“WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL”— A Controversial Reviewer


A Controversial Reviewer

Amos Lassen

Rob Garver’s “What She Said” is an in-depth look at film reviewer, Pauline Kael. Kael was not a household name but from the late 1960s into the 1980s, while writing for The New Yorker, she held a “position of authority and dominance in the world of American film criticism.” Her was really famous for two of her reviews— that of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Last Tango in Paris”. It was a vital time for films and film criticism, and Garver sublimely catches this here.  The interviews we see are now six years old yet we see how important Kael was to the world of cinema. Included is very sharp and very opinionated commentary from Kael.

Kael was known for both her likes and dislikes. There were directors such as Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Philip Kaufman and Sam Peckinpah could do no wrong in her book, and there were a number of other directors during the New Hollywood 1970s that Kael promoted. She did not seem to like British directors and she trashed Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which, by the way, I never understood why this film has been so loved). She really got under the skin of English directors: and her reviews of their works upset many. Her takedown of David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” so bothered the director that he quit filmmaking for 14 years. Why these directors let her remarks bother them so much is an enigma but they did.

Jerry Lewis put it best: “She’s never said a good thing about me yet, the dirty old broad,” he’s seen saying on a talk show. “But she’s probably the most qualified critic in the world.”

During her final decade as a critic (she retired in 1991, with the onset of Parkinson’s disease and died ten years later at 82), her only important review was of Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” which she dismissed.

“What She Said” engages the viewer immediately as it gives a personal look to Kael’s criticism. Kael’s driving force was always her love for movies  and we certainly see that here. The documentary is  illustrated by countless movie scenes spanning the entire history of cinema, much of the 95-minute runtime is dedicated to her writing (read in voiceover by Sarah Jessica Parker). Kael’s writing style was conversational rather than academic and she made film criticism into an expressive art form.

Kael became a defining voice for American cinema, both “funny and lethal”, and often went against the stream. She could make a film a box-office hit or she could make it a flop. When “Bonnie and Clyde” was first released it was considered so bad that it disappeared and then Kael took it on and it went on to be a milestone film.  

The impact of Kael’s work is reflected in the number of important directors, actors, and critics who speak of their own varied experiences with her. While her personality was divisive, she left behind quite a legacy.

 Kael’s  review  of “Shoah” was good for the practice of film criticism, even though her critiques were way off target. It is rather refreshing to revisit a time when movie reviews could inspire such heated reactions. It is not entirely clear why she became the critic many readers loved to hate, because so many of her pieces were essentially biographical writing in the guise informed analysis.

Bonus Features: 

Quentin Tarantino Interview Excerpts
Paul Schrader Interview Excerpts
Deleted Scenes
Never before released interview of Pauline Kael with Alfred Hitchcock.

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