Among the many juicy revelations in Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is the story of how the famed film critic once so berated legendary director David Lean that the man who gave the world Dr. Zhivago and Brief Encounter confesses he was so blindsided by her harsh criticism that he considered quitting directing.
That story may make Kael instantly unlikeable for many viewers; for others, it might enhance her reputation as a prickly iconoclast. After all, she panned the popular (The Sound of Music) and what she regarded as pretentious (Shoah) with equal ease.
Kael, who wrote about film for The New Yorker, was one of the few high profile women critics in the 60s and early 70s and is pretty much credited with inventing modern film criticism with her colloquial, smart but non-academic approach. This entertaining documentary, essential for cinephiles and anyone who writes about film, traces Kael’s early film writing in Berkeley, born of a sheer passion for movies. She struggled for years to eke out a living as a critic while raising her daughter, Gina James (interviewed in the film) on her own, a most unconventional undertaking in the late ‘40s.
Once Kael started writing books and distinguishing herself as a must-read in The New Yorker, she championed rising young filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma. She also cultivated a cadre of young critics that, to this day, bears the somewhat derisive term The Paulettes.
Although esteemed critics Molly Haskell and Stephanie Zacharek are interviewed, it’s not clear whether Kael nurtured any women critics or filmmakers with the same zeal with which she championed young men. The film is rich with great footage and on camera interviews with filmmakers, critics and scholars — Quentin Tarantino, Camille Paglia, David O. Russell, Haskell, Paul Schrader and more. Best of all, it’s a treasure trove of movie clips from Chaplin (Kael’s first review trashed his Limelight) to the groundbreaking indie films of the ‘70s. These are a joy to see even if sometimes the clips are oddly juxtaposed with the narrative — scenes from All the President’s Men cut with Kael talking about receiving hate mail, for instance —but it’s fitting for a documentary about a talented, hard working writer who simply loved movies, above all else.