There are documentaries that flesh out people you've already heard of. And then there are the more problematic ones, about once-influential personalities who are all but forgotten.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life is an example of the latter. Arguably as influential a thinker in his time as Noam Chomsky is today (and Chomsky is here to acknowledge the man's legacy, joining other admirers like Susan Sontag and beat poet Allen Ginsberg). Goodman was an anarchist philosopher, teacher, novelist, poet, co-founder of the Gestalt therapy movement and anti-war activist whose book Growing Up Absurd was a manifesto for the newborn notion of non-conformity.
He was also openly bisexual, which was about as radical a stance as you could take as early as 1947. And his "hipness" as a droppable name survived to the '70s, when Woody Allen referenced him in Annie Hall.
But more remarkable than the accolades of his admirers is the (sometimes grudging) respect shown by his opponents and antagonists. It is a flashback to an era when public and political discourse had not descended to the polarized
shouting matches of today.
Most telling of these is an interview on William F. Buckley's Firing Line.
The godfather of modern conservatism, Buckley could not have been more solidly opposed to practically everything Goodman stood for. And yet, their interview is an intellectual dance, a succession of sharp barbs and sarcasm, tinged with fondness and respect for the other's intellect. (Can-Con note: Goodman is also seen being interviewed by Pierre Berton.)
Director Jonathan Lee could have gone any number of ways with a character so eclectic, but he is more successful in fleshing out the gadfly Goodman, communicating his sense of joy (including an abiding love for his children) and perverse orneriness, than his ideas (which, granted, were all over the map).
What emerges (to a breezy, jazzy soundtrack) is a picture of a rumpled New York intellectual, born swimming against the tide because of his Jewishness, and more than happy to tackle any other tide that struck his fancy. Gloria Steinem is among dissenters who note his vision of a new society never mentioned women. It's valid, but also a lot of progressivity to ask of someone whose career began in the '30s, when women had barely achieved the legal personhood.
There's a nostalgia in Paul Goodman Changed My Life for a time when politics was about ideas of what we wanted our society to be. There's also -- in these times of the Occupy movement and an inchoate distrust of the people who handle society's money -- a sense that some of his ideas could have a second wind.