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Jonathan Lee's "Paul Goodman Changed My Life"

"Goodman's tireless display of attitude throughout his 60 years of diverse pursuits comes across crisply."

"When I mentioned the writer Paul Goodman to an older friend," recalls Dan Callahan at the L, "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."

"'Anarchism is an attitude,' claimed the 20th-century American gadfly," writes Bill Weber in Slant, "and however deep his purported disenchantment with gaining recognition as a public intellectual rather than a man of letters, Goodman's tireless display of attitude throughout his 60 years of diverse pursuits comes across crisply in Jonathan Lee's documentary that, of necessity, can only summarize his literary oeuvre. The son of a New York family left impoverished by his father's abandonment, Paul discovered Kropotkin and defined himself as an anarchist as fervently as City College classmates embraced Marxism, and after taking a pacifist stance against World War II, began writing for journals like Commentary as part of a Manhattan clique who served as philosophical godparents to the New Left of the 60s. But Lee's film keeps the author-activist's career rooted in the specifics of the life he made before he began debating William F Buckley and Stokely Carmichael on TV: his openly bisexual life with a wife and three children that included daily street-cruising for men; his rumpled academic mien and insistence that, despite the small readership drawn by his work until the late 50s, 'everything I write is pragmatic'; and his love for the passionate, ideological, rapid-fire talk among his friends, enemies, and those undecided."

"Lee captures Goodman in the various phases of his life through archival footage and interviews with the writer's contemporaries (most memorably potty-mouthed Grace Paley), deftly avoiding a plodding, point-by-point narrative in order to take the full measure of the man," writes Mark Holcomb in the Voice. "Goodman's shortcomings are of a piece with his bravery and political determination. In an era when computer manufacturers with a gift for marketing become national heroes, there's more of a need for Paul Goodmans than ever. Sadly, his kind seems as hard to come by as his books."

"The time is surely right for a Goodman revival," agrees AO Scott in the New York Times. "At a time when the discussion of education is locked into sterile, strident and instrumental debates about 'reform,' his radical humanism, at once romantic and commonsensical, would be more than welcome…. It is true that Paul Goodman's brand of romantic, polymathic thinking is not much in fashion these days, but perhaps that should change too. In any case Mr Lee's film, in addition to making a persuasive (if partial) case for its subject's importance, also has a great story to tell, of a 20th-century life that was at once exemplary and idiosyncratic."

For Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich, "it feels like we're watching a superficial gloss on Goodman's CV rather than a probing interrogation of his legacy. For the choir only."

"Another point of contention towards Lee's otherwise adequate documentary is the overt focus on Goodman's bisexual behavior, not his philosophies of love," argues Ryan Wells at Cinespect. "Regardless, Lee has done a service to the U.S., in particular, by making a delectable film on a cultural figure whose relevance is only underscored by the extremely energized and misunderstood Occupy Wall Street protesters currently terrorizing the right-wing media and befuddling the left who want them to just find some demands and stick to them. In an age where complacency is the norm, it's refreshing to see citizens hit back against institutionalized vulgarity and crookery."


At Film Forum in New York through November 1; check the site for further screenings.

Update, 10/20: At the AV Club, Sam Adams notes that "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.)"

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This is now streaming via Netflix, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

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