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Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

My first experience with reading film criticism was with my mother’s New Yorker magazines. Most of what was in the magazine was too highbrow for me as an adolescent, but the film reviews by Pauline Kael were such fun to read. She was opinionated and frequently went against the consensus of the other critics who were mostly male. She had a voice that set her apart, seeing films as if she were in the audience not separated from them. This new documentary made me appreciate her even more. She was a feminist, having fought to get her foot into the boys’ club that was the film critics’ world of the 50s and 60s. She had encyclopedic knowledge of movies and wasn’t afraid to say when she thought something was derivative or a filmmaker was being repetitive, something she saw a lot in the beloved “auteur” directors of the 60s. She was loved by many and hated by many others. But even the haters admitted that she was a hell of a writer!

She was an early champion of the New Hollywood filmmakers – Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, and Spielberg – and saved films like Bonnie and Clyde from the dustbin other critics had placed them in. She wasn’t afraid to voice a lone counter-opinion either. She thought 2001 was overrated and Shoah was too long for the subject matter. But her opinions had weight and the power to make or break a film. And many of her reviews brought her vitriol from some of Hollywood’s biggest names. Nevertheless, she is remembered as one of the great film critics. The way she saw her writing was not to tell her audience some great truth, but to give her readers her reaction. Just hers.

What She Said is told in a mix of interviews with living and dead filmmakers intercut with film clips that illustrate the story, and some of her reviews read by Sarah Jessica Parker. At first the clips were a fun device, but over the long haul, they became a distraction from the story of the marvelous Ms. Kael. It hits all the high points in her career and some of the interviews are telling, as in Tarantino saying how her vision of film influenced him. The interviewees are a who’s who of past and present – Quentin Tarantino, David O Russell, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman, Woody Allen, Frances Ford Coppola, David Lean, Paul Schrader, and so many others — who were affected by her writing, some for good and others, not so much. But ultimately, the film is a love letter to the great critic, warts and all. It’s not a great documentary, but it does make me want to go back and read some of her reviews. I’m sure I will disagree with many of them, but the writing! I recommend the doc to film lovers who appreciate dissenting voices and women with strong opinions.

[Mainstream Chick’s take: Unlike Arty Chick, I don’t recall ever reading Kael’s writings, though her name did come up over the years as I started getting into the movie review game. She’s certainly considered a legend in the biz and I appreciate the documentary’s efforts to expose more people to her backstory and her way with words. I just wish it were more engaging. I wonder what kind of review she would have given it!? I have a feeling I would have disagreed with Kael on a lot of films or found her criticisms overly harsh. But I love that she stuck to her guns, broke into what was largely a man’s world, championed certain films that she felt deserved more attention by critics and moviegoers alike, and favored watching movies with “regular people” over screenings run by the studios. There are lessons to be learned – or reinforced – about the subjective nature of film and why people like me bother to share our opinions about movies, especially when we aren’t paid to do so! I think it would have been tons of fun to sit through various movies with Kael and debate them afterwards. I wonder what she would have thought about the plethora of critics, the impact of review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, the power of social media “influencers” on box office, and the debate about “cinema” in the age of Marvel. Agree or disagree with What She Said, there’s no denying that Kael had a voice and a perspective that broke through the noise. If I can do that even once in a while, this whole chickflix.net thing will have been worth it. -hb]

 

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