What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
Updated: Apr 29
by Christopher Soden
By way of introduction (and transparency) I discovered Pauline Kael’s body of critique while shelving books at my first real job, at The Dallas Public Library in 1976. I was 17 and a Page, assigned to Children’s and Fine Arts. I found an anthology of movie reviews by different journalists, that included her notorious review of Last Tango in Paris. I was woefully ignorant at the time and had no idea what an uproar that review caused. Of course I’d never seen it. It seems reductive to describe it as a rave, because she was so skilled and articulate, so detailed in her descriptions of the how and why of Bertolucci’s masterpiece, you couldn’t just dismiss it as frivolous or outré. Her enthusiasm was irresistible. I was in love. But so many distinguished critics compared it to smut and “hardcore porn,” you could feel the visceral repugnance behind their columns. And that wasn’t necessarily an inappropriate response.
In the new documentary: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (Directed by Rob Garver) we get a punchy, brisk, juicy, yet sharp and balanced portrait of the woman who left her desolate town in the Midwest, for a sense of purpose and intellectual stimulation. She worked her way through various jobs (nanny, seamstress, violin teacher) to become an influential and somewhat infuriating film critic for The New Yorker. She was there for over thirty years. Forthright and frank, undeniably intelligent, she was erudite without being lofty. Like a friend having a drink and smoke with you at a bohemian bar, she was absorbing and entertaining, but always accessible. What set her apart was her deep investment in the art of film. If she saw one that felt manipulative or wrong-headed, she seemed to take it as a personal affront. She used colloquial language (often including blue jargon) to discuss the particulars of a movie, rejecting the diction of academia. She consistently revealed personal biases that might have shaped her critique.
Even directors she panned (though she rarely went to extremes) respected her writing. Well, not all of them. Some positively loathed her. But it wasn’t unusual for directors like Woody Allen and Robert Altman to thank her profusely for “getting” them. Breakthrough films like Altman’s Nashville and Robert Towne’s Bonnie and Clyde, often misunderstood, were clear enough to Kael. She could glean the impetus behind the locomotion. Friends and strangers saw her as brilliant, ruthless, a Godsend or a loose cannon. She was an unlikely combination of intellect and pragmatism. If a movie wasn’t working, if it was turgid, or structurally flawed she would say as much. But always supporting her arguments.
Garver has assembled a succession of interviews, with Gina James (her daughter) directors, other critics, intimate friends. Some thought she was despicable, and others felt she transcended the genre.
He often uses clips, either to illustrate her critique, or to enhance aspects of her career. Cagney grabbing the grapefruit evinces her struggle with the boy’s club of film critics; a piece from a silent film to express her monetary problems. The latter technique has become a familiar in documentaries, and here, it seemed a bit glib. Sometimes the rhythm of flipping from interview to film clip to exposition seemed somewhat misguided. All that being said, his appreciation (and perhaps fascination) with this brilliant writer comes through, without holding back from well-documented, and often vocal depreciation. He captures a life marked by controversy, self-doubt, contradictions, moxie and despondency. If films dazzle, intoxicate, confound, rattle or get under your skin, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a gift you owe yourself.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is currently available through virtual screening at The Texas Theatre through April 30, 2020. For tickets, visit Texas Theatre's Virtual Screening Room.
As of Tuesday, April 28, 2020, Texas Theatre will remain temporarily closed in response to COVID-19. Here is a statement from their Facebook page: "The Texas Theatre will not be re-opening to the public on May 1st. Rather we will continue to offer our virtual programming and curbside packages, while monitoring evolving county guidelines, conditions and safety procedures."