Thursday, June 13, 2013

Film Review: Paul Goodman Changed My Life


Paul Goodman Changed My Life. A documentary directed by Jonathan Lee. Co-presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, January 4–8.

Unlike some reviewers of this fine documentary (Roger Ebert, for one) and quite a few participants in it (including Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina, and Susan Sontag, who calls Goodman a role model), I can't say that Paul Goodman changed my life. I grew up absurd without the consolations or counsel reading him might have afforded. Goodman mattered to me indirectly, by affecting people who affected me, notably a high school teacher who went down south in the sixties to join with the civil rights movement. For him, Goodman, who agitated for a radically decentralized school system, was inspiring in a number of ways.
Viewers of this film will see Goodman on William Buckley's "Firing Line", asserting that schooling in New York city was little more than a massive, doomed experiment in social engineering. He argues that to get kids involved in reading it might be useful to provide them with material they would want to read, including porn: what 11 year old, he asks, wouldn't like to peruse pornography? He adds that when he taught Latin, he made sure to introduce some smut into the curriculum as an inducement for students to learn a language that, though dead, could be still be hot.

Buckley snorts when hearing this, opining suavely: surely there's no lack of pornography in New York City? To this, Goodman, pipe in hand, as always — imagine, you could smoke on TV back then — responds sharply: yeah, but not in the school system, unfortunately. He goes on to cite Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle in support of his belief that the chief function of a society should be the education of its young, and the creation of a citizenry informed about history. (Buckley opts not to take Goodman on with regard to Aristotle.)

Goodman was a professed anarchist — not the bomb-throwing kind, who believe destruction is foreplay to solution, but the anti-violent kind, deriving from the nineteenth century Russian thinker, Kropotkin, who espoused cooperation among free individuals. Goodman believed humans would arrange things better if only relieved of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and prohibitive social and sexual controls. He was openly bisexual years before Stonewall and gay liberation, and made a habit out of cruising both men and women. It seems he couldn't help himself; it was a matter of principle to be coming on. We learn that this compulsion resulted, on one occasion, in his getting badly beaten up, though it's unclear if that was because he came on to a soldier or to the soldier's wife — or both.

Goodman's unsuppressed if chaotically expressed sexuality, mattered, I’m sure, to my high school teacher, an enormously sympathetic man, who I later learned was gay, and who I wish was still among us.

There's another way Goodman got to me — the zeitgeist way. As I look back, it seems Goodman had something of Holden Caulfield in him, and a fair amount of Mario Savio. If I tried to say what that something was I'm sure I couldn't say it nearly as well as Goodman in his poems, essays, stories, and novels. I can say it had to do with a conscientious opposition to untruth, phoniness — and war. Yet the War in Vietnam is another reason, perhaps the main one, that Goodman did not change my life.

Goodman was a lifelong pacifist, and utterly opposed that war. We see him, for example, taking a room full of arms manufacturers to task for producing, "napalm, fragmentation bombs, planes that destroy rice, weapons that have killed hundreds of thousands in Vietnam and will kill other hundreds of thousands in other Vietnams." He joined in the anti-draft movement, helping and hiding draft resistors, fully aware that doing so exposed him to prosecution.

But as the escalation of the War in Vietnam continued so did escalation in rhetoric and action among those who opposed it. Goodman spoke eloquently for participatory democracy, the founding idea of the New Left, but was drowned out, for me at least, by the ideologies that came on its heels. The movie gives me a second chance at Paul Goodman.

It also cannot but occur to anyone who sees this film that Goodman is precisely the kind of figure — non-dogmatic, anti-ideological — who might span a generation or two and matter to today's Occupy Wall Street movement. He would certainly understand and sympathize with the impulse behind it. It speaks for a version of what I think he meant all along.

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