Film Reviews Of Paul Goodman Changed My Life; Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And To Kill A Mockingbird; and Carmen & Geoffrey
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/15/14
I recently watched a trio of Netflix documentaries on artists, which varied in quality. They were Paul Goodman Changed My Life; Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And To Kill A Mockingbird; and Carmen & Geoffrey.
Paul Goodman Changed My Life is a 2011 documentary from Jonathan Lee, about the mid 20th Century writer and activist whose life is now mostly forgotten, even in Academia. Aside from those pursuits, Goodman (1911-72) also wrote, at best, mediocre poems, as well as being one of the major proponents of gestalt psychology. Self-described as an anarchist and bisexual, more than anything else, Goodman was a Utopian and dreamer. His ideas on sociology were often naïve and absurd, and the film unwittingly lays this all out, even as it tries to champion the man.
The use of archival film clips and quotes from his writings is used better than many other such documentaries, but the use of talking heads is especially stilted when several persons who never met Goodman, but only claim to have been affected by his work, are interviewed. While in theory this is an intriguing twist on talking heads, in practice it comes off as amateurish and fawning. In all other technical aspects, the film is solid and unnotable.
As for the man, his constant homosexual liasons helped make his marriage a tepid affair, and one can sense his widow’s ambivalence in being interviewed. Goodman also shortshrifted his children- one of whom died in youth, from an accident that seems to have led to Goodman’s own decline in health. The irony in all of this is that his best known book, Growing Up Absurd, about disaffected male youth of the mid 20th Century was filled with anecdotes and aphorisms wherein Goodman plotted out plans for how to deal with such people, yet he never followed his own advice.
What was not ironic was that Goodman started out the 1960s as a guru sought out by Leftist political figures, and ended up the decade reviled by both the Left and the Right, as he grew increasingly out of touch with the modern realities that he predicted but really did not understand. And the most obvious thing the film presents is Goodman’s growing alienation and disaffection for anything that did not feed his ego. Goodman’s ideas on mass transit and the education system were clearly Utopian fantasies, and not even realistic. If presented today they would be dismissed even more cavalierly than they were half a century ago, but Goodman was good at promoting them, and himself, by couching his fantasies in reasonable language and tones.
Thus, there is little wonder that his career and writings have faded so quickly, since they were, as the film shows, fluff. Of course, this is not the impression that director Lee intended, but that’s the result, and the tension between the obvious intent of the director and what an astute filmgoer will get makes the film an interesting way to spend 90 minutes.
If the life and work of the subject of Paul Goodman Changed My Life is overrated in that film, the life and work of the subject of Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of the most overrated subjects in recent American literature. Director Mary McDonagh Murphy beats the proverbial deceased equine to death in this 2010 film that is little more than a hagiography of a writer and her vastly overrated single book.
To set the record straight, To Kill A Mockingbird is a good, solid book, at best, not some literary masterpiece, despite its having sold, according to the film, over 50 million copies since its release. Some critics have even convincingly argued it is really a teen or Young Adults novel, and I’d tend to agree with that assessment. The characters, especially the blacks, in this book aimed at showing the evils of Jim Crow era racism and segregation in the Deep South, are far too often stereotypes little different than any other Southern Gothic writer of the mid 20th Century. This point is amply demonstrated by the assorted readings of passages in the book by celebrity and minor and bad writerly talking heads (Mary Badham, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Roseann Cash, James Patterson, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen, James McBride, Mark Childress, Andrew Young). Banal sentences, simple declarations, naked clichés, and even a phrase like, ‘Hey, Boo!’ are rhapsodized as if the work of a genius, and when the readers try to explain why, they simply fall back on emotional displays and the worst clichés to defend why they simply ‘like’ the book.
If the Goodman film is staid, solid, and about a writer and thinker whose time has long passed, this film chronicles a writer whose time really never should have been. After the book was published, in 1960, and made into a 1962 film with Gregory Peck, Lee went into hiding, and never published another work of fiction. The film attributes this to her not wanting to deign to the masses, yet the reality is that she likely only had this one solid effort in her, and she knew it, and simply coasted her life away. Any posthumous works published will likely not even be to Mockingbird’s mediocre heights.
To the director’s credit, she does not ignore the growing claims that Lee was vastly helped out in her writing of the book by her childhood friend from her hometown, Truman Capote, but instead of actually comparing writing samples, to see if there is any truth to the claim, a hatchet job is performed on Capote- accusing him of ending their friendship over jealousy that she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book while his In Cold Blood did not win. A whole narrative digression on Capote ensues, wherein Lee defenders rip into Capote for his later drug use and party animal lifestyle that utterly serves no purpose in the film save to totally discredit Capote, hence make any claims about his helping Lee seem ridiculous. It’s a cheap, tacky, and wholly gratuitous passage in an already bloated film (at only 81 minutes in length!). Nothing else, technically, about this mediocre film, is noteworthy.
The final film I saw, Carmen & Geoffrey, directed by Linda Atkinson and Nick Dood, about famed married black dancers Carmen De Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, was, like the first two, an utterly average documentary in terms of its approach, technically (camera angles, talking heads, archival footage), but what makes this 78 minute long, 2009 film the best of the bunch is its subjects; especially Geoffrey Holder. Known to many from the 1970s as simply the bald black guy who hawked 7 Up soda as the Un-Cola, Holder’s Renaissance Man status is confirmed in this film, as it shows him not only as a dancer, but a choreographer and theater director of the highest order (The Wiz being his breakthrough hit). He is also shown as a competent painter, although very derivative.
His wife, Carmen, is also an interesting character- famed for her beauty and a prior relationship with Alvin Ailey, thankfully little scandalous issue is made of the love triangle. Instead, the film’s best moments are snippets NOT of Holder talking, although he could read from a manual and be engaging, but when the man is caught in sly little moment, stopping momentarily in a Paris open air shopping square, or looking at his older brother with love and wistfulness. The best scenes of Carmen, however, are not those of her talking about her life and art, but seeing it in performance, and, especially in rehearsal, which gives one a basis for understanding why a dance move fails or succeeds in a given context. The lives of this couple also taps into the vein of American dance and musical theater of the last sixty years like few other performers’ lives could do.
Perhaps the most cogent moment in the film comes when the Trinidadian born, and six foot, six inch tall, Holder is talking about his own reaction to encountering American racism and Jim Crow statures. He says, ‘I walk through doors, and if I’m not wanted in a place, there’s something wrong with the place, not with me.’ This is a version of my own apothegm: Sometimes it really is the whole world that is wrong.
With Holder in his 80s and Lavallade in her 70s, this film is a needed documentation of two of the more influential people in American performing arts, and while the film, itself, is no great work of art, it is easily the best of the three films in this review because of its engaging focus. Holder and Lavallade are essential to art today, whereas Goodman is, at best, a historic footnote, and Lee an overrated mediocrity.
Of the three films under review- Paul Goodman Changed My Life; Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And To Kill A Mockingbird; and Carmen & Geoffrey- none are stellar works of cinema, but only the last of the three, Carmen & Geoffrey is a must see, in terms of backgrounding oneself in the arts Americana. Paul Goodman Changed My Life is not essential, but worthy enough as a piece of trivia. But, definitely skip Hey, Boo: Harper Lee And To Kill A Mockingbird, for nothing new is added of any substance, to the known facts of the book nor its author. And, interestingly enough, since none of the films provokes, in its own right, this descending order of filmic quality matches the descending import of the respective artists. Sometimes, there is justice in this world, however minor.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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