New documentary traces the influence of radical thinker Paul Goodman, author of "Growing Up Absurd."
The influential social critic Paul Goodman fully earned the title "pioneer." His call for challenging authority and living outside the lines came well before the arrival of 1960s counterculturalism.
Goodman proposed things, such as banning automobiles in center cities, that were deemed ridiculously impractical. Now, 40 years after his death, planners all over the world are seeking ways to limit car traffic in the urban core.
As this documentary about his life shows, he also inspired some less positive characterizations. He could be ornery and intellectually arrogant; cruel in his putdowns of those with whom he disagreed, and hypocritical, as in his demand that, while he pursued men for sex on a routine basis, his wife, Sally, also the mother of his two children, was not to even think about straying extramaritally.
What comes across most strongly in the movie, however, is the original cast of Goodman's fecund mind. With his trademark pipe and full head of tousled hair, the man paired a wide-ranging intellect with a prodigious literary output. He wrote books about sociology ("Growing Up Absurd" became a campus commonplace and a sort of Bible to the New Left), psychology (he was one of the founders of Gestalt therapy), urban planning, politics, the environment, anarchy, education, pacifism as well as fiction and poetry. The movie effectively uses Goodman's poems to illustrate his life. Minnesota's own Garrison Keillor recites a late poem.
Director Jonathan Lee assembled the documentary from talking-head interviews and footage from news and talk shows, including an opening clip with William F. Buckley Jr., who intones about Goodman being a "pacifist, anarchist, bisexualist..." The intelligentsia of the American left, from Grace Paley to Jason Epstein, weigh in on Goodman's import and impact. While Goodman worship has declined in recent years, many of his beliefs would seem to find a safe harbor among anti-establishment bloggers and partisans of the Occupy movement.
Still, the movie's most memorable moments are the personal. Sally Goodman seeks to explain (to herself, it seems, as much as to her interviewer) her unconventional marriage to a man open about his attraction to other men but also devoted to being home for dinner each night. When his son died accidentally in a mountain-hiking mishap, Goodman never recovered from the grief. He quit writing and died not long after.
Since Goodman comes across as supremely confident in his sometimes controversial views, it's sad and a bit shocking when one old friend says, "He had little ability to be comfortable as the man he was."