Paul Goodman was the most influential man you’ve never heard of.
A confession: That is not an original line. It is the tagline for the movie “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” by Maine filmmaker Jonathan Lee.
Zeitgeist Films, a New York-based distribution company, came up with the line to pique interest in the film, and it obviously worked. Goodman earned the moniker as a spokesman for a generation, and was best known for his authorship of the 1960 tome “Growing Up Absurd.” That book became something of a bible for the ’60s counterculture, and Goodman often was seen as its torchbearer.
And while he has not been forgotten – his influence remains strong among many – Goodman is hardly a mainstream name anymore. Lee, whose family is associated with Maine car dealers, made the film to reintroduce Goodman and his “passionate curiosity” to the masses.
“I just had to make this movie,” said Lee, who taught himself filmmaking in order to complete the project. “He became such an important figure in my life. He became a sort of alternative father to me. He helped me to see that I could be passionately involved with anything I cared about.
“I wanted to make a film that a 25-year-old, who has never heard of Paul Goodman, could see and leave the theater excited and curious and wanting to read something by this guy.”
In that, Lee has succeeded.
The movie debuted last fall at the Film Forum in New York and has won accolades from the New York Times, the Village Voice, Roger Ebert and the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal and others. Richard Russo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Maine writer, saw the film in Boston and sent a note to Lee that read, in part, “very fine work indeed. Congratulations.”
Interest in the film has spawned interest in Goodman’s writing. His books are being repackaged and published to coincide with the national distribution of the movie, which is making the rounds at movie festivals and arthouse theaters.
The short bio on Goodman reads something like this: Sociologist, poet, writer, anarchist, intellectual. He was a leader of the left, and gave voice to ideas that became a rallying cry for a generation of youth. He was a man of apparent contradictions: A family man and father who also happened to be openly bisexual, but refused to be defined by his sexuality.
Lee, who is gay, identified with Goodman as soon as he began reading his political and social essays. That Goodman happened to be bisexual added to the intrigue. For a kid growing up in Lewiston, Lee found in Goodman a distant role model.
Each time Lee read something new by Goodman, he identified with it. What impressed him most was the range of topics Goodman covered. He wrote with insight and passion about education, urban planning and politics. Goodman told Studs Terkel, “I might seem to have a number of divergent interests but they are all one concern: how to make it possible to grow up as a human being into a culture without losing nature. I simply refuse to acknowledge that a sensible and honorable community does not exist.”
Goodman died in 1972 at his New Hampshire farm. That happened to be the year that Lee moved to New York, and just two years after he first encountered Goodman’s writings. He was in his early 20s, and spent the next part of his life reading as much as he could, digesting Goodman’s philosophies and consuming his ideas.
By the time he reached his 30s, Lee felt determined to write something about Goodman. He got in touch with social critic and Goodman admirer Christopher Lasch, who referred him to Goodman’s literary executor, Taylor Stoehr.
Stoehr was working on a biography of Goodman, and urged Lee to make a movie instead.
And so he did – but it took another 20 years to move forward with the project. He learned the art of filmmaking, hired a crew, and traveled around the country interviewing people who knew Goodman. He spent about $700,000 making the movie.
The final result is a compelling documentary that explains Goodman, his beliefs, his quirks and his idiosyncrasies. The theme that emerged during those interviews gave Lee the title for his film. To a person, his subjects all said, “Paul Goodman changed my life.” Lee could relate, because Goodman changed his life too. He hopes the movie does the same for others.
Lee, who’s now in his 50s, is busy traveling with the film and answering questions. It’s popular on the Jewish film festival circuit and in alternative movie houses coast to coast.
He will screen it for people associated with the Occupy Maine movement at the Meg Perry Center for Peace, Justice & Community in Portland today, and it will receive more public screenings this month in Waterville and Stonington.
The timing could not be better, Lee said.
Goodman’s widow and daughter both live in Maine, and they told him that Goodman would jump right in with the Occupy Maine movement – but not necessarily in a rah-rah sort of way. He would attend their events and rally them forward with direction.
And very likely, he would tell the movement’s leaders to do their homework, present a focused message and act from a position of strength and knowledge.
Lee was glad to have the chance to make this movie, but distressed that he felt it necessary.
“This guy has just disappeared,” he said. “Unfortunately many of the problems he addressed have gotten worse, and many of his ideas are relevant again today. The guy was a visionary.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: