Goodman was a public intellectual and a philosopher of the New Left; he was also a gadfly and a man of letters, terms that belong to bygone epochs. In a radio interview Lee excerpts, Susan Sontag suggests that he was a rarity in the mid-twentieth century because his jack-of-all-trades approach to studying and representing the culture was really a nineteenth-century phenomenon. (She cites Ralph Waldo Emerson as a comparison.) He wrote novels, plays, poetry (some of it quite beautiful: the composer Ned Rorem, who set one of his pieces, “The Lordly Hudson,” to music, argues that his declarative, straightforward diction exerted a strong influence on Frank O’Hara). He was an educator (at Black Mountain College and the University of Chicago, in both of which places he ran afoul of the administration) and a lay psychoanalyst (with Fritz Perls and Ralph Hefferline, he co-authored Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, the official manual of Gestalt therapy and practiced without a license for ten years). He and his brother Percival co-authored Communitas, a book-length prospectus for a radically reimagined urban community. He advocated schools for twenty-five students, staffed with four teachers – one of many ideas that, as Taylor Stroehr, Goodman’s literary executor and perhaps Lee’s most eloquent (and most called-upon) interpreter of Goodman’s life, points out, he presented slyly as practical propositions when they were anything but. He also advocated the banning of traffic in Manhattan, a notion that seems more reasonable with every passing year.
|Paul Goodman & wife Sally|
Lee’s research is exhaustive. He goes to family and friends (one of the most impassioned is the late Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theatre, which produced one of his plays), students, admirers, commentators; he digs up a radio interview with Studs Terkel, TV interviews with Pierre Berton and the reflexively self-parodying William Buckley, TV panels with Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg. They discuss his most audacious actions, like the speech he was (astonishingly) invited to give in 1967 in Washington, D.C. to representatives of the government and the military, whom he censured mercilessly over the war in Vietnam. (The speech was later published as “Causerie at the Military-Industrial Complex.”) Epi Bodhi, who was Matthew Goodman’s girl friend, tells a heartbreaking story about his difficult relationship with his father, but his friends attest that Matthew’s untimely death devastated Paul and spurred the decline of his health. One of the poems we hear a section from on the soundtrack is “North Percy,” his account of that death, and its straightforwardness and unembroidered emotionality shake you up. Goodman was one hell of a complicated man. Lee’s documentary does those complications justice.