Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
With: Lili Anolik, Alec Baldwin, John Boorman, David Edelstein, John Guare, Molly Haskell, Phillip Lopate, Greil Marcus, Joe Morgenstern, Camille Paglia, Carrie Rickey, David O. Russell, Paul Schrader, Ridley Scott, Michael Sragow, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Towne, Stephanie Zacharek, Sarah Jessica Parker (voice)
Written by: Rob Garver
Directed by: Rob Garver
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 38
Date: 02/14/2020

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Critique Technique

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Pauline Kael was among the most important and influential film critics of all time, and remains an inspiration to many of us today. Her legacy is now celebrated in a newly-released documentary, Rob Garver's What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.

Kael was born in Petaluma, California, fell in love with movies at a young age and attended UC Berkeley. In 1953, she published her first review, a pan of Charles Chaplin's Limelight. She reviewed films for KPFA and ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild for several years, programming must-see films for cinephiles.

Finding a home at The New Yorker in 1968, she eschewed the scholarly, rigid format of discussing films and made her reviews as talky and personable as possible.

Her passionate attacks could be vicious. They included a rebuttal of Andrew Sarris's "auteur theory" ("Circles and Squares") and an argument that Orson Welles was not the primary creator of Citizen Kane ("Raising Kane").

But her praises were also legendary. Her rave review of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was actually used, in its entirety, in the ads, and it made the movie a sensation.

In later years, she assembled a group of younger film critics (and Kael fans) — crudely dubbed "Paulettes" — to help swing the tide of opinion on certain films. These included future filmmaker Paul Schrader and former S.F. Examiner film critic Michael Sragow (both interviewed).

The documentary shows all this and more, and includes a very large selection of film clips, edited in ways to illustrate the interviewees' thoughts and ruminations. (Sarah Jessica Parker provides the voice of Kael.)

It tries to include moments both pro and con. Plenty of filmmakers complain angrily about pans they received from Kael, and (in an archival interview), David Lean says she made him wonder if he should even continue making films.

But it also argues that Kael's enormous critical influence helped spur on — and may have been largely responsible for — the "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" Hollywood renaissance, starting with her minority praise of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.

The documentary wonders what Kael would be like today, in a world where powerful individual critics have been replaced by a Rotten Tomatoes collective, but where Kael's punchy, pithy capsule reviews — published in an essential collection called 5001 Nights at the Movies — would be a perfect fit on Twitter.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael doesn't provide an in-depth look at Kael, or at least not enough that it would have pleased Kael herself, but what it lacks in gray area, it at least makes up with equal looks at both the black and white.

Movies Unlimtied