Review by Jonathan Hickman
Controversial film critic Pauline Kael gets a loving tribute that celebrates its subject more than it provokes its viewers.
Director Rob Garver’s debut documentary feature, “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” collects all the right voices, but shies away from the most challenging question: why was Kael such a contrarian?
By writing against the grain, and panning some of the most beloved films of the day, Kael gained notoriety. “What She Said,” recounts many of her scathing reviews. Of “The Sound of Music,” for instance, she said it was a “sugarcoated lie that people want to eat.”
This review and other critical critiques of popular movies resulted in her dismissal from McCall’s magazine. At the time, this was a very high profile gig for the budding film critic.
Her status as a film curmudgeon was epic. After all, who doesn’t like “Lawrence of Arabia?” Kael didn’t. And in archived footage, we hear from “Lawrence” director David Lean, who talks about how her attacks on his work impacted him. It’s easy to dismiss mean people with snarky comments, but Lean knew that despite disagreeing with her, what she said mattered, it had authoritative weight.
Of course, Kael’s informed, often, pessimistic perspective came from somewhere. Director Garver does interview her daughter, Gina, who acted as Kael’s assistant, typing up reviews written in long-hand. Gina is quite guarded and gives us little insight into her mother’s motivations. One wonders whether Garver was able to pry into the source of Kael’s views.
Money certainly didn’t motivate her. Was it possible that by taking the contrary opinion, Kael saw this as a way to distinguish her voice? Could she have been that mercenary? “What She Said” answers few provocative questions.
In a historical sketch, we learn that after attending the University of California, Berkeley, Kael moved to New York City with poet Robert Horan. She would, some years later, return to Berkeley, where she lived in a house surrounded by artists. The cinema heavily influenced the interior design of her home. She embraced her creative side with artists of different disciplines, but always movies were a touchstone.
“What She Said” makes excellent use of Kael’s writing together with the words of others. Voice talent is employed throughout, with actress Sarah Jessica Parker playing Kael in voice over. And Garver does his best Woody impression, providing the voiceover for Woody Allen’s words. It’s entertaining, but devoid of the sense of what made Kael tick.
Everyone in the industry had something to say about her, as her opinions had a tremendous impact. For example, Kael championed the early work of Martin Scorsese, helping to promote “Mean Streets.” When she liked a movie, people read her reviews, and when she didn’t like a film, people also read her words.
The documentary did cover Kael’s rocky time in Hollywood when she tried her hand at producing. This stint was short-lived. We’re left to speculate as to the real reasons for her departure. But after some time away from criticism, she went back to it, dolling out divisive opinions.
Film criticism is a product of one’s taste. Kael’s taste skewed in favor of works that challenged the viewer. And through her writing, a generation of film buffs learned that the art form wasn’t just marked by what was popular. “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a safe, well-made film, but it’s not likely one that the subject would have reviewed favorably.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com