Jonathan Lee’s “Paul Goodman Changed My Life’’ is an attempt to reclaim a lost counterculture mentor — a thinker/writer/activist who helped make possible the New Left of the 1960s before he was outrun by it and who died too early for his influence to be properly calibrated. As documentaries go, it’s an able introduction that doesn’t make its subject nearly as relevant to our current discontents as it could.
Goodman is virtually forgotten in the new millennium, but he was to engaged youth of the early ’60s what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky are today — one of the few people over 30 who got it. His 1960 book “Growing Up Absurd’’ articulated almost better than any other manifesto of its time the sense that American society was profoundly out of joint and that to grow up in that society was alienating by definition.
To the coalescing youth movement, “Growing Up Absurd’’ was a blast of cold, hard truth; aging interviewees testify to the memory of a copy in every dorm room. There was more to Goodman, though — much more. Lee lightly sketches in a rebellious intellect that encompassed pacifism, anarchism, and sexual freedom well ahead of the curve. He was a pacifist during World War II, openly bisexual by 1947, and while most of his peers flirted or committed to communism, Goodman was leery of any and all systems. “Anarchism is an attitude’’ rather than a political belief, he avowed.
He was a poet and a good one, on the evidence of the achingly personal verses quoted here. He was a lay psychiatrist who with Fritz Perls more or less invented Gestalt Therapy in the 1940s and ’50s. Goodman argued for utopian overhauls of the New York public school system and did the financial math to back up his arguments. Some of the most enjoyable moments of Lee’s film are segments from a mid-1960s episode of “Firing Line,’’ Goodman sparring amiably but insistently with conservative host William F. Buckley. They’re two brainiac eccentrics chatting over an ideological fence.
“Paul Goodman Changed My Life’’ marshals graying hell-raisers from the era to tell their tales: Living Theatre founder Judith Malina, novelist Grace Paley, and so forth. The most touchingly complicated memories come from Goodman’s two daughters (a much-loved son died in a 1967 climbing accident) and his wife, Sally. The latter recalls with tender weariness his nonstop pursuit of young men while simultaneously acting as a loving husband, father, and family man. It was a juggling act that lasted much longer than it should have.
Indeed, the film depicts Goodman’s growing disenchantment in the late 1960s, as the radical left turned violent and the youth movement embraced drugs and other sybaritic pleasures. By 1970, the culture had moved beyond him; feminism was just one more development he didn’t quite understand. Yet Goodman’s restless criticism of our way of life — our consumerism, our military-industrial complex, an educational system that values unthinking conformity — still stings.
It’s frustrating, then, that Lee misses a chance to hook his subject’s ideas up with those galvanizing the social protests of today. The Occupy Wall Streeters could pick up a lot from Goodman’s articulate demand for solutions, but this documentary sticks with the people who knew him then and were moved by him then. We learn how Paul Goodman changed their lives but not enough about how he could change ours.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached on Twitter @tyburr.