Paul Goodman Changed My Life

As bluntly humanist and free-ranging as its subject, this brisk take on the life of poet, sociologist, educator, psychologist, and general pain-in-the-ass gadfly Paul Goodman is as much endangered-species doc as biography. The most influential 20th-century thinker you’ve probably never heard of (and tough luck tracking down a copy of his seminal 1960 time bomb, Growing Up Absurd, these days), Goodman was an outspoken anti-war activist and radical social critic who gave voice to the counterculture long before there was one. (His ethos, as expressed in a TV interview with Studs Terkel, was to “simply refuse to acknowledge that a sensible and honorable community does not exist.”) Filmmaker Jonathan 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. It’s not always pretty: The openly bisexual Goodman was unapologetic in his pursuit of (mostly male) sex partners at the expense of his wife and children, but Lee resists the urge to either vilify or lionize him. Instead, 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.

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