follow nor for a moment uninteresting. For the section on Goodman's contribution to Gestalt therapy alone, it proves fascinating. Oddly, the most moving section comes at the finale when one interviewee, a man who only knew Goodman through his many and varied literary works, talks about how much he would have loved to have met him -- and how he has indeed changed this fellow's life. I think many of us feel that way. We've missed something. Perhaps Lee's movie will herald a renaissance for Goodman's works, most of which have gone out of print.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life, from Zeitgeist Films, is available now on DVD with a generous helping of extras, including a video interview with director Jonathan Lee, deleted scenes, additional poetry readings, and diary readings from Judith Malina.

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