There’s really no way for any modern movie reviewer to write a review of the documentary “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” without seeming at least slightly self-serving, …
There’s really no way for any modern movie reviewer to write a review of the documentary “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” without seeming at least slightly self-serving, because without Pauline Kael, something like 90% of modern movie reviewers simply would not be able to exist, and that includes your friendly neighborhood film reviewer here at The Leader.
Kael’s life and opinions were marked by ironic contradictions, with her legacy being a prime example, because much like Bruce Lee, who exhorted aspiring martial artists to eschew any one discipline in favor of “The Way of No Way,” what made Kael stand out most as a movie reviewer, which was her unique authorial voice, has also been imitated by endless successors, including those who disagreed vehemently with her opinions.
Kael eagerly embraced the new and avant-garde, even as so much of her own persona was modeled after the sharp-tongued proto-feminist women who featured so strongly in the cinema of the 1930s. Likewise, Kael explicitly championed the value of what she herself branded as “trash” movies, and yet she ruthlessly excoriated horror films as a class, most notably 1973’s “The Exorcist,” and was so backhanded in her few compliments toward 1977’s “Star Wars” that George Lucas named the villainous General Kael after her in his 1988 fantasy film “Willow.”
A rambunctious West Coast gal who always chafed at what she saw as the overly academic and austere East Coast style of movie reviewing, Kael nonetheless found her longest and most fruitful home in the offices of The New Yorker, the virtual definition of effete dilettante metropolitan magazines, where she frequently crossed swords with editor William Shawn over the conversational voice (and occasionally longshoreman vocabulary) she introduced to the field of reviewing as a whole.
As the documentary itself notes, while Kael clashed with fellow film reviewer Andrew Sarris over his 1962 essay promoting the “auteur theory” of cinema, which roughly posits that directors should be credited as the “authors” of their films — seriously, there’s an entire academic discipline devoted to this, so trust me when I say I’m way oversimplifying it — Kael herself inadvertently bolstered the notion of the film auteur by elevating the roles of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and yes, even Brian De Palma in her reviews.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to either Kael or this documentary is that, whenever Sarah Jessica Parker reads excerpts from Kael’s reviews in the documentary, or it tantalizes us with accompanying short-cut clips of even more films than I could keep track of in a single sitting, it reminded me so much of why I love movies in the first place, which is yet another irony, given how Kael ultimately retired, barely a year before her death from Parkinson’s disease, because she finally grew too disenchanted with the quality of cinema to continue.
Whether you agreed with her or not — to my mind, she totally missed the boat on “Blade Runner,” and her plaudits for “Last Tango in Paris” were mind-bogglingly misplaced — Pauline Kael did as much as any actor, director or producer to advance the cause of cinema. She recognized the innovations of the French New Wave, and through her critical recommendations, made possible the emergence of the American New Wave, whose influence is still felt in our theaters to this day.
And contrary to the hurt feelings of my fellow Orson Welles fan, Peter Bogdanovich, Kael elevated both Welles and his “Citizen Kane” screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, to their proper places of import in the public consciousness, through her 1971 book-length essay, “Raising Kane.”
A final irony in her legacy is how Kael’s crusade against ivory-tower elites in the field of reviewing arguably rendered her redundant, with her New Yorker colleague Renata Adler turning Kael’s rebellious acerbicism against her in a cutting 1980 essay, and the documentary illustrating how the internet has splintered any hope for a central voice for reviewing (watch for blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em pop-up appearances by YouTube’s Doug Walker, a.k.a. “That Guy with the Glasses,” and Danika Lee Massey, a.k.a. “Comic Book Girl 19”).
And yet, because of the gal who learned her snappy patter from hard-boiled dames in 1930s screwball comedies, I’d argue that anyone who enjoys film is better off … including this one kid from Washington, who learned all his best lines from smart-alecks in 1980s slob comedies, and who’s now lucky enough to Ferris Bueller his film opinions onto newspaper pages every week.
P.S. As much fun as it is to see film directors like Quentin Tarantino geek out over Kael, and David Lean grouse about her, stick around for the closing credits, which feature some audio quotes that give the woman herself the literal “last word” on her life story.