Philosopher, poet, sociologist, pacifist, psychologist, writer, anarchist, open bisexual and spokesperson for a generation, Paul Goodman ranked among the most influential thinkers in the latter half of the 20th century. In his biodoc “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” helmer Jonathan Lee interviews a slew of artists and literati for whom Goodman stood as a seminal figure, while showcasing his famously intransigent personality in excerpts from his public appearances. Skedded to bow at Gotham’s Film Forum in October, the docu will reawaken interest in a fascinating, multifaceted figure when it makes the arthouse rounds.
Lee opens with an episode of “Firing Line” featuring Goodman’s radical views on education, William F. Buckley’s usual sneer tinged with a certain grudging appreciation. Goodman’s unique voice exerted a certain power even over his enemies; Lee shows him speaking to members of the military-industrial complex by invitation, his impassioned castigation of his audience coming as no surprise.
Goodman began as a founder of gestalt therapy, which invited confrontation and sought to break down barriers between patient and therapist (Judith Malina of the avant-garde Living Theater speaks warmly of her sessions). He proposed completely revamping the education system and, together with his brother Percival, co-authored a book about communal architecture. But in whichever field his philosophy manifested itself, it was always of a piece, incorporating every aspect of the man. Friends and colleagues tell of teaching posts cut short by Goodman’s sexual passes at anyone who caught his fancy — old or young, male or female, regardless of how inappropriate the relationship or venue.
Though Goodman was well regarded as an author and theorist, the 1959 publication of “Growing Up Absurd” made him an intellectual celebrity. Instead of diagnosing the disturbing “disease” of juvenile delinquency that was then obsessing the nation, Goodman posited that the society to which young people were expected to adapt was so morally corrupt and patently hypocritical that disaffection and rebellion signified mental health. “Absurd,” the handbook of the ’60s (one interviewee remembers being unable to enter a college dorm without seeing it everywhere), along with Goodman’s lifelong pacifism, placed him at the forefront of Vietnam War protests. As the left grew more violent, though, Goodman was stranded by the wayside. He died of a heart attack in 1972.
Instead of the usual 1960s stock-footage montages, Lee opts for images that create a context for Goodman’s ideas, such as the cross-disciplinary BBC program on which NAACP leader Stokley Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg and Goodman casually discuss sexual vs. racial discrimination. Another striking visual motif here finds the helmer keeping still photos of Goodman front and center throughout, less as illustration than as enticement. Reminiscences about Goodman and readings of his poetry are played over old pictures that capture his singularly seductive appeal and lively sense of humor.