Paul Goodman’s name once carried enough cultural currency to support an offhand reference in Annie Hall, and he left a substantial imprint on the worlds of politics, psychology, and gay rights, to name just a few. As his daughter explains in Jonathan Lee’s revelatory documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life, Goodman was an old-fashioned man of letters, a potent social critic and self-proclaimed anarchist who became one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, as well as a poet, playwright, and novelist whose skills are vouched for by such luminaries as composer Ned Rorem and the Living Theatre’s Judith Molina.
Although the documentary extends back to the mid-1940s, when Goodman helped found the Gestalt Therapy movement, his influence skyrocketed with the 1962 publication of Growing Up Absurd, which turned establishment fears about juvenile delinquency on their ear. The kids, Goodman said, had it right, and their dissatisfaction with their conformist upbringings mirrored the alienation of the grey-suited middle class. One interviewee says you couldn’t walk into a college dorm room without seeing a copy on the shelf.
Goodman’s profile rose throughout the 1960s; a vintage talk show puts him on a panel opposite Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg. But even as a younger generation built on his ideas, they pulled away from him, a separation he openly resents. Late in the decade, he proclaims his disappointment with student radical groups like SDS, lamenting the way the Vietnam War both spurred anti-establishment protest and provided a platform for intellectual lightweights, a charge the film underlines with a sharp cut to a group of pro-Ho Chi Minh protestors. (Shades of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise.) Goodman’s own resolve was weakened by his son’s death in a hiking accident, which effectively removed him from public life.
Goodman himself is brought to life through public appearances, from political speeches to a surprisingly cordial tête-à-tête with William F. Buckley, Jr., who introduces him as, among other things, an anarchist and a “bisexualist.” Interviews with his first wife and surviving children make it clear that domestic life was of lower priority—Growing Up Absurd excused women from its calculus, because “women are not expected to make anything of themselves”—but their account of his personal failings are dwarfed by the list of professional accomplishments. Perhaps it’s a tribute to the breadth of Goodman’s life that even after 90 minutes, it feels as if we’ve just scratched the surface.