This Review Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2011's Paul Goodman Changed My Life, directed by Jonathan Lee.
Sacks: Paul Goodman was a complicated man. He was a pacifist and an anarchist; he was a devoted father and partner to a woman; he was also a man who would cruise the streets looking for love. Goodman was an influential essayist, novelist and poet, as well as a media gadfly who relentlessly fought for attention in a world where there were only seven TV channels. Goodman even became a leader in the gestalt philosophy movement, perhaps as a way of exploring his own psychological complexities. Most of all, Paul Goodman was a philosopher and theorist, a man who loved nothing more than exploring and debating his ideas with people that he respected.
Goodman is an ideal choice for a documentary because his life is so complex. There is much to say about the man and so much of his life defies easy analysis. I honestly felt a curious mix while watching this movie; alternatively attracted and repelled by this man of ideas. He's intensely self-involved and arrogant, filled with, sometimes, overweening confidence in his frequently offbeat ideas. But he's also brilliant and insightful and deeply caring about the ideas that are important to him.
Goodwin was a man of the type that we just don't see in public life these days. This documentary proves that our public conversations have become constrained and smaller than they used to be that the realm of discourse has become much more circumscribed than it once was. Where are the men of broad vision in our world of 24-hour news cycles filled with loudmouth bloviators? In this Presidential year, we need more men like Goodman who can see beyond their narrow-minded agendas.
I enjoyed the straight-ahead, rather rambling feel of this documentary. It's filled with reminiscences about the man from his friends and kids, along with plenty of scenes of the man talking himself. In his forever-tousled style, Goodman seems the epitome of the rumpled and eccentric college professor type, a man more preoccupied by the world inside his mind than the way the outside world perceives him.
Elkin, what did you think somewhat conventional documentary about a very unusual man?
Elkin: Can you imagine, Sacks, a television show starring a bug-eyed intellectual snoot with a pedantic stutter and effete mannerisms interviewing a slightly bemused, tweedy and rumbled anarchist smoking a pipe and rambling on about disillusionment in the nation's youth? When you mentioned “Goodman was a man of the type that we just don't see in public life these days,” the opening scene of Paul Goodman Changed My Life leapt into my mind, you know where Goodman is being interviewed by Bill Buckley. I think you hit the nail on the head with that observation, Sacks. We are overloaded with information nowadays and, as such, are given no time to reflect. Our pundits are all about horseraces and mis-steps, not ideas and ramifications. As Tom Waits says, “We are monkeys with money and guns.”
Where have all our intellectuals gone? Where are the men and women of substance who have the passion of ideas and the wherewithal to live their lives accordingly?
What does it say about a society that relegates this type of person to the fringe?
Anyway, you asked me what I thought about this documentary. My response to that is that I liked this film as it provided some insight into a complex individual by allowing his story to be told impartially by the people whose lives he affected. Where the film faltered, in my estimation, was that it spent more time on Goodman the man and only skimmed the surface of the ideas he promulgated.
This is a man who was a true American philosopher, who dealt with the idea of conformity and how we are born into circumstances that are so unnatural to our sensibilities that we have this internal drive to unfetter ourselves from the norm, but the only way to make this break is to be considered mad by the larger social structure. However, he also points out that to stay in the system will also eventually challenge your sanity. Paul Goodman asked the fundamental question, “What do you do?”
This is profound shit, especially in the 1950's and early 1960's where the social pressure to conform in America was at its height. And for a man, and openly bi-sexual man, to have the brass balls to take this idea public, as public as he could possibly make it, is exceptional. Paul Goodman was a hero, if for no other reason than his intellectual courage, and, indeed, he changed lives because of his willingness to suffer the slings and arrows of those who would rather see him silenced.
By focusing so much on Paul Goodman's life as the framework for his ideas, this film brought up the conundrum: Do we value a person's public ideas if we have issue with that person's private life? Does this man or woman's choices influence our perception of their creations? If we find a person's personality or lifestyle or politics to be an anathema to us, does that mean their “art” holds less value? Do I start to dislike Beck's music because I find his religion odd and off-putting? Do I denigrate the films of Roman Polanski because he supposedly committed statutory rape? Does Paul Goodman's ideas suffer because, though married and with children, he still cruised the streets looking for young man with whom to have sex?
Ultimately, Sacks, in this review are we going to talk about Paul Goodman the man, or Paul Goodman the philosopher? Or does the movie itself make that choice for us?
Sacks: I'm not sure you can separate Goodman the man from Goodman the philosopher, Elkin, and as you so astutely point out, this movie makes choices for us in helping us to assess that conundrum.
First, Goodman's roots as a great outsider rest in his complicated childhood. His father left the family when he was only six, and not only was his father out of his life physically, but his father was also out of Goodman's life in every other possible way. Every picture of Goodman's dad was removed and the man was never mentioned in the house ever again. Because of this, his mother had to work incredibly hard hours and left much of the work of raising him to his older sister. That fact created a unique childhood for Goodman, shaping him in fundamental ways to become the man he grew up to be.
As more than one commentator in the movie stated, Goodman was the ultimate outsider, a man who always saw himself apart from everyone around him. This attitude grew out of the pain that he obviously felt about being abandoned, but that pain also helped to encourage him to have his exquisitely smart insights into the world around him. He had to more or less fend for himself, which seems to have led him to being incredibly intuitive while also sometimes being overweeningly arrogant. It helped instill in Goodwin his many fascinating contradictions that are fully on display in this movie.
Based on what is presented in this movie, I don't think we can assess the life of Paul Goodman the intellectual without discussing the life of Paul Goodman the man because both sides of his life reinforced the other.
Goodman the intellectual was absolutely fearless and arrogant, a brilliant man with an intrepid attitude who was willing to confront war profiteers on their own terms and in their own realm. He was always ready to face his critics in intelligent debate – in fact, as one of the people in this documentary states, it seemed as if Goodman and his friends were trained to be able to have sophisticated debates with each other. That intellectual confidence is a lot of what fuels the scene that you liked so much in this movie, the wonderful conversation with William F. Buckley, which looks like a time capsule from an older, smarter America where two intellectual and eccentric men had a place in our national discourse.
What do we make of a man whose views we dislike? That's a tough question, and one I've wrestled with quite a bit. For instance, I refuse to buy John Byrne's comics because I find him to be such an abhorrent personality.
But with Goodman the story is a bit more complex than simply judging the man's ideas because he lived an unconventional life. Goodman was deeply accepted by both his friends and his loved ones. Goodman saw himself as an outsider, but he was well inside many peoples' hearts. And when his son dies tragically and suddenly, it seems that Goodman's heart breaks and he ironically becomes more human just as he begins to emotionally really shift away from his public persona.
Yes, Elkin, I wish we had seen more in this movie about Goodwin's philosophy, his public speaking and his wonderful sounding books. But I wonder if the movie would have had the same power if it had proceeded in that direction. Without the soul, would the brains have been as interesting?
I take it from your question that you fall slightly differently than I do?
Elkin: Oh Sacks, you've done it to me again. There I am all up on my high horse and you remind me of my basic humanity. Your question, “Without the soul, would the brains have been as interesting,” raises that ugly stink that our lives ARE complex and complicated, and it is out of our daily struggles that our best ideas arise. I like to linger in the realm of pure thought, to believe that logic is an entity unto itself. I would like to believe that given enough quiet and time, all the world's problems could be compartmentalized, examined, and solved.
But that's not right, is it?
It is only through the slog – through wading amongst our daily trepidations and anxieties and cruelty – that we find inspiration. Damnit. I keep wanting to devoid my thinking from the inevitable Cartesian duality of mind versus body, but you keep bringing me back to the fact that without our lives and the experiences we endure we are nothing more than feeders from the teat of contentment, and therefore devoid of original thought.
So I bow to your insight, Sacks, and I concede that the life of a man or woman is indeed intrinsic to their thought and their creative powers. Still though, I am left with my original question of whether or not a person's choices should influence our acceptance of their “art.” I think it is a conundrum and one that deserves further analysis, especially as we become more and more immediate and tabloid driven and personality obsessed in our understandings of the world.
As an aside, say what you will about John Byrne, much of which is valid and unfortunate, but his work on the X-Men was brilliant and steadfastly remains the foundation upon which I judge all other's attempts (on a personal note, I could tell you about my run-in with Byrne when I was fifteen at a convention in Dallas and the rancid taste it left in my mouth, but that is best told over a beer or two, not in a review of Paul Goodman Changed My Life).
You were also absolutely correct that, as the film suggests, Goodman's ideas were a reflection of his outsider nature, which arose from the experiences of his childhood. I guess what I am pointing towards, though, is that a film about Paul Goodman should have put his ideas out there more, framed them in the context of the intellectual discourse of the time, and, especially given the title of this documentary, shown what effects they had on the greater society. Paul Goodman Changed My Life only dealt with these issues using a paint roller instead of an inker's brush and because of this, I felt it failed in making this a film worthy of a larger discussion.
Another place I felt the film faltered was that it did not really delve into the fact that Goodman's writings are now out of print and his name is seemingly relegated to the history books as a footnote at best. His book, Growing Up Absurd, sold over a hundred thousand copies when it was published. As the film points out, it was on the shelves of almost every college student around in the early 1960's, but if you were to ask questions about Goodman to members of Gen-X, Gen-Y, or whatever they are calling this current generation, nine times out of ten you will get a blank stare as a response. I'd be interested in hearing about how that occurred (it's sort of the same conundrum I often ranted about when I still had the intestinal fortitude to write my Cheap Thrills column), and it would have been fascinating for the film to allow us to consider the ramifications of this fact.
I guess having a film like Paul Goodman Changed My Life out and available may lead to reflections on these topics (as it has with us). So maybe, inadvertently, the film did succeed and I'm just being nit-picky. I guess it's just that in a documentary about Paul Goodman, I'm looking for a film more about his ideas and less about his life. Although, as you so eloquently point out, maybe I need to reframe my thinking and consider the possibility that the two are intricately connected and, perhaps, you cannot discuss one without the other.
Being a magnanimous man, and having grown up fully absurd, I will give the final words about this film to you, Sacks. I have the sneaking suspicion that they will be brilliant.
Sacks: You are truly, seriously, honestly too kind, my friend. We're just knocking ideas around like a metaphorical game of ping-pong. You bring me to a higher level of thought with your aspirations to think of logic as a complete entity of its own, while I tend to live a bit more with both feet in the real world. That makes us a virtual Cartesian duality on our own, doesn't it?
So I'll just wrap this up by answering a couple of the comments that you make at the end of your essay. First, a quick check of Amazon happily reveals that several of Goodman's books are back in print: The Paul Goodman Reader, a collection of Goodman's anarchist writings and of course a new edition of Growing Up Absurd. Whether any of these books find their ways into the hands of college-age readers is yet to be determined, though. Based on the descriptions in the movie, this book seems a bit out of date – no mention of women’s roles in society? – and is unlikely to find its iconic place on college bookshelves again. Which strikes me as fine. I mean, I wonder how many kids still read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was the definitive book at my college in 1984.
And secondly, yes, I agree with you that I wished the movie had delved more into Goodman's ideas and philosophy. I loved how Goodman was so gleeful about fighting conventional wisdom and wanted to hear more about that side of his life. I think it is a flaw of this movie that it spends a bit too much time in the physical world and not quite enough in the world of ideas. But I'd rather have half a movie that delves into countercyclical ideas than no movie at all.
Trailer for the film:
Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on Facebook.
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