There is a relatively modern adage of uncertain origin intended to deflate the pretensions of music criticism: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Imagine, then, the even more inflated effort at stake writing a review of a film about someone who wrote film reviews.
I was in college when I read Deeper into Movies, Pauline Kael's third collection of film reviews, and I unhesitatingly fell under her spell. Here was a writer who devoted thousands of words to a movie, expounding in paragraph after paragraph on what she loved about it but also giving just as much time to its flaws and mistakes. Inspired by her example, I hammered out my first film review and slipped it into the office of the university paper.
I continued to read Kael, but by the end of the '70s, I found myself more inclined to disagree with her odd prejudices. Kael was riding high on her own power. She wasn't engaging in a conversation with her favorite filmmakers anymore; she was nagging them. When she needed to boost a reputation or, more frequently, destroy one, she engaged a network of acolytes and mentees, the "Paulettes," to spread her decrees. She would tell interviewers that she agonized over every line, that her reviews were torn from her very soul, but when caught in an inconsistency, she'd shrug off complaints with, "It's only a movie." Even her famous barbs were more show than substance, and not even an original show. Compare Kael's review of the 1978 film Same Time Next Year, "If someone you make the mistake of caring about insists on your going to this movie, take a small flashlight and a book," with Dorothy Parker's more succinct line 60 years earlier about the musical Girl O' Mine: "If you don't knit, bring a book."
Rob Garver's What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a breezy flight through Kael's life and work, using television footage and talking-head interviews (filmmaker Paul Schrader and critic Michael Sragow discussing their service as Paulettes, cultural critic Camille Paglia holding forth on nothing in particular) and a lavish allotment of film clips to illustrate the movies she championed and the controversies she provoked. It's as contentious and provocative as Kael herself, witty and abrasive, outspoken and not afraid to cross the lines of politeness to make a point. Despite the limitations of space and time (and media), Garver captures much of the spirit that made readers love Kael's work — and often made them want to throw The New Yorker across the room.
Garver makes a persuasive case that Kael was the den mother of the New Hollywood, the renaissance in American filmmaking that began around 1967 and ended in the mid-'70s with the rise of the wide-release blockbuster and the Lucas/Spielberg nexus of juvenilia. Kael had been reviewing films since the 1950s and even created a bit of stir when she was fired from the magazine McCall's for being insufficiently reverential to the behemoth known as The Sound of Music. It was her praise for Bonnie and Clyde which made her name, and her positive review forced Bosley Crowther of The New York Times to revise his negative review — and landed Kael a position at The New Yorker.
At her peak, Kael's critical voice was a combination of snobbery, combativeness and low-brow slumming. Garver lets the enthusiasms and polemics spin by at a tornado's pace until they become a blur — Scorsesenashvilledepalmalasttango! — and plays on the mild double entendres of her book titles to recreate Kael's embrace of the sensuality of the cinematic experience, even when it means invoking films that she is unlikely to have seen (Russ Meyer's Vixen, Plan Nine from Outer Space, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS), let alone admired. It's hard to get much substance from the whirlwind, but Garver conveys a fair sense of the heady times and Kael's passion.
The film may overpraise its subject at times (I can accept that Kael was an avid reader, but the film likens it to Woodward and Bernstein's research in All the President's Men), but it also acknowledges a few of her lapses. Her 1971 essay "Raising Kane," which argued against Citizen Kane being a work solely sprung from the genius of Orson Welles, now seems like contrariness for its own sake; the description of a confrontational luncheon with David Lean makes her sound like a petulant adolescent showing off at the grown-ups' table. These, too, are part of Kael's character and perhaps even of her appeal.
What She Said is a brisk exercise in film history, but the dominant figure, justly, is Kael herself. The excerpts from her reviews, read by Sarah Jessica Parker, rest heavily on one-liners and wise-cracks, sometimes threatening to reduce Kael to the equivalent of a contemporary YouTube commentator, prouder of her own voice than of the films she discusses. Her admirers were prone to say things like "Reading her is better than going to the movies" without fear that she would contradict them. Even her most generous reviews are substantially about herself, her personal reactions and her unique point of view, separate from those of any other member of the audience or — more importantly — of the critical establishment. As Paul Schrader, a Paulette whose own films were often the subject of her scathing reviews, explains "What Kael promoted wasn't film; it was her."