The 400-Word Review - What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

By Sean Collier

April 29, 2020

The Art of Pauline Kael

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Let me start by acknowledging that there is something inherently absurd in the following endeavor. I’m writing a movie review about a movie about a movie reviewer. It could only be more redundant if someone made a short film about me as I type.

Nevertheless, I think “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” deserves attention and, yes, written reviews. The former because it’s a welcome reminder of the role of criticism in an increasingly uncritical world; the latter because, as a movie, it’s a bit of a mess.

Kael would want that to be pointed out.

The influential film critic wrote for a variety of publications (most frequently The New Yorker) during a career that spanned a half-century. She was at once very personal — her work frequently cited the reactions of audience members seated near her at screenings — and unsentimental, never giving movies the benefit of the doubt (but often extolling the virtues of unambitious pictures).

Her unflinching honesty made her a friend to favored filmmakers — Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Lynch — and an enemy to many others. As “What She Said” demonstrates, her gender played a key role in the vitriolic response to some of her negative reviews; in the male-dominated world of 20th-century film, she argued, directors saw women as potential collaborators at best, never as worthy critics.




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This biography is presented well enough in “What She Said,” an unabashedly admiring film by director/producer Rob Garver. What Garver can’t do, however, is maintain a throughline. The story presented is circuitous, dipping in and out of time periods and relationships. Garver frequently uses clips from iconic films — not to augment one of Kael’s reviews but to comment on the action, in the way that you would reply to a tweet with a relevant gif; it’s amusing to hear a Han Solo quip in response to something Kael says, but that’s a shortcut at best.

If “What She Said” is clunky, however, it hardly matters. Kael’s life and influence is worth preserving and celebrating; the movie achieves that goal.

Of course, I would think so, wouldn’t I? There are barely any movies that laud film critics. I can’t help but be biased. Then again, Kael would point out, no critic can help that; we all bring ourselves to our reviews. Ironically, then, the film about her life is more or less critic-proof.

My Rating: 6/10

“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is available to stream via virtual cinema services. Consider buying a virtual ticket via Harris Theater @ Home or other services which help support independent cinemas during the pandemic.


     


 
 

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