Pauline Kael is arguably one of the preeminent, most influential film critics of the 20th century who revolutionized the field of film criticism and paved the way for a generation of female critics in a once male-dominated profession. She was an often controversial figure because her film aesthetic and writing style flouted established conventions of film theory and analysis and were defined instead by her own deeply personal and highly original convictions. While examining her extraordinary career would be a daunting project for any filmmaker, Rob Garver does an exemplary job shining an illuminating light on a complex subject in his well-crafted documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.
Garver’s fascinating look at the life and work of this firebrand film critic draws on both archival footage and contemporary on-camera interviews that lend balance and perspective while assessing her impact on the field of film criticism and the filmmakers whose films she wrote about. Interviewees range from novelist Norman Mailer to filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, William Peter Blatty, David Lean, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, John Boorman, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott and David O. Russell, playwrights John Guare and Christopher Durang, film critics Molly Haskell, Joe Morgenstern, Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein, and even Kael’s daughter, Gina Broughton.
Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991, was witty, highly opinionated, and fought aggressively to attain influence and carve out a professional niche for herself in a cutthroat film business. Her razor sharp opinions often ran contrary to those of her contemporaries. As Kael explains, “I wanted sentences to breathe, to have the sound of the human voice.” She embraced popular cinema and transformed a boring, academic reading experience – what she called “term paper pomposity” — into something exciting, insightful, edgy and outrageous. She was a master of contradiction, much like the filmmakers she found herself drawn to such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman whose films she championed. At the height of her career, a review filled with praise or vitriol by the outspoken Kael could make or break a film and delight or devastate its filmmaker. Audiences looked forward to reading her sharply focused essays and capsule reviews because they enhanced their moviegoing experience.
Garver deftly captures Kael’s lifelong love and passionate celebration of cinema. His documentary is entertaining and engaging as it navigates pivotal moments in Kael’s prominent career — from writing her first long essay on Raising Kane in which she argues Herman Mankiewicz’s substantial contributions to the authorship of Citizen Kane, to her short-lived collaboration with Warren Beatty that brought her to Hollywood after Bonnie and Clyde, to her promotion of prominent filmmakers whose career-defining films she admired, and finally to inspiring a younger generation of discerning cinephiles fondly referred to as Paulettes. On a personal note, it was gratifying to see that UCLA Film Professor Howard Suber’s research, upon which Kael drew extensively for Raising Kane, is appropriately acknowledged in this film.