For those intimately acquainted with Pauline Kael’s output, writer-director Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael will serve as a pleasant shoot-the-shit session, in which other legends discuss familiar highs and lows of the famed film critic’s career and personal life. There isn’t much at stake in this documentary, as Garver is clearly enamored with Kael, which ironically misses the point of her brilliance: her deconstructive spirit, her blasphemous sense of film criticism as equal parts confessional and blood sport. Despite its acknowledgement of Kael’s warts, Garver’s film is a safe celebration of a daring artist.
This safeness underscores another irony to Kael’s legacy. Of all her imitators and admirers, the person most in sync with her writing is still Renata Adler, who wrote in 1980 for The New York Review of Books a merciless takedown that dissected Kael’s criticism on a nearly biochemical level. Adler was willing to practice Kael’s chief working philosophy, taking on an institutional warhorse with no guard or self-consciousness, while, like Kael, earning this daring with the sharp intimacy of her insight. This isn’t to say that Garver has to confront Kael in such a manner, though Adler’s fury weirdly honors Kael in a manner that oft-repeated anecdotes cannot. The Adler incident is recalled in What She Said, and some of the subjects comment on its cruelty after celebrating similar elements in their hero’s aesthetic. Director David O. Russell is most on point when he says that Adler was trying to out-Pauline Kael Pauline Kael.
The exhilaration of Kael’s writing, initially for McCall’s and The New Republic and then for The New Yorker for decades, where her stature was cemented, is its sense that anything goes. She used first person promiscuously and was profoundly comfortable with slang, lurid sexual innuendo, personal insults, hyperbole, and maddening contradictions. (Most notably, she was an anti-auteurism auteurist, as well as an anti-elitist elitist.) Kael, along with Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and others, embodied the glory days when writers didn’t have to be so cuddly and boringly humanistic, so terrified of offending any one of dozens of movements. Kael exposed criticism for what it is: an expression of personal taste that many writers and editors gussy up with theory and detached phrasing that cloaks timidity in academia. In the process of writing, Kael narrowed the gulf between intention and formal realization, between her personality and the words on the page. This accomplishment is the dream of all writers.
What She Said is best at capturing the narcotic pull of Kael’s writing, especially through read-aloud snippets (voiced by Sarah Jessica Parker) of many of her most famous reviews, such as of Bonnie and Clyde, the first two Godfather films, Nashville, and Jaws. Garver convincingly insists that Kael defined the canon of the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ’70s more than any other writer, as her down-and-dirty prose served as the perfect mirror of films that were refuting the impersonal polish of bloated ’50s-era Hollywood. Kael and the filmmakers of the New Hollywood were both attempting to tear down institutions, which explains the unusual respect that she commanded from artists as well as other critics.
For all the fawning in What She Said, there’s a fascinating hesitation in many of the interviewees, which include Paul Schrader, David Edelstein, Camille Paglia, Michael Sragow, Greil Marcus, and Kael’s daughter, Gina James. Kael’s insensitive though not entirely incorrect pan of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is mentioned, as is her long essay “Raising Kane,” in which she ascribes much of Citizen Kane’s authorship to screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz—a move that came when director Orson Welles was down and out and struggling to raise money for various productions. (“Raising Kane” is perhaps Kael’s most baffling piece, considering that she adored Welles’s work.) “Circles and Squares,” Kael’s attack on fellow critic Andrew Sarris is also recalled, and Garver has the courage and good taste to speak with critic Molly Haskell, who’s Sarris’s widow and who clearly found the piece offensive. Most movingly, there’s an archive interview from 1970 with director David Lean, who was heartbroken by Kael’s confrontation with him at a lunch with the New York Film Critics Circle, and who says he didn’t make films for years afterward because of the incident.
You may find yourself wishing that the interviews were longer and less bite-sized, so that sentiments could develop. This is why What She Said, despite its willingness to sporadically grapple with the dark, egocentric undertow of Kael’s talent, feels pat. Gina James exudes a haunting vulnerability, and you may suspect that she’s unresolved on having spent much of her life as her mother’s typist and admin, though Garver doesn’t push her to elaborate on this possibility. (It’s tantalizingly suggested that James had the courage and sway to suggest rewrites to her mother—another detail that begs for more context.) And other interviewees have given fuller accounts of Kael in other places, such as Edelstein and Schrader, who wrote beautiful articles about their respective friendships with Kael upon her death in 2001.
What She Said has an odd formal issue as well. Clips from many films are included here as a complementary paneling to the talking heads, yet these two strands sometimes don’t match, and whatever meaning that Garver is hoping to impart from this discrepancy, probably having to do with the ongoing legacy of Kael’s writing throughout American culture, is unclear. For instance, when Kael’s profoundly influential essay for Harper’s, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” is quoted at one point, Garver samples from sources such as the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski while referencing preciously few films that Kael actually wrote about. (In other portions of What She Said, Garver nips a clip just as it’s about to actively illustrate a Kael passage.) At times, Garver seems to be throwing things at us, attempting to fashion a channel-surfing style in order to emulate the wild-and-wooly recklessness of Kael’s writing. What She Said is enjoyable, but I suspect that its subject may have found it soft.