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.


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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