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The last thing any film critic might imagine is that he or she would one day become the subject of a documentary. Could anyone be a less likely object of cinematic scrutiny than someone who sits in the dark watching movies and then sits at a desk writing about them? However improbably, there are now two very good films about two leading luminaries of American film criticism, Steve James’ Life Itself, about Roger Ebert, from 2014, and the latest, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, by Rob Garver. A niche on the festival circuit and at docu-friendly venues on screens big and small will provide congenial homes for a film that is automatically enlivened by the personality of its subject.
Kael was not a household name the way Ebert was — she didn’t have her own TV show — but from the late 1960s into the 1980s, while writing for The New Yorker, she held an unassailable position of authority and dominance in the world of American film criticism. Her most famous reviews were her era-defining rave for Bonnie and Clyde and her orgasmic embrace of Last Tango in Paris, which she implicitly insisted was the most exciting work of art in six decades. She was the mother-hen to a flock of disciples, fledgling critics otherwise known as the “Paulettes,” who fell in line with her views to an eyebrow-raising extent, and she maintained raging debates with other prominent critics of the day, notably Andrew Sarris, who had followers of his own in the auteurist camp.
To be sure, it was a tremendously vital era for films as well as for film criticism, and first-time documentary director Rob Garver, who shot the interviews four years ago, catches a strong tailwind provided by the many articulate and opinionated people assembled here to provide an alternate media companion piece to Brian Kellow’s solid 2011 literary biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.
Boosted by a judicious amount of sharp, invariably opinionated commentary from Kael herself via talk show appearances, speeches and other sources (Camille Paglia notes that Kael’s voice had “a snappish sound,” like wise-cracking dames from 1930s movies), Garver neatly positions the young woman from rural Northern California as a feisty outsider. A failure as a playwright and by her late 20s an out-of-wedlock mother of a daughter, named Gina James, via a relationship with gay San Francisco underground filmmaker James Broughton, Kael began writing film reviews locally (her debut was a pan of Chaplin’s Limelight) and eventually attracted attention with her erudite program notes for the Berkeley Cinema Guild. “I think being from the West just made her more independent,” opines critic Carrie Rickey, with James Wolcott adding that Kael had a built-in antipathy to “deference to authority.”
Coverage of these early years is immeasurably enlivened by the subject’s 1950s home movie footage of the bohemian Bay Area social scene; they’re rough, sometimes out of focus but entirely evocative of the time, when foreign films (Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al.) were enthusing the intelligentsia. There are great color shots of Kael’s modest home, the interiors of which were elaborately painted in styles inspired by motifs taken from Jean Renoir, especially his Indian film The River.
Boldly moving to New York City with her teenage daughter in the mid-1960s after she finished her first, and unexpectedly popular, collection of writings, I Lost It at the Movies, she turned adversity into fame and success when her effusion for Bonnie and Clyde was rejected by The New Republic only to be printed in full by The New Yorker.
“It changed the face of reviewing,” states Robert Towne, who worked on the film, and the documentary provides a scattering of examples of Kael’s zeal, sharp opinions, propulsive prose style and an argumentativeness that invited push-back. While her battles with John Simon go unmentioned, Kael’s lifelong animosity toward Sarris is at least given the courtesy of a response by the late critic’s widow and superb critic in her own right, Molly Haskell, who quietly states that Kael “attacked him in a very personal and almost slanderous way,” adding that, “No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline.” While both participants are gone, that battle still hasn’t died.
Kael was equally known for her likes and dislikes. Over the years, directors like Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Philip Kaufman and Sam Peckinpah could scarcely do wrong in her book, and there were a number of other directors during the New Hollywood 1970s whom Kael vociferously, and excitingly, promoted.
But look out if you were British, a status Stanley Kubrick officially achieved in her book with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which she dismissed out of hand (David O. Russell joins her here in trashing that landmark). The documentary makes clear that, somehow, Kael really got under the skin of English directors: John Boorman puts it lightly by advising that, “She kept us on our toes,” but Ridley Scott was so upset by her “vicious” pan of Blade Runner that he stated he’d never read another word of criticism again.
But most disturbing of all is how Kael’s vivisection of Ryan’s Daughter — some of it personally delivered at a New York luncheon — so rattled David Lean that he withdrew from filmmaking for 14 years. “It had an awful effect on one,” Lean says (oddly using the indefinite third person) in an archival interview excerpted here. “It shakes one’s confidence, terribly.” Why these enormously successful directors let her remarks bother them so much is another question — Lean, in other circumstances, has been described as having the thick skin of a rhinoceros — but somehow they did. She struck a nerve.
Much the same thing happened in 1971 when she wrote a lengthy consideration of the creation of Citizen Kane, a film she loved, in which she qualified its “authorship” by Orson Welles with a major upgrading of the contribution of co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. The piece, which served as an introduction to the published screenplay, deeply hurt Welles, who felt that now even his one unequivocally great achievement was being taken away from him. The filmmaker’s defenders, most notably Peter Bogdanovich, struck back effectively, but apologizing seems not to have been in Kael’s makeup.
Among her critical victims, perhaps Jerry Lewis put it best: “She’s never said a good thing about me yet, the dirty old broad,” he’s seen saying on a talk show. “But she’s probably the most qualified critic in the world.”
The documentary breezes over the time she was lured away from criticism to work in Hollywood with Warren Beatty and James Toback on the latter’s Love and Money at Paramount in 1979, which unsurprisingly didn’t work out. Shortly after her return to The New Yorker the following year, she was the subject of a merciless and lengthy takedown by Renata Adler in The New York Review of Books. As far as her final decade as a critic is concerned (she retired in 1991, due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease and died a decade later at 82), the only review worthy of note here is her annoyed dismissal of Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Holocaust documentary, Shoah.
Befitting the subject’s personality and entertainment predilections, What She Said is adamantly engaging, full of lively, appreciative voices that, more than anything else, bring her enthusiasm and keen-mindedness back to life. One can debate as to whether criticism is an art or a craft but, whatever it is, Kael made it very personal.
With: Alec Baldwin, John Guare, Quentin Tarantino, Lili Anolik, David Edelstein, Greil Marcus, Paul Schrader, Gina James, Camille Paglia, Brian Kellow, Craig Seligman, Jaime Manrique, Carrie Rickey, James Wolcott, Molly Haskell, Philip Lopate, David O. Russell, Christopher Durang, Chester Villalba, Ortrun Niesar, Laurence McGilvery, Dirk Van Nouhays, Marcia Nasatir, Robert Towne, Joseph Morgenstern, George Malko, John Boorman, Tom Pollock, Stephanie Zacharek, Michael Sragow, David V. Picker, Daryl Chin
Director-writer: Rob Garver
Producers: Rob Garver, Glen Zipper, Sean Stuart
Executive producer: Bobby Campbell
Director of photography: Vincent Ellis
Editors: Rob Garver
Co-producer and Supervising editor: Douglas Blush
Original music: Rick Baitz
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
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