Film critic Pauline Kael emerged during one of Hollywood’s most significant transitional periods of The New Hollywood, followed almost immediately by the first wave of modern blockbusters. Of Jaws, she called it “the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made… [with] more zest than an early Woody Allen picture, a lot more electricity, [and] it’s funny in a Woody Allen sort of way.” However, reviewing Star Wars, she said it had no lyricism or emotional hold. Of Back to The Future, she worried about the film’s potential for cult status and the nostalgic appetite for “glorified Leave It to Beaver sequels.” She wrote, “Actually, this movie … represents a culmination of the fifties’ appeal to the youth market. Teen-age tastes now dominate mainstream moviemaking, and that’s where [Robert] Zemeckis and [Bob] Gale are working. (The movie is their fantasy about becoming mediocre – i.e. successful.)”
Kael, who eschewed formalism, did not temper her idiosyncratic boldness when she became a film critic for The New Yorker magazine in 1968. Her life’s work is comprehensively summarized within the context of a good bit of Hollywood history in the 2019 documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, directed by Rob Garver. The film will be screened in a free, public livestream by the Utah Film Center on Tuesday, June 9, at 7 p.m. Garver and Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine film critic, will join the livestream for a post-screening talkback. The livestream link is available at the center’s website.
While the documentary’s structure is conventional, Garver infuses the content and context to make the compelling case for looking at a critic’s work in terms of an artistic perspective as part of intellectual history. And, he succeeds. Sarah Jessica Parker narrates numerous excerpts of Kael’s work, there are plenty of archival clips and interviews with her daughter Gina James and colleagues including David Edelstein, New York Magazine’s film critic. Scores of images and short clips from Hollywood films are peppered throughout, almost to the point of being too frequent to sustain the proper flow of the documentary narrative. However, it is a true cinephile’s documentary.
Kael, who died in 2001 at the age of 82, was raised on a California farm and came of age while watching numerous films of the 1930s, which featured strong female characters. Garver uses this point to anchor the portrayal of her independence as a writer who never shied away from plainspoken references that offended her editor at The New Yorker. However, as successful and influential as she was as a film critic, Kael failed at pursuing her own path as a playwright, author and filmmaker (a short-lived attempt that actor/director Warren Beatty encouraged).
There rarely were benign reactions to her work. Steven Spielberg said her Jaws review proved that she was the only critic to understand his film. Meanwhile, George Roy Hill called her a “miserable bitch” after her negative review of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Likewise, her review of Blade Runner was so despised the Ridley Scott said he never read any film review again from anyone. Among actors, her fans included Marlene Dietrich and Jerry Lewis. Among filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino was an avid fan of her work.
Of New Hollywood directors, she praised Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma and Arthur Penn. And, she could be a contrarian in the most controversial sense. She was one of the few major critics who praised Last Tango in Paris, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Marlon Brando, a decision that scholar Camille Paglia still finds confusing and inexplicable. Likewise, Kael was castigated for criticizing Shoah, the nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which her peers praised with near universal acclaim.
Kael often was an astute social commentator. Again, regarding Hollywood’s fondness for nostalgia in greenlighting projects, as with Back to The Future, she hoped that “moviemakers and their designers would stop using old Life magazines for their images of the American past. Hill Valley in 1955 has no pop glint, no vitality; the town is embalmed.”
In a postscript in the documentary, Garver also touches on the issue of the contemporary significance and impact of film criticism. Kael’s career predated the wave of digital media as platforms for amateur and professional critics alike.
Kael was part of an elite class of high-profile critics and scholars have been studying whether or not the work of such widely read observers had an impact, especially on a film’s success at the box office. During the 1970s, every newspaper and magazine had at least one film critic and many had several. A World Bank study published in 2007 found, at best, mixed results in the correlation between the critic’s impact and box office revenue, which should temper the argument about the extent of market power a critic with a portfolio similar to Kael might have. That said, Garver’s film sheds abundant light on the value of studying a critic’s writings from the perspective of critical cultural and intellectual history analysis. And, Kael’s reviews always were visceral enough to produce plenty of enlightening surprises, both to the delight and pain of the creative personalities about whom she wrote.