Perhaps the most famous film critic to ever have lived, Pauline Kael’s prose is sharp, witty, and always personal. Liberating film criticism from its stuffy confines, destroying the barriers between high and low art, and making cinema a public forum for discussion, her contributions to cinema are as important as any film. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael works as a fine primer of her work, most enjoyable when it allows her reviews (narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker) to speak for themselves.
Critics and filmmakers on board to extemporize on her work include David Edelstein, Stephanie Zacherek, Paul Schrader, David O’Russell, and Quentin Tarantino; their thoughts and discussions are complemented with archive footage of Kael, both on television and radio, giving a fascinating glimpse into a time when one critic could make or break the success of a movie.
Her contributions are invaluable, including a welcome riposte to Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory, the laudation of trashy movies, and her opinion that the arthouse cinema coming out of France and Italy in the early 60s was pretentious nonsense. In the late 60s and early 70s, no one was as important as Kael in helping the American New Wave prosper. After her legendary review of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker, achieving an authority over cinema unequaled before or since. With a style that barely followed any conventional method of analysis, prioritizing emotion over objective reasoning, she was an unpredictable, yet brilliant writer who reached the kind of cultural status critics today can only dream of.
It’s both heartening and distressing to know as a film critic that Pauline Kael barely made enough money to live on. The New Yorker would only have her on for six months at a time, switching duties with Penelope Gilliatt. To fill the rest of the year, she would moonlight for other publications, practically inventing what we now call ‘the take.’ What the film doesn’t touch on is how her prose style led the way for personality critics, such as Anthony Lane and Peter Bradshaw, who are more interested in themselves and their own quirky mannerisms than the film they are promoting. Additionally, her relationship with Roger Ebert — the only modern critic to really equal her influence — is barely touched upon. I would have preferred a film that actually delved more into the function of criticism today, as an art form under siege from a fractured digital economy, populist aggregators, critic-proof superhero films, and the rise of ‘movie fans.’
The film also promotes the idea of being honest with yourself no matter the blowback you may receive — the power of the personal over the objective. Kael’s most criticized review was her pronouncement that Holocaust documentary Shoah — by many considered the most important movie ever made — was “logy and exhausting right from the start.” This gross mischaracterization of the movie, both from a stylistic and moral point of view, is still hard to process today; it often feels like contrarianism for its own sake.
By this extreme metric, contrarian Armond White — who also waits to see which way the wind is blowing before writing his reviews — is the true heir to her mantle. But at least he brings a certain intellectual depth. The world today is full of contrarian ideas, as sometimes that’s the only way for work to go viral. These kind of anti-intellectual takes — such as Harry Knowles infamous’ comparison of Blade 2 to cunnilingus, or Vice’s atrocious ‘Does It Suck’ series — are easily found across the internet; the more stupid it gets (check the incredibly juvenile: “Don’t Listen to Film Critics, Go Form Your Own Opinions on Movies”), the more viral it gets. Still, her mean putdowns are a fresh slap to a film climate — at least on Twitter — where being negative is becoming more and more frowned upon. Sometimes movies are bad. Kael knew that better than anyone.
Suffering from the kind of clichés (“the movie needed her as much as she needed movies”) that she and any copy editor at The New Yorker would’ve instantly flagged for removal, and not really going into the messy, problematic details of her career, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael can’t really uncover the secrets of what made Kael’s prose sing. Nonetheless, she provides inspiration to anyone trying to uncover their own true voice — a quality often more important than knowledge in this industry — in order to make it as a successful writer.