Monday, November 08, 2021

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael


Written, edited, and directed by Rob Garver, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a documentary about the life and career of controversial film critic Pauline Kael whose film criticism was considered influential yet her opinions towards some of the finest films of the times often created discussion. The film explore the woman’s impact on film culture with interviews from filmmakers as well as Kael’s only daughter in Gina James with Sarah Jessica Parker providing the voice of Kael. The result is a witty and fascinating film about one of the most polarizing figures in the world of cinema.

From 1968 to 1991 at The New Yorker magazine, there was one film critic who many filmmakers, actors, and film buffs read and that was Pauline Kael. Through her film criticism, she championed filmmakers like Paul Schrader, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg as she also had a fondness for commercial cinema yet would also be vicious in her writing as she would be dismissive about widely-revered films including the works of Stanley Kubrick. Rob Garver’s film interviews filmmakers, critics, and others about Kael’s influence but also go into details about the fact that she was a polarizing figure as there were some filmmakers who hated her because of what she wrote. Even as some took it personally or felt that her opinions were a bunch of bullshit though there’s some truth to what she said.

Paul Schrader, Quentin Tarantino, and David O. Russell are among the small group of filmmakers who are interviewed along with actor Alec Baldwin and film critics in David Edelstein, Molly Haskell, Stephanie Zacherek, and music critic Greil Marcus as they all talk about Kael’s legend but also the fact that she was uncompromising in what she believed in as a film critic. Even as her work in The New Yorker showcased her influence as she would champion controversial films like Last Tango in Paris while also acknowledging the contribution of Herman J. Mankiewicz for writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane where some felt Kael was taking away much of the work that Orson Welles did which wasn’t what Kael was doing.

Much of Garver’s direction is straightforward in his interviews with Sarah Jessica Parker providing the role as Kael’s voice through her work and comments while Garver would also include archival footage of the interviews that Kael has done in the 1970s and 1980s. With the help of visual effects artist Gary Schwerzler, Garver would use collages of Kael’s written work and pictures to create imagery that play into her legend as well as some of the controversy she created that includes a dissenting review of Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah that was widely praised as many had issues with her review. There was also this controversy from one of her colleagues in Renata Adler who wrote a review of a book by Kael that was seen as a personal attack on Kael who would never respond to Adler.

With the help of cinematographer Vincent C. Ellis in filming the interviews, Garver also showcase her impact on film culture though her influence as eroded in the age of the internet with sensationalized film criticism with some actually acknowledging Kael as an influence. Sound editor Randy Matuszewski does nice work in capturing some of the sound clips from radio interviews that Kael did as well as comments from others on Kael as it adds to some of the historical importance of her work. The film’s music by Rick Baitz does wonderful work with the music as it is largely low-key with its mixture of somber orchestral with bits of upbeat jazz as it adds to the world of Kael and her interaction with New York City.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a remarkable film from Rob Garver. It is a fascinating and riveting documentary film about one of the most influential figures in film culture as well as someone who wasn’t afraid to be a dissenting voice while championing films that she considers to be important as well as artists that needed a voice. In the end, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a marvelous film from Rob Garver.

© thevoid99 2021


Ruth said...

Oooh I have to find this film!! I've heard a lot about Pauline Kael, in fact one Minneapolis-based critic was fired from his job from apparently plagiarizing her work.

Great review and thanks for bringing this to my attention.

thevoid99 said...

@Ruth-You're welcome. I think it's available on Tubi right now as it was on TCM back in September. She would destroy cancel culture if she was alive right now.