(The 9th annual DOC NYC ran November 8-15 in New York City. Lead Critic Chris Reed was there so stay tuned for his review and interviews…)
Anyone who has ever read one of the late, great film critic Pauline Kael’s sharp-witted reviews should be excited that she now has a comprehensive documentary portrait of her own. Entitled What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, and coming to us from first-time feature-director Rob Garver, the movie walks the viewer through the main events of Kael’s life, sharing excerpts from her prolific writing along the way. From the late 1960s through her retirement in 1991, Kael was that rare creature, the superstar critic whose opinion could change the trajectory of a given film’s path to or from success.
Without her, it is unlikely that Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 Bonnie and Clyde would have become so influential, as it was quickly vanishing into the abyss of critical and audience neglect before she got a hold of it, turning its fortunes around. Her essay on that movie also improved her own situation, running in the New Yorker magazine at a time when she was jobless. Her bold statement in favor of a movie no other important critic thought much of not only changed the face of American cinema, but also landed her a permanent gig at the New Yorker, where she remained until the end of her professional life. Like or dislike her reviews – and I do both – there is no denying her importance in the history of the movies.
The documentary opens with a child’s voice (we later assume it is her grandson) asking Kael, off-camera, about the first review she ever wrote, which was for Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 Limelight (she didn’t like it). From there, we travel back in time to her early life in California (where she was born in Petaluma, in 1919), to her collection of odd-jobs in her early adult life in San Francisco, to her eventual discovery of her true calling in the 1950s, when she started broadcasting radio reviews and curating the programming at arthouse cinemas in Berkeley. Her first book, I Lost It at the Movies – a collection of her reviews published in the mid-1960s – was successful enough to allow her to change things up a bit, and she moved east, to New York City, where she wrote for a few different magazines before finally establishing herself as the doyenne of American movie criticism, a position she maintained until she stopped writing (and even after).
Always clever and opinionated, and allergic to pretension, she wrote exactly what she thought, in a colloquial voice, and took particular enjoyment if her ideas ran counter to the majority’s. Given how hard she had struggled, as a single woman – and, eventually, mother – to make her way in the world, she never lost her combatant’s edge. She did not suffer fools, though she did enjoy her acolytes, some of whom were dubbed (not always kindly) “Paulettes.” She was a force of nature, barreling through those who would roll right over her if she didn’t strike first. She was sui generis, and we miss her.
As happens to all who reach the pinnacle of their profession, she also became a little too enamored of her own righteousness, something Garver’s film reveals, as well. He holds back neither the good nor the bad, though clearly is as taken with Kael as she was with herself. And why not? What’s the point of a critic who doesn’t believe in her own truth? Still, perhaps she could go too far, as when she attacked director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), at an ostensible tribute, for making bad movies, a moment that, in his own words, took him years from which to recover. She was tough because she felt she had to be, but maybe she didn’t always need to be that tough. You be the judge. I still admire her writing, even when I disagree.
Narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, the movie is filled with many talking-head interviews from fellow critics and a few directors, as well as with her long-suffering (but very loving) daughter, who typed up many of her manuscripts in what seems like an intensely symbiotic relationship. There’s Molly Haskell, critic and wife of the late Andrew Sarris, the man who imported the auteur theory to the United States and someone whom Kael despised; there’s New York magazine and Fresh Air‘s David Edelstein, a disciple who prefers the term “Paulanista” to “Paulette”; there are directors John Boorman, Paul Schrader and Quentin Tarantino, who all speak glowingly of her essays, even when they have not all been the recipient of favorable reviews; and many more. By the time the documentary ends, we have heard many voices speak, and come away with a broad sense of the very essence of what made Kael tick.
Kael died in 2001, in Great Barrington, MA, where she had made her home for a number of years. 17 years have passed since then, and other than Roger Ebert, who passed away in 2013, have there been any other critics of that stature to replace her? I am sure there are some who would, in vain, attempt to claim that mantle, but for now, the queen is still the queen. Let the battles for succession begin!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)