The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Movies That Make You Want to Read

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of JSL Films

Both Jonathan Lee’s “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” a biography of the now obscure New York Intellectual, and Pony Brzezinski and Lina Chaplin’s “Writing as I Should,” a documentary about the late Israeli author Batya Gur, make you want to read more of their subjects’ work, though for opposite reasons. The two films screened November 3 as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which was the initial grounds for comparing them. But watching these two very different takes on two very different writers made me wish that there was a dialogue between them — that “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” had some of the revealing nearness of “Writing as I Should,” and that “Writing As I Should” had more of an outside perspective on the meaning of Gur’s work.

“Paul Goodman Changed My Life” tries and fails spectacularly at capturing every nuance of Goodman’s multifaceted career. The film introduces us to Goodman the poet, Goodman the novelist, Goodman the anarchist, Goodman the social theorist, Goodman the teacher, Goodman the charming guest on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” Goodman the bisexual, Goodman the not-always-affectionate father, and Goodman the jilted elder statesman of the New Left.

It’s cacophonous. There are interviews with experts on each, and there is well-placed archival footage of Goodman discoursing about many topics, but they switch too quickly for the film to provide nuance on any individual aspect of his life. Lee tries to use Goodman’s poetry as a unifying thread, and the poems provide a heartbreaking private look at a public figure. But the success of the poems is the failure of the movie as a whole: It points to the fact that Lee wasn’t able to penetrate past Goodman’s voluminous writings and public appearances to find the person.

The film also tries to make the argument that Goodman’s poetry was more important for the New York School than has been previously acknowledged. But it needed to develop this idea and work through it. Ultimately “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” left me believing that that there’s a really good movie to be made about Paul Goodman’s poetry.

The Batya Gur documentary, “Writing as I Should,” on the other hand, is impressively non-comprehensive. The film is a series of unedited interviews made for a movie still unfinished when Gur passed away. Some of the interviews are one-on-one, in private spaces like Gur’s office or kitchen; some are dual interviews with close friends or family, but all of them are unguarded. You’ll forgive the comparison, but the movie this most reminded me of was “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” It’s not only the way that the interviews have the same grainy aesthetic feel; at its best “Writing as I Should” captures — indeed, is almost about — that strange intimacy of revealing your secrets to a camera. You sense the trust that Gur develops with her interlocutors and her willingness to talk openly, but the camera makes private secrets public, and leaves its subject exposed to the world.

Gur talks candidly about her work, her family, and her views on literature. This isn’t the cold intellectualism of “Paul Goodman Changed My Life”; these are the views of a person with a compelling voice who you want to know more about. It’s unfair to ask more of “Writing as I Should.” This is an unfinished series of interviews, after all, and they are absolutely captivating. But the filmmakers could have tried to engage an outside expert — a professor or critic — to speak as honestly about Gur’s work as she speaks about herself. Yes, this would have made “Writing as I Should” a very different movie, but the outside voice is necessary to explain why Gur was a great writer, and why it was important that she wrote as she should.

No matter how much you know about either author, both films will convince you that you want to know more. This is a good thing. A movie about writing or a writer that leaves you feeling that you know everything there is to know is — no matter how great the film — a failure. What makes Paul Goodman and Batya Gur compelling as subjects are their words, and the way they turn ordinary language into what Gur calls “language with four or five dimensions” — something impossibly more.

Watch the trailer for ‘Paul Goodman Changed My Life’:

Watch the trailer for ‘Writing as I Should’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Writing as I Should, Paul Goodman Changed My Life, Pony Brzezinski, Paul Goodman, Lina Chaplin, Jonathan Lee, Film, Boston Jewish Film Festival, Eitan Kensky, Batya Gur

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.