Well, this certainly is a conundrum.
On the one hand, I’m thrilled that the Coolidge’s current roster of “virtual screenings” includes What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. Like countless others in my line of work, I consider Kael– the longtime New Yorker film critic who served as the de facto narrator of the American New Wave of the 1970s– a central influence and aspirational figure, and leapt at the opportunity to cover the documentary. But now that I’m sitting down to write my review, I find myself gripped with self-consciousness. How does one review a film about a film reviewer? And how does one write about one of the all-time luminaries in one’s own field, in the same format in which she herself worked, without a creeping sense of inadequacy?
The answer, I guess, is the same as it ever is: start from the basics, then spin out from there. As mentioned above, Pauline Kael was a towering figure in the world of film criticism. With the exceptions of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and maaaaaybe Leonard Maltin, no one in the profession has ever had wider name recognition amongst the general public. Certainly, none have wielded as much power: her review of Bonnie and Clyde is widely credited with both saving that film from commercial oblivion and kickstarting Hollywood’s ‘70s renaissance, and her advocacy was paramount to the early careers of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, and countless others. Yet few critics have ever been as divisive, either; she was notorious both for her excoriating reviews of consensus classics and her championing of films dismissed by her peers as irredeemable trash, and her icy demeanor made her oft-reviled among filmmakers and fellow critics alike. This, along with the density of her fiery, erudite prose, makes her writing both irresistible and daunting to the budding cinephile.
In What She Said, director Rob Garver creates a sort of a primer to Kael’s estimable career, from her early days on public radio and as programmer at the Berkeley Cinema Guild, to the career-making publication of her seminal bestseller I Lost It at the Movies, to her celebrated perch at the New Yorker. Her story is told largely via interviews with fellow critics (including the great Joe Morgenstern and Molly Haskell), fans (notably Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell), and, most impactfully, her daughter Gina James, who has declined to participate in similar projects in the past. The throughline, of course, is Kael herself, represented by talk show appearances, clips from her radio show, and excerpts from her reviews read by Sarah Jessica Parker (who is distracting at first, but seems to grow more comfortable in her role as the film progresses).
As in A Life in the Dark, the essential 2011 biography by the late Brian Kellow, the emphasis of What She Said is less on Kael’s life and more on her work. In some ways, this is feels like an acknowledgment that Kael’s life, while certainly not lacking in personal drama, did not follow a particularly dramatic arc. Yet it also feels like a deliberate choice, as several of the most notorious episodes of her career are omitted, such as her unprecedented access to the production of Robert Altman’s Nashville, or her fraught relationship with protege-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader (the latter is especially curious, as Schrader figures prominently in the interview segments). The point, it seems, is to resurrect Kael for a generation of cineastes who have come of age in a post-Pauline world. Kael, who retired from criticism in the early ‘90s and died in 2001, is a distinctly pre-internet figure, and today is more widely namechecked than actually read. Like Kellow’s book, What She Said gives the viewer a sense of why Pauline Kael was so feared, and a roadmap to discovering her work for themselves.
It’s tempting to speculate as to what Pauline Kael would have thought of What She Said. My sense is that she probably would have hated it; her distrust of reverence and pantheon-building is the stuff of legend (and the basis of her career-long feud with Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris), and she likely would have found the twinkly score as cloying and manipulative as Charlie Chaplin (who she infamously disdained). Yet, as anyone who’s ever read her work will attest, predicting Pauline Kael’s opinion on any given movie is a fool’s errand. Kael was a contrarian, often maddeningly so, and seemed to delight in zigging where every one of her contemporaries had already zagged. In the age of Rotten Tomatoes, there is a tendency to judge a critic on how closely their opinions reflect one’s own. Kael’s genius was in expressing her opinions so eloquently and engagingly that her reviews keep you reading even as they run in diametric opposition to your own feelings. Case in point: her pan of West Side Story and her rave review of Last Tango in Paris count among the finest works of film writing in the history of the medium, and I cannot imagine ever meeting someone who agrees with either of them.
Like many of my generation, I knew Kael by name long before I familiarized myself with her work, and didn’t take the dive until several years into my own career as a critic. Yet such is her influence, and so long her shadow, that I instantly recognized the ripples of her innovations in my own work (in particular, her then-revolutionary assertions that scholarly objectivity is meaningless in the face of personal perspective, and that great trash is preferable to middling art). As a film, it could be argued that What She Said is just a hair too shallow and enraptured by its subject. But if it convinces one young moviegoer to pick up one of her books– or, better yet, interrogate their own relationship with film and film criticism– it will have done its job. And as an added bonus, they won’t have to worry about Pauline tearing them a new asshole.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
dir. Rob Garver
Now available to rent via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.