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With her pithy prose and unshakeable confidence, Pauline Kael, the groundbreaking female film critic of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, was a trailblazing force in a field dominated almost entirely by men. In What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, an edifying new documentary, we learn that Kael suffered harassment, received death threats, and struggled to earn a living wage even when she was at her most influential. The more things change for women in film criticism, the more things stay the same.
A celebratory chronicling of Kael’s career and influence, the documentary by Rob Garver offers an opportunity to revel in a time when film really mattered and when critics, rather than superfans, held the power in the public discourse. Kael’s popularity at The New Yorker coincided with the era of New Hollywood, when fresh, young voices like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were making their first flawed attempts at feature filmmaking. They relied on critics of Kael’s insight and passion for film to see their potential and champion their careers. Kael loved Mean Streets and The Sugarland Express. The film convincingly argues that, without her support, there might never have been a Taxi Driver or Jaws.
As elated as Kael was to champion a filmmaker who needed her backing, Kael felt equally betrayed when they failed to meet her standards. In one shocking scene, David Lean recalls how Kael berated him at a film critics’ lunch. He was so shaken by the experience that he quit filmmaking for a time. Notably, none of the old masters she advocated for appear in the film, as each one of them ran afoul of her eventually. The only directors who do speak on her behalf, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of whom cites one of Kael’s reviews as inspiring his entire aesthetic, came later and never had to endure her criticism.
While the film follows a standard cradle-to-the-grave template that leaves little opportunity for creative flourishes, a consistent and provocative theme still emerges: liberation. Kael fought the establishment and sought freedom in her writing and her personal life. Early in her career, she avoided desk jobs to pay the bills because “the main thing [was] fighting off the successes that trap you.” Her three marriages, each ending in divorce, are portrayed as relationships of convenience, casually cast off without remorse. Her one attempt at crossing the critical divide came when Warren Beatty lured her to Hollywood to co-write a film for him. She quickly abandoned the project when it became clear she would not have enough influence over the final product.
This unquenchable need for freedom occasionally led her toward provocation, like when she panned The Sound of Music, which got her fired from her first staff critic job. Later, she trashed Shoah, the universally praised Holocaust documentary. “A woman with opinions offends macho men,” she says at one point, explaining with her trademark concision, and perhaps some self-reflection, why she remains a controversial figure after all these years. It might also explain her pugnacious style. If you’re going to offend everyone regardless, you might as well get your money’s worth.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.
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