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Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

January 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Whether you agreed with her or not, there’s simply no denying that Pauline Kael was one of the most influential film critics of the 20th century, a writer whose often controversial opinions were sometimes hurtful and sometimes helpful, but always uniquely hers.

Even when her contrarian views put her in the critical minority – which was often, with her trashing such widely acclaimed films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy and West Side Story, to name but a few of the classics that she struck down with her pen – Kael’s razor-tongued writing style gained her a dedicated following of cinephiles as well as a good deal of detractors.

Kael gets the glowing biographical treatment in director Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a crowdfunded documentary that is made up of interviews with a litany of people who admired her work, ranging from other critics to filmmakers like Paul Schrader, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino, as well as a constant stream of movie clips, and excerpts from her reviews read in voiceover by Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s fairly entertaining to watch, but also feels a bit vapid.

The documentary recounts how Kael’s first review was of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, a piece that she was invited to write for City Lights magazine after the editor heard her arguing about film in a coffee shop. She hated the film and critiqued it harshly, which helped establish her reputation as someone who was unafraid of criticizing works that others adored. Kael’s work appeared in a variety of outlets before she was hired part-time by The New Yorker magazine – the outlet that she was famous for – in 1968, and she would write for them until 1991.

We learn that before she was brought on as their full time movie critic in 1980, Kael split the gig with Penelope Gilliatt, with them each being allotted six months of the year, which meant that for the first stretch of her career, she wasn’t earning a living wage from The New Yorker. Throughout this time, Kael sought other jobs and went after book deals in order to support herself and her daughter Gina – whom she eventually recruited as her typist, preferring to write all of her reviews by hand – and even briefly took a job for a few months at Paramount Pictures in 1979, after being hired by Warren Beatty as a consultant.

There is some interesting background here on Kael’s life and career. But all of the interviewees in What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael express pretty much nothing but glowing admiration for her, and the biggest problem with Garver’s approach is the fact that he doesn’t really counter this praise or balance it out in any substantial way. The whole thing feels rushed, and at times his film ends up seeming more like hagiography instead of a more fleshed out biography.

Renatta Adler’s not entirely unwarranted criticisms of Kael’s writing in an infamous review of her 1980 book When the Lights Go Down are mostly brushed aside, and the allegations of plagiarism against Kael for her 1971 essay Raising Kane are all but ignored. Kael could also be incredibly and needlessly cruel in how she cut people down with her words, and the film recounts a time when she ripped into and berated David Lean at a dinner party, having considered his Lawrence of Arabia to be an inferior adaptation of T.E. Lawrence’s writing. Lean talks in a surprisingly sad archival interview about how this encounter with her greatly impacted his sense of self-worth, and caused him to stop working for years.

The documentary also makes an all too brief mention of Kael’s attempts to influence the opinions of other writers, with a small coterie of critics dubbed the “Paulettes” whom she expected to fall in line with her in terms of what movies to recommend. While Garver doesn’t entirely shy away from these things, he also doesn’t exactly allow for the most nuanced portrait of her more complicated place in the cinematic landscape or the more challenging aspects of her legacy.

It’s a widely established fact that Kael’s praise of controversial and misunderstood movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris helped bring in audiences to those films and keep them in the conversation, when they might have disappeared otherwise. But the film also seems to over inflate Kael’s importance in advancing the career’s of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg with her positive reviews of Mean Streets and The Sugarland Express, when those filmmakers were on an upward trajectory anyways.

The film also makes zero mention of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, contemporaries of Kael who were equally as influential as her in terms of film criticism, and their curious omission from the film feels like a major oversight. Despite its shortcomings as a complete biography of its central figure, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is still a fairly enjoyable introduction to her life and career. I just wish it had gone a lot deeper.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.

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