As unfortunate as it may be, Jonathan Lee’s documentary is my first foray into the eccentric and powerful world of Paul Goodman. Paul Goodman Changed My Life does little more than give a basic introduction into the background of Goodman. Lee doesn’t attempt to get into the psyche of Goodman, or to justify or vilify his actions, but instead Lee documents Goodman’s life to the best of his ability. The resulting effort leaves me – a newcomer to Goodman’s work – feeling like an outsider.
Paul Goodman was, as William F. Buckley Jr. put it on his political show, Firing Line, everything. He was Jewish, bisexual, a pacifist, an anarchist, an author, a poet, a psychologist, a teacher, and, mostly, an inspiration. Perhaps most impressive is that Goodman was all of these things during the 1940s to the 1970s, a time known for social movements and volatile politics. Though Goodman wrote a number of books beforehand, he found fame with his 1960 novel Growing Up Absurd, which was a critique of the problems young people faced in the 1950s. The novel, as is made abundantly clear in the film, was popular on college campuses, and it helped Goodman become the face of the New Left, and the anti-war movements of the time.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life consists of a mix of archival footage, mostly from political talk shows, and new interviews with his family, friends, and fans. Lee’s documentary is strongest when it is discussing Goodman’s personal life. The director spends a lot of time interviewing people that were close to Goodman, or who have studied him in depth. The audience learns a great deal about Goodman’s relationship with his children, as well as his unique and active sex life, which saw partners on both sides of the fence. What is refreshing is how candid the majority of the interviewees seem to be. They do not paint Goodman out to be a saint, and they are as quick to point out his flaws as they are his positive characteristics.
There is one interview in particular that stands out above the rest. Writer Jerl Surratt tells about how influential Goodman’s poetry was to him when he was growing up in the ‘60s. There is a moment where Surratt begins to quote one of his favorite passages, and is then swept away, reciting the entire poem in what comes off as an impromptu dramatic reading. The words that Goodman wrote are just as powerful as the obvious effect they’ve had on this man, and though it only lasts about twenty seconds, it is one of the most beautiful moments in the film.
Lee’s choice to include narrations of different poems and other stories are a bit distracting, and manage to separate me from the story of how Paul Goodman was a life-changing inspiration, which certainly couldn’t have been the goal of these additions. Instead of these readings, I would have loved to learn more about some of Goodman’s specific interests, which are teased in the film. For example, Goodman created a proposal to ban cars from New York City. This is a fascinating and bold idea that could have easily been expanded upon in the documentary. The suggestion that Goodman makes that literacy is not necessary is another example of this. Lee spends around ten minutes on these proposals, which seem to be prime examples of Goodman’s radical thinking. It would be great, as someone who is new to Goodman, to get even more examples like this, exposing us to more of the way Goodman thought. His personal life is interesting, but what makes Goodman special is not that he loved sex, or acted as both mother and father to his daughter, it’s all those things plus these radical ideas and his outspoken nature that inspire countless strangers to declare that Paul Goodman did, in fact, change their lives.
The interviewees make it clear that Goodman had a certain charm about him that made people want to sit up and listen. Paul Goodman Changed My Life doesn’t have that same spark, or that “certain something” that makes us want to take notice. It’s a solid documentary, no doubt, but it’s less accessible to those who don’t already know Goodman coming in. Paul Goodman Changed My Life is a good place to start one’s education of Goodman, but it ultimately leaves a lot for the viewer to figure out on their own.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life uses a great deal of archival footage, which was originally shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio. In order to keep the film with one standard look, the DVD has been given a 16:9 pillarboxed aspect ratio. What this means to the average viewer is that it looks like a 4:3, full screen film with black bars on the left and right of widescreen HDTVs. What’s remarkable about the picture is that most of the archival footage has been cleaned up quite well. Some footage looks nicer than others, but overall, the HD transfer looks excellent.
The stereo audio is mostly fine, but there are some unexplained hiccups on my screener DVD that see the audio going out for a split second every so often. I can’t say if this is a problem with the transfer, or with my version of the DVD, but either way, the hiccups are minor enough that most viewers will be able to ignore them. There are English SDH subtitles available as well.
There are a nice amount of special features for the Goodman enthusiast, including:
Deleted Scenes (9:16): Here are five deleted scenes which contain more interview footage not used in the final cut, ranging from funny story, to closer looks at Goodman’s political ideals. Interestingly enough, these are presented in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio.
Interview with Director Jonathan Lee (8:37): Lee talks about the influence that Goodman has had on his life, and how he came about making a documentary about the man. His initial idea was to interview people to discover how Goodman changed his or her lives. This sense of “how” is lacking from the final cut, which is a disappointment. Lee goes on to hypothesize why Paul Goodman disappeared from the public spotlight, and discusses why Goodman is still relevant today (bringing up the Occupy Wall Street movement; Goodman’s daughter says that he would definitely be an Occupier). Lee says that he wants the film to “ignite a curiosity” for people to go back and read Goodman’s work, which he manages successfully. This is a quick interview, but ultimately the best, most enlightening special feature of the bunch.
Judith Malina Diaries (7:14): This has Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theatre, reading excerpts from her diaries. These are audio recordings with a picture slideshow of Goodman playing on screen, and are not exactly enthralling.
Poems by Paul Goodman (2:08): Like the Malina diary readings, these are audio recordings played over a slideshow. There are three poems read in total – “Such Beauty as Hurts to Behold”, “North Country” (read by Edmund White), and “Creator Spirit Who Dost Lightly Hover” – and all three, though short, are personal and beautifully crafted.
Theatrical Trailer (1:49)
Director’s Statement: This is an added extra that can be found inside the DVD case itself. It is a written statement from director Jonathan Lee. I love when DVDs add written material like this because it usually gives a better understanding for the context of the film. The disappointing thing about this statement, though, is that 90% of what is written by Lee here is spoken during his interview on the special features of the DVD. Even though buyers are getting mostly the same information, just in a written format instead of on film, it’s still a great short piece that helps audiences understand why the film was made.
Goodmanites will undoubtedly love what Paul Goodman Changed My Life brings to the table. For everyone else, the film is a nice introduction to Paul Goodman and his ideals, but ultimately leaves the viewer longing for more. The movie will be released on iTunes and Netflix Instant Queue for streaming purposes on the same day the DVD releases, and I would recommend checking it out there. The DVD has some decent special features, but not enough to warrant a purchase when two streaming options are readily available.
Zeitgeist Films presents Paul Goodman Changed My Life. Directed by: Jonathan Lee. Starring: Paul Goodman. Running time: 89 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: April 17, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.