Documentary Review: Critic as artist/influencer, “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”

She was the wittiest of professional contrarians, breathlessly passionate about each new love, venomously vituperative about each offense to her cinematic sensibilities.

Pauline Kael was film criticism’s original “hanging judge,” the critic’s critic in a pre-Internet age when there were fewer movies and far, far fewer people reviewing them, a pioneering woman in a mostly-man’s world who stood out, set the tone and influenced generations of reviewers and filmmakers, for good and ill.

“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a mostly-flattering remembrance of the long-time New Yorker critic who reigned — underpaid and only in print six months out of the year — over decades of our experiences and memories of movies, twenty-four years in all.

With the upcoming David Fincher film “Mank,” about the less-heralded screenwriter of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” coming out, now is a good time to revisit Kael’s take on that film, her infamous “Raising Kane” essay which wrote Herman J. Mankiewicz back into cinema history, and her influence over criticism and the culture she thrived in.

“What She Said” is now on Film Movement+. And although it glosses over “Raising Kane,” which Welles friend Peter Bogdanovich called a 1971 “attempt to assassinate Orson,” and neglects to mention how further scholarship proved Kael wrong in most important regards of “authorship,” it’s a marvelous memory of the writer famous for her New Yorker work, for 13 books of essays and reviews, who polished her art doing free reviews for public radio, “performing” her writing and teaching herself to “make my sentences breathe.”

Even if you’ve seen the movie and didn’t agree with her, her review can make you feel “you’re seeing (the film) for the first time,” music and culture critic Greil Marcus says.

Even if you were sure of your argument, “the thing that made you mad,” Quentin Tarantino says, was her insight into something so obvious that you’d missed which “ruined the movie for you.”

Being a magazine critic, publishing after newspaper and TV reviewers had weighed in on a film, she set herself up as that ever-against-the-grain contrary voice. “Bonnie & Clyde” was widely panned, but she called it “the most excitingly American American movie since ‘The Manchurian Candidate’…The audience is alive to it.”

“Last Tango” she raved about, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” she ridiculed, “2001” she panned. She hated Kubrick, “a strict and exacting German professor,” and others felt her wrath, first film to last.

She championed Spielberg and Lynch, Altman and Demme and De Palma, Coppola and Scorsese, and courted acolytes — “Paulettes” — critics who would amplify the echo of her influence.

Her reviews were given to hyperbole, pro or con, filled with personal anecdotes and memories from what original “Paulette,” the critic-turned-screenwriter/director Paul Schrader calls her “stunning recall” of movies and scenes she hadn’t seen in decades. She was the last living critic to have a memory of movies from the silent era, seen as a little girl growing up in California.

“What She Said” samples her acrid radio reviews for Berkeley’s KPFA in the late 1950s and early 1960s — “The big picture is almost necessarily the bad picture,” she said of the early years of widescreen (CinemaScope, etc) film. Impressively well-read, only she would approach “Lawrence of Arabia,” widely accepted as a masterpiece then and now, as a movie that remade “my” T.E. Lawrence into an iconic “narcissist and a sadist…I wish it had never been made.”

The documentary tracks Kael’s rise, with lots of testimony from daughter Gina James, who was eyewitness to everything her single-mom (before that was accepted in society) went through. Yes, critics are “judgemental.” Kael “couldn’t NOT be critical,” of her daughter or others.

Like anyone, she could be thin-skinned when the roles were reversed. As much droll delight as she takes in reading (on the radio) her hate mail on the air, it always stung.

She grew so powerful in the mid-70s that she overstepped her bounds, pushing for Coppola to cut “Ride of the Valkyries” from “Apocalypse Now” pre-release, selling her soul to professional time-suck Warren Beatty, who paid her in a production job with Paramount. She’s given credit for getting the studio to take a chance on David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” here, although credit hog Mel Brooks would probably laugh at that.

Sarah Jessica Parker reads from Kael’s reviews throughout the documentary, others read the thank-you notes from Jessica Lange, courtly massaging notes from Woody Allen and Kevin Bacon and hate letters from Gregory Peck and George Roy Hill.

Peck blamed her for taking away precious years from his working life, Ridley Scott swore off reviews after she “was so wrong” about his “Blade Runner.” David Lean admitted to being so depressed after an encounter with her at a New York Critics Circle event that he all but quit film. Her “cruel” side is discussed by New York friends and competitors.

But there was a generous side, too, which I experienced first-hand. I met her on my first trip to The New York Film Festival — she was sitting a row or two ahead of me, and coughing so much during a screening that I gave her a cough drop, only recognizing her (Munchkin short) when she thanked me after the movie.

Whenever I was writing a newspaper piece on a legendary filmmaker from the past, I’d try to get her on the phone for a quote — nobody did better blurbs than Kael. It was a circuitous process, thanks to her six months on/six months off job at the New Yorker. But they’d dutifully pass on the phone message, and even if she had no particular enthusiasm for Garbo favorite, silent film (“Flesh and the Devil”) and early sound era icon Clarence Brown (“The Yearling”), or others, she’d return the call.

The portrait of her in “What She Said” may lean too far in celebrating her, and I was disappointed in the thinness of the treatment of that defining “Kane” essay (I wanted this to be homework for “Mank”). But writer-director Rob Garver has gotten at the essence of the woman — a frustrated playwright who turned criticism into “short stories and sonnets,” as one fan says.

Mistress of the mean blurb, she’d have done OK in the far more crowded reviewing landscape of today — online and on Youtube, etc.

But first, the “tough dame” would’ve had to learn to type.

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, film sex scenes sampled

Cast: Pauline Kael, Paul Schrader, David Lean, Molly Haskell, Gina James, Alec Baldwin, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Carrie Rickey, John Guare, Quentin Tarantino, Greil Marcus and the voice of Sarah Jessica Parker.

Credits: Written and directed by Rob Garver. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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