The Mount Rushmore of film criticism is arguably a quasi-Cerberus. The three heads would be Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and Pauline Kael. Her chiseled dome should be much bigger, as the two thumby fellas didn’t invent modern film criticism, so much as they simply helped popularize it. Kael made the game, they just played it.
As a reminder of just how brilliant, how important, and how special she was, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a delight, even if it takes a fairly uninspired approach to a divinely inspired subject. Pauline Kael would probably have hated the Pauline Kael documentary, is what I’m saying. Hell, she almost certainly would have, and it would have been great.
Writer/director Rob Garver’s film uses an ample amount of Kael’s words, which is a good thing. Apologies to anyone who claims otherwise currently, she actually had the best words. The documentary ambles and sidles beneath an avalanche of talking heads, including Kael’s daughter, all describing the major milestones and legacy of a woman who defined what criticism could and should be. Not to put my less-than-best words into her mouth, but odds are good she would have been bored with her life told in this fashion.
This is a woman who notably panned a Holocaust documentary, arguing that important subject matter doesn’t forgive a poorly made film. Forgive me, Pauline, but I found myself swayed in the other direction here. Spending time with Kael’s thoughts is too special to downgrade it much for a milquetoast approach.
What She Said made me giggle throughout, as Sarah Jessica Parker reads Kael’s pointed barbs and digs at films and adversaries. It made me mourn a time when film critics appeared on talk shows and criticism held substantive sway. It made me sad, because I think Kael would have probably hated my writing. It’s fine.
If she were still with us, she would say something nonchalantly devastating about me, and it would be the highlight of my critical career. I’d clip and frame her comments out as her fans used to do with her New Yorker reviews. The way that Kael engaged with films was so effortlessly sophisticated, so unpretentiously pretentious. She loved snooty flicks I absolutely hate and hated things I absolutely adore. As she is quoted as saying in the documentary, if you aren’t at least somewhat despised as a critic, you’re doing a bad job.
Speaking of bad jobs… It’s not fun watching Kael praise Last Tango in Paris, with its awful rape sequence, or praise the work of Woody Allen. Who knows what she would have to say now about it all, other than that she would say it well?
Because Kael’s reviews were always so personal, I’m going to break protocol and end this one on a similar note. What She Said made me want to be a better critic. I mean, I always want to be a better critic. It made me actually want to try to be a better critic. If this pandemic has done anything, it has afforded us time to reflect on the things we do. I believe, as Kael did, that criticism is special and important. The film may not be perfect, but that is one hell of a reminder.
Grade = B+