Whether you’re familiar with Pauline Kael and her work in film criticism or not, you’ve more than likely benefited in some way from her impact on cinema. In his obituary for Kael, fellow critic Roger Ebert wrote that she “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.” And in the documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Director Rob Garver shows us exactly why that is the case, which you can now view in our Virtual Movie Palace!
As a film critic for the New Yorker starting in 1968, it perhaps not by coincidence that she shot her way into the mainstream consciousness at the start of what we now consider to be the dawn of the American New Wave. I say that this may not be by coincidence because it was her work that championed these new, inventive, violent and often overtly sexual movies which were being panned by the mainstream critics at the time. It’s impossible to predict what cinema would look like without her influence, but there’s an argument to be made that the American New Wave succeeded in part because of her words.
Her first review for the New Yorker was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, which she described as “the most excitingly American American movie since ‘The Manchurian Candidate.” Meanwhile, the rest of the country was shocked by it’s frightening violence and its apparent glorification of murder. For example, in contrast to her opinion, The New York Times wrote that the film was “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Though the documentary will show you that Kael’s words were not completely made of gold, and you’ll probably find that there were many films that she got “wrong”, in this case she was absolutely correct and the reputation of Bonnie and Clyde lives on as a great piece of art that catapulted American cinema back into spotlight, in terms of artistic merit, to finally compete with the French that had been suceeding with their own New Wave for years.
From there, she continued to champion new and young independent directors and kept important, artful films like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller from drifting away into obscurity, and with her thoughtful essays she introduced the world to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg with positive takes on Mean Streets and Sugarland Express. And though she quit writing in 1991, her work greatly inspired the careers of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who appears in the film, as well as Wes Anderson and many that still dominate the Box Office today.
And what the documentary greatly succeeds in showing us is not just what kind of impact she had on the industry, but also the obstacles that she had to overcome to achieve this kind of influence. Entering the film critics scene in New York of the 1960s, critic David Edelstein describes her as “a woman coming into a boys club and shooting from the hip.” Kael quickly developed a reputation of writing extremely biting and provocative material, often going against the grain and using her words to point and attack. She was not like any other critic at the time and often wrote extremely subjective material, while expressing dismay for her colleagues that she believed lacked courage and merely wrote to get through the day. She described her professional philosophy with “People don’t tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts. If they like you, I think you should start getting worried.”
Whether she was expressing her love for a film, or attacking one that she hated, her words were always written with an incomparable passion. Though Kael passed in 2001, Garver keeps her voice alive with the help of Sarah Jessica Parker, who narrates her writing and ignites the devotion in her words that Kael tirelessly expressed.
Kael believed it was important to write as a part of an audience, and often opted to buy a ticket and see a movie in the theater rather than screen the it among her fellow critics. She was not writing about movies because it was her job, she wrote about movies as someone who loved cinema with the purest of heart. Her passion was so contagious that even if you disagree with her opinions, you’ll certainly be leaving the documentary remembering why it is you love going to the theater.