Documentary Spotlight: “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”

The late superstar film critic Pauline Kael has left a complicated legacy. She could be both admirably thoughtful and witlessly cruel. She helped boost the careers of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and others who needed a break when they were trying to create a new and original American cinema at the start of the Seventies. Conversely (and perversely), she ripped others to shreds if for no other reason than she wanted to be a contrarian and/or more clever than anyone else. Sure, she crashed the boy’s club of professional movie reviewing when she landed the plum job of New Yorker film columnist in 1968. But their “ivory tower” was no where near as elitist as she perceived it and barely justified her bewildering personal attacks against establishment colleagues like Andrew Sarris. Suffice to say, that Kael is the type of person who is lauded by her own daughter as someone who “turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.” Um, OK. Not to bring politics into this too soon, but in an election year where we may faced with a choice of two bellowing absolutists (hello, Bernie and The Donald), Pauline looks like another disheartening early indicator of the distressingly coarse society we live in now. While “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a reasonably engaging documentary about an influential person, and recommended to film buffs and those who have followed the once-rambunctious world of cinematic analysis, the person herself earns a qualified thumbs-down.


Pauline Kael (center): The smartest person in the room, according to herself.

Kael grew up on a chicken ranch in rural California. The independent streak and no-nonsense attitude that helped her break away from Smallville USA is evident in the voiceover of her review of the similarly-sited “Hud.” An early affair produced a daughter named Gina James; Kael raised her as a single mom at a time when that was noticeably uncommon. She worked her way up inexorably, starting in the film scene at Berkeley (where she attended college), writing program notes and doing unpaid radio commentary. Eventually, she got a job reviewing movies for the woman’s magazine McCall’s, at one point gleefully skewering the super-popular “The Sound of Music,” esp. skewering the “sexless, inhumanely happy” Julie Andrews character and wondering (someone had to say it) why not even one Von Trapp kid rebelled against the rigidly enforced positivity. She moved on to the New Republic, which wasn’t keen on her positive take on the then-controversial, seeing it as an exciting and necessary catharsis that reflected the tumultuous late Sixties. Instead, the New Yorker took it and in 1968 hired Kael who would work there, with brief interruptions, until 1991.

Director Rob Garver spices up this bio with many, many film clips. They start in the late silent era (when Kael first started going to the picture shows) and are interspersed throughout to illustrate, sometimes confusingly, her life events. When they are joined to voiceover excerpts from memorable reviews, they work much better. But they can also serve to point out Kael’s often perverse inconsistencies. Much is made of Kael’s populism, of being tuned into more everyday tastes than were the “elitists” that she always overestimated. Yet her strong distaste for David Lean’s blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” stemmed from her disillusion in Peter O’Toole’s screen depiction of the historical figure she read about in highbrow books. That’s her prerogative of course, but hardly excuses her ripping Lean to shreds in a public forum they both attended. Elsewhere, her vaunted “populism” just seems silly; ripping almost everything Stanley Kubrick ever did (and with a strangely personalized venom) while praising such things as Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”

As usual, “What She Said” is dotted with many of the expected interview snippets of celebs and colleagues, though my favorite talking head was Gina James, the mild-mannered daughter whose love and admiration for an often difficult person to live with blends with a matter-of-fact honesty that her mother often forfeited in the name of self-serving arrogance. Most of the others do fine, whether its filmmakers both pro and con (Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Tarantino), cultural commentators like Camille Paglia or aging colleagues like Joe Morgenstern. Things can get a bit daft as when critic David Edelstein feels it necessary to inform us he’s not a “Paulette” (a Kael acolyte) but instead a “Paulinista.” Oy.

While I get that Garver wants to reserve the right to end up on the side of its subjects undeniable brilliance, something still seems lacking here. To wit, one can be feisty without being mean and one can also be confident without being self-aggrandizing. Indeed, one should be but things have gotten so out of hand in the digital DYI age. As reviewer Ty Burr noted in the Boston Globe, today “Kael’s voice fills every self-satisfied corner of the Internet.” Sorry, but there’s no “art” in that.

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