If I could demolish any one idea in the history of film criticism, I think it would be the often stated canard that Pauline Kael wrote flashy exuberant prose, spilling her gut reactions to a movie all over the page — but that she wasn’t an “analytical” writer. That opinion is miles-out-of-the-ballpark wrong, and it’s almost certainly sexist. Yet what’s most annoying about it is that it’s based on the whole second-rate, boring-college-seminar idea of what “analysis” is: a quality that somehow exists apart from emotional excitement. When Pauline Kael reviewed a movie, any movie at all, her writing pulsated with life, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t parsing everything with supreme braininess and reasoning and inquiry. The analysis was seared into every word, woven into the expressive power of her free-style flow. Her thoughts — incisive, incantatory, indelible — occupied the other side of the coin from her feelings.
In “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” an exquisitely crafted documentary about the woman who was arguably the greatest movie critic who ever lived, Greil Marcus, the venerable rock writer who was a friend of Kael’s, talks about the effect that her review of “Bonnie and Clyde” had — not its effect on the film’s fortunes (which has, in fact, been overstated), but its effect on readers. “Even if you’ve seen the movie,” recalls Marcus, “it’s like you haven’t seen the movie. You’re seeing it for the first time as you’re reading the review.” That was the effect she had — the Kael transcendence.
When Kael wrote a passage like “‘Carrie’ is a terrifyingly lyrical thriller…You know you’re being manipulated, but [De Palma] works in such a literal way and with so much candor that you have the pleasure of observing how he affects your susceptibilities even while you’re going into shock” (that’s the first few sentences I ever read by her — and from that moment, I was addicted to Kael as if she was crack), the passage opens your mind because analysis is all over it. Kael wasn’t just a slangy bebop writer who knew more about movies than anyone you’d ever met. She reacted to movies with her heart, mind, gut, and lower body parts too, and fused all that responsiveness into a kind of magic mirror, reflecting the film she was talking about until it seemed more real on the page than it had on the screen.
And that’s why, starting in the mid-’60s, when she accomplished the astounding feat of turning a collection of articles on cinema into a best-seller (“I Lost It at the Movies”), then reviewed films at The New Yorker in a mode of full-throttle, white-heat engagement over the next 25 years, so many of the people who comprised American movie culture, from casual fans to the most ardent buffs, got hooked on the writing and opinions of Pauline Kael. Kael was so in touch with the deep source of her own responses, and with the world around her, that she seemed to be living inside your head. She took up residence there; having a dialogue with her as you read one of her reviews was like talking to a part of yourself that Kael heightened and made better.
The title of “What She Said” nails the casual obsessiveness with which people viewed Kael, especially in the ’70s. They craved, each week, to know “what she said” — her opinions and vision, her judgment call on every detail. It wasn’t necessarily about agreeing with her, or always sharing her taste. Part of the heady quality of Kael’s reviews is that she was utterly herself and totally unpredictable. Camille Paglia, interviewed in the film, says, “A critic should stimulate you to develop your own opinion. You’re not there to be converted to the critic’s viewpoint.”
Kael was a stimulation machine, and the documentary, directed and edited by Rob Garver, honors that by bringing off something that looks simple but is, in fact, quite tricky. The movie offers telling bits and pieces of Kael’s life story: her upbringing on a farm in Northern California, her immersion in the smoky cocktail bohemia of Berkeley in the ’50s, her failed attempt to become a playwright, the daughter she raised out of wedlock (I phrase it that way because in 1948 it was a far more radical thing to do). But “What She Said” is, first and foremost, a biography of Pauline Kael’s writing.
When you hear that, the movie may sound a bit…dry. What Garver does, though, is to tell Kael’s story and, at the same time, to weave the movies she wrote about — dozens and dozens of them — into the film’s visual-narrative flow. With Sarah Jessica Parker reading Pauline’s words on the soundtrack, “What She Said” plays like a twirling kaleidoscope of Kael’s criticism and film history that’s fully in touch with the devil-may-care imperiousness of her personality. Will those who don’t know a lot about Kael seek the movie out? A handful, perhaps. And maybe they’ll walk away realizing that this is the story of one of the most beloved and influential nonfiction writers of the second half of the 20th century. Like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer, Kael imposed her view of the world until it changed yours. She did that for a great many.
Yet “What She Said” is fundamentally a film for those who are already Kael believers. And that, I suspect, will prove to be enough people to create a buzz of fascination around the movie. For anyone who’s in that audience, “What She Said” is a pure, uncut hit of the tastiest cinephile candy imaginable. It takes you back to an age when movies — not overblown franchise utensils but movies — were everything, and it reveals Kael to be the bard of that moment, the one who caught it and rode it and defined it and made more people than you can count see its majesty. Offhand, I can’t imagine how a critic, in any area of the arts, could do more.
A lot of the stuff about Kael’s life was covered in detail in the late Brian Kellow’s very good 2011 biography of Kael. Yet Garver has gotten hold of many archival nuggets, and they fill in her story as only a documentary can. So do interviews with Kael followers like Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Paul Schrader, and Robert Towne. We see black-and-white home movies of the boozy parties Kael threw in the early ’60s, shots of the art theater she ran with her husband in Berkeley, and images of some of the comments that William Shawn, the brilliant but famously squeamish and restrained editor of The New Yorker, scrawled in the margins of her copy (“Why? Why” he writes next to her use of the words “cold latrine” as a metaphor).
We hear an excerpt from one of the Bay Area radio broadcasts that won Kael her first real following. The review, of “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” is captivating in its balloon-puncturing derision, but what’s priceless is the voice: honey-smooth and insinuating, with an echo of Hollywood’s wisecracking broads of the ’30s, her silky enunciation used as a weapon, all held together by Kael’s conspicuous joy at turning film reviewing into a performance. That’s what Kael made criticism — a prose version of performance art, a song of the self. And why not? The movies themselves demanded nothing less.
The reason she was able to do that is that the hypnotic quality of her prose was rooted in the fluky power of her psychoanalytical voodoo: her distinctive ability — unique among critics — to treat the characters in a movie as if they were real people, and to let you see them that way too. The heightened reality she conjured was like a state of grace, and that’s why filmmakers craved her praise and feared her dismissal. There’s a great clip of director David Lean recalling a visit he paid to the New York Film Critics Circle, where Kael tore into him, and whether or not you think her criticisms were valid, what’s notable is the effect it had; it blew a hole in Lean’s ego. That’s because Kael seemed to be inside the heads of filmmakers, too. Her insights had the quality of mystic penetrations.
“What She Said” celebrates that, weaving in triumphant lines from Kael’s reviews of films like “Mean Streets” (her celebration of Robert De Niro’s violent bravura), “Last Tango in Paris” (she caught its seismic dance of amorality and despair), and “Nashville,” which inspired her to write, “The picture says this is what America is and I’m part of it. ‘Nashville’ arrives at a time when America is congratulating itself for having gotten rid of the bad guys who were pulling the wool over people’s eyes. The movie says that it isn’t only the politicians who live the big lie. The big lie is something we’re all capable of trying for.” Kael was already, in her way, anticipating the virtue culture of today — basically saying that if you think you’re above the corruption around you, you’re probably deluding yourself. You’re connected to the corruption in ways you simply haven’t figured out yet. That’s the kind of insight she could coax out of a movie.
The film includes plenty of clips of Kael on talk shows, gabbing with Tom Snyder or Dick Cavett, and what you feel in each of them is the bullwhip confidence behind her charisma. After toiling for years as a seamstress and advertising copy hack, unable to make anything close to a living wage as a writer, she’d suddenly, in middle age, become a star, and she knew it, and that became part of the quality she brought to criticism, putting the drama of her personality on display.
She drew younger critics around her, dominating their opinions like a magnet, and the movie takes a few pithy moments to capture how it worked when you were a “Paulette.” New York magazine’s David Edelstein recalls that colleagues warned him, “You don’t want to be branded as, you know, one of her circle, getting opinions from her from on high. And I thought about it and I thought, ‘F—k, it’s Pauline Kael! I’d love to hang out with her!'” Exactly. Hanging out with Kael was the prize. Seconding what she thought was the price of admission.
Kael’s laughing smile had an acerbic sparkle in it; it was the sign of her life’s-a-bitch-so-you-might-as-well-embrace-it joy. Yet she took no prisoners. In the movie, we see a clip where she decries “consensus opinion, which means letting other people tell you what you think, which means you’re a damn fool and serve no purpose whatsoever.” (You wonder where she fit her acolytes into that.) Pauline never stopped believing in Pauline, and in some ways that left her on a lonely island. She kept her daughter, Gina James, along with her, using her as her typist and editor, and it’s Gina who offers the greatest insight into Kael, in words she spoke at her mother’s memorial in 2001: “Pauline’s greatest weakness became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic. She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well she had no negative effects. This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline a supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.”
That she did. “What She Said” captures the unique intersection of a fearless critic, a movie renaissance, and a time when a mainstream writer could seduce and challenge her audience by operating with supreme freedom. That was the glory of Pauline, the unhinged liberation of every idea and feeling she shared. Reading her, what you got addicted to was her freedom of thought. That was Kael’s art, and “What She Said” does a fantastic job of channeling it.