2019

Berlinale 2019 Review: Rob Garver’s ‘What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael’

Critics in fiction film are almost exclusively pictured as petty, superior beings. Look at Bob Balaban in Lady in the Water, or the spiteful moralist played by Lindsay Duncan in Birdman. They hold grudges, they tear down well intentioned directors for cine-ideological purposes. The critic in cinema is often an axe grinding mechanism for the director. When the occasional documentary focuses on critics, however, the tone becomes far more reverential.

Such is the case with first time feature director Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, which surveys the life, technique and legacy of American film criticism’s Golden Calf, a woman who embodies much of those “nasty critic” traits.

Garver’s technique is functional, matching film clips with talking heads. A mention of professional difficulties might cut to Charles Foster Kane saying “you’re fired.” This is occasionally quite an exciting way to punctuate Kael’s way of seeing the world through film (she brags that she once dumped someone over West Side Story), most effectively when her Shoeshine reviews read out over corresponding scenes from the film. The clips effectively draw out her writing and complement each other; one could happily envision a whole film made up like this. 

However, Garver reveals his reticence to interrogate Kael’s legacy when he introduces auteur theory, which is accompanied by ominous music over a photograph of Andrew Sarris attempting to pierce the camera lens with his glare. Kael’s “Circles and Squares,” a takedown of Sarris’ ideas and one of her most iconic New Yorker articles, comes into play, with Sarris’ wife Molly Haskell talking about its negative impact on the famous male critic. The film covers the vindictiveness of this and other articles in passing, without really stopping to consider the consequences of how Kael operated. It’s ultimately a puffy promotion of the critic as myth: the parties, the chain smoking, the acerbic tongue.

“The Paulettes” (the young critics Kael would lobby into supporting her favourites) are glossed over, and her resultant falling out with Paul Schrader is only evident in the tone he takes talking about her. “We’re not talking about film criticism, we’re talking about Pauline Kael, and — in the end of the game — what Kael promoted wasn’t film. It was her.” It’s a missed opportunity for the film not to explore the ethics of the relationship between artist and critic, for the film to blindly lionise her even as many of her interview subjects seem scorned. David Lean looks like he’s going to cry in the archive interview where he talks about getting roasted by Kael at a dinner. Lazily, Garver uses the Lawrence of Arabia match cut to signal the light going out on his passion to keep making films after meeting Kael, which is ultimately a manipulative way to approach him getting a verbal lashing.

It’s not just Kael who Garver shows to harbour petty resentments. After she publishes Raising Kane, a piece which reassesses Citizen Kane as authored by Joseph Mankiewicz rather than Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich behaves as an attack dog on the side of Welles, his mentor. Kael’s mythologisation of Mankiewicz redefined how authorship is viewed, so seeing this clip in the context of having seen the Kael surrogate in Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which Bogdanovich stars in, gives that film a further richness. 

In her interview, the academic Camille Paglia describes Kael as a satirist. “Her attack on those films captures exactly what I loved about them.” This is entirely true. In “The Sick Soul of Europe Parties,” Kael’s description of Michelanagelo Antonioni’s architectural themes are meant to be a put down. But not many other writers draw you closer to a given film. The “bullshit detector” which she is praised for, a tendency to find the films pushed on mass audiences as art to be inauthentic, is also a schema. The Renata Adler piece cited in the film points out Kael’s reliance on affection for only a few basic elements: films about primal themes, teenagers, degradative sex etc. But read a thousand reviews by any critic and you’ll find a certain litany of interest. That’s what makes critics compelling. 

Much of what interests about The Art of Pauline Kael isn’t the content of the film itself as much as established conversations surrounding the woman. It’s full of odd stylistic choices, like the impressions of Marlene Dietrich and Gregory Peck who read letters to Kael, that are so far off the mark you feel like you’re at a Saturday Night Live audition. Sarah Jessica Parker’s voiceover impression of Kael is decent, however. Brief talking heads from Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell are ineffectual (both just talk about themselves), but it’s that Russell star power that’ll drag people out to watch the Pauline Kael documentary, right? 

And as for online hate and harassment, the documentary shows plenty of anti-Kael letters which wouldn’t be out of place in the Mumsnet comment section. The film actually ends by imagining her as a Rotten Tomatoes certified Twitter devotee. And it’s probable that Kael would indeed be thirsting for retweets. Online criticism’s conflation of blogging, personal essays and rigourous criticism has lead to a critical centre that puts the personal above the academic. Perhaps Kael started that, by pushing her own personality front and centre, by hiding memoir behind the films. Think of her lewdness, and William Shawn’s pained notes when she describes Jack Nicholson’s tongue as darting around like an advertisement for cunninglingus. The film does a great job of expressing the sexual intonation of Kael’s writing, how she commented on her desires as they unfurled on screen. Perhaps this is part of her appeal, and her ability to raise up the likes of Brian De Palma, that most sensuous purveyor of trash. Kael’s hyperbole is glorious when she’s drawing attention to The Fury, but when she’s being pithy about Shoah, it’s not quite the right fit.

Garver doesn’t really provide more than an overview, but perhaps that will indeed bring new eyes to some great American writing. The film isn’t wrong in attributing Kael’s Bonnie and Clyde review with helping to kick-start the New Hollywood (she is undeniably a pivotal figure of the era as, say, Bob Evans). And yet Kael never made any money from film. “After a million words for love, I should turn professional,” she said upon quitting her radio spot. We complain about opportunities today, but it was always impossible for a critic to make a living. 

Oddly enough, the only clip used from after Kael’s death is Deadpool — a real trash art movie that Garver appears to be trying to say she would have loved. It’s an odd assumption, when a large part of the film’s argument is that Kael was a critic you could never pin down, who defied expectations and received wisdom for the sake of it. Kael is so iconic as to have even been the model for that toxic critic trope, so we can’t ever discount her, and maybe we need a middling documentary to remember that. 

Ben Flanagan (@peche_lives) is a British critic and recent MA Film graduate from The University of Bristol. He’s contributed to Mubi Notebook, DMovies and has lots of feelings on classic Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven and online cinema culture.

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