When it comes down to it, all of us who review movies are just testing ourselves to see if we stack up to Pauline Kael. Her prose, decades on, feels unapproachable. And her taste — that adoration of the visceral and pinpoint identification of the manipulative — is what all critic say they strive toward.
Even 30 years after she retired and 20 years after she died, Kael is still your favorite film critic’s favorite film critic. Kael, for those not versed in the history of movie reviewing, was the one who busted down the paradigm of old men propping up Hollywood tradition, overturning not just the act of criticism itself, but perhaps even the very medium itself.
With What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, director Rob Garver attempts to pay homage to what Kael meant for both movies and the people who pass judgment on them. Until Kael got jobs recording radio reviews and filing columns in a bookstore newsletter with the fiery, unflinching prose that would eventually land her at the New Yorker, film criticism was the domain of a handful of New York snoots who lavished praise on the latest studio fare while ignoring the experimental and the daring.
But through archival footage and a firehose of montages, Garver makes the case it took someone like Kael — the daughter of California chicken farmers who fell in love with the cinema-going experience — to punch through the stodginess and recognize what movies do for us. And even when a picture brought out her most stinging, uncompromising writing, she offered the kind of insights that the filmmaker could appreciate. She praised Jaws as the “most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made,” and six years later tore down Raiders of the Lost Ark as an exercise in button-pushing, yet still received adoring notes from Steven Spielberg.
Kael’s influence, though, the documentary reminds, was felt more directly with her promotion of truly risqué fare like Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris. Not simply because they were raw and raunchy, but because they challenged their audiences, rather than simply tickling emotions.
“The process is thinking,” Kael says in one clip presented early on. “The task is writing.”
With that mindset, it should be no wonder she could build up the likes of Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman, while brutalizing some of their contemporaries including George Lucas and Woody Allen. By interrogating criticism itself — “A great many critics are trying to get though the day because they know they’re second-rate,” she says in another clip — she challenged movies themselves to be better.
Garver fills out his archives — including some of Kael’s original reviews read aloud by Sarah Jessica Parker — with interviews with some of her acolytes, aka the “Paulettes,” as well as directors who started their careers after her 1991 retirement, like Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell.
But even then, Kael’s influence was clear. The movies that stick with us the longest are the ones that bring out the rawest reactions. Shock and titillation are not things to run from, Kael tried to teach us. Yet Garver’s documentary is a love letter meant to inspire nostalgia both for an era of filmmaking that feels bygone in a corporation-dominated, franchise-driven era, as well as for the voice that pushed Hollywood to be better. It seems like a compliment to think she might’ve hated this.