Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{Paul Goodman Changed My Life shows December 2-8 at Siff Cinema at the Film Center. Get tix online here.}

Poet-protester-psychologist Paul Goodman's sociological memoir-manifesto Growing Up Absurd was one of those items you'd find in an early American punk's apartment, as you would a black leather motorcycle jacket, maybe a stack of vintage Marvel comics, perhaps on top of orange crates filled with imported punk and remaindered 60s garage rock LPs, a hash pipe laying next to a butterfly knife bought at a pawn store, silly-dangerous stuff like that. It was a whip-smart book for rebellious boys, a seeding of early 60s counter-cultural impulses that was still being passed down the pike, as Catcher In The Rye or Pink Floyd's The Wall or looking like James Dean never quite fell out of fashion with the perennial non-comfortists. And yet, recently, it kind of disappeared in such digs as they come and go in micro-generations.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life is an excellent introduction into the robust and rousing writing of a supreme cultural critic who was publicly taking on the 50s mind control of Pentagon America as confidently as possible. His public speeches from this time period still sting with descriptions and accusations of shadow forces trying to entrap the U.S. in bloody, absolutely useless global conflict. His anti-authoritarianism came first, then a friend told him he was an anarchist and it just seemed to fit. That a staunch pacifist and anti-capitalist crusader could be so popular and persuasive in the pre-Vietnam war era, translating the images of restless energy of juvenile delinquents on movie screens into forceful calls for national protest, is astonishing and lberating today. And every few minutes in Jonathan Lee's film you'll get to hear him recite his hypnotic poetry about the love for his family, his eros-driven visions, and his life on the brink of chaos contemplated both fiercely and delicately as well.

On the other hand, he was quite a bit of a pervert, scamming on young men incessantly even though he always liked to appear (and maybe even felt he was) settled down with a wife, taking care of those kids he scribed dearly about — and treated pretty horribly. "Beneath the greatest love there is a hurricane of hate," Phil Ochs once sang, and the contempt most of the women show in talking about his transgressions can be taken in alongside gracious accolades of gay comrades and fellow, fawning writers. It's terrible to see how careless Goodman could be with people, inevitably, even as his creativity and cultural insights inspire.

Goodman shifted mid-stream after Growing Up Absurd into a co-creator of controversial Gestalt therapy, which he helped invent as he burned out working alongside the left as it found strange successes and cultural failures of persuading America to pull out of an unwinnable war. This experimental form of counseling encouraged insidious conflict with its patients, as a means to challange them to wake up from false values and hidden problems. It is here we begin to see Goodman's polymath exposing his good intentions/inimical treatment of others in an institutional way, not unlike watching the Marquis de Sade run an asylum in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, only more socially acceptable (and with less lashings and torture). 

Goodman still wrote like a dream though, even when he journeyed beyond that field and back into cultural theory, just to find all these rude hippies running things uppity and depressing. No surprise, considering the daddy issues he must have had and shared. Maybe like the public images of Woody Allen or Robert Crumb, you'll find yourself loving his work, and startled and astonished by his inspirations and viewpoints below the surface. But by no means miss this resurrection of a personality that provokes many mileus forward to this day.