It’s hard to believe from today’s vantage point, but the liveliest, most intelligent cultural discussions in late-20th-century America — as well as some of the finest writing —- were about the movies. And the leading voice in most of those discussions belonged to a woman from Berkeley, Pauline Kael. Which is why What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Rob Garver’s reverential yet incisive documentary tribute to the late film critic, is worth still one more excursion in the Wayback Machine, a device that’s seeing a lot of use at the art house these days.
Writer-director Garver’s film reassures us that all the things we thought about the beauty of film, the cohesiveness of global cinema, and about Berkeley itself in those days, were right and true. No matter what we’ve learned since then, Kael’s East Bay — where the former chicken rancher’s daughter from Petaluma established a pioneering retrospective movie house (the Cinema Guild on Telegraph Avenue) and wrote her first reviews of her favorite flicks — was one of the intellectual capitals of the United States.
Just ask critic and Kael confidant Greil Marcus, who alongside such interested parties as John Boorman, Paul Schrader, Christopher Durang, Camille Paglia, David O. Russell, John Guare, and Quentin Tarantino offer their talking-head opinions. Kael eventually found her niche in “The Current Cinema” section of The New Yorker, and proceeded to turn everybody’s innocent night at the movies into the hottest-ticket sideshow in that era’s scintillating culture wars.
Kael’s prose was sharp and flavorful. It overflowed with metaphor, and achieved a candor that can only occur as the result of intense labor. When she fell in love with a face, a certain gesture, or a point of view her descriptions turned sensuous; when she found fault, she did not spare the venom. No one was sacrosanct. “People don’t tend to like a good critic,” asserted Kael in an onscreen interview. “They tend to hate your guts. If they like you I think you should start getting worried.” She didn’t especially pick fights; the fights came to her, eagerly.
For every film Kael loved — Bonnie and Clyde, The Golden Coach, Mean Streets, The Wild Bunch, Last Tango in Paris (one of her most controversial choices), Jaws, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, and pretty much the complete works of Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard — there were films she just could not accept. Kael found Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) “self-pitying” and “maudlin.” To her, The Sound of Music was a “sugar-coated lie.” Star Wars? “Like a box of Cracker Jacks that is all prizes.” She dismissed Apocalypse Now with a bit of imitation pidgin: “White man, he devil.” Filmmaker David Lean confessed that the dressing-down Kael gave him for Lawrence of Arabia unnerved him so much he stopped working for four years. Her pans of La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, and La Dolce Vita sported the joint headline: “The Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick-Soul-Of-Europe Parties.” 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Exorcist, Blade Runner, and Claude Lanzmann’s heavily praised Holocaust doc Shoah all suffered the Wrath of Kaen. Her antipathy toward tent-pole mega-productions boiled down to: “The big picture is almost always the bad picture.”
As a woman writer working in a male-dominated industry, Kael was obliged to swim upstream. She championed such female creative figures as Gillian Armstrong, Marguerite Duras, Dorothy Arzner, and Zoe Akins, and looked askance at, for instance, West Side Story‘s approval of women’s subservience to men. Always present in her outlook is a rebellion that recognizes it is “difficult for men to accept the idea women can argue rationally.” One of Kael’s most prominent detractors was critic Renata Adler, who ripped Kael in The New York Review of Books. Adler may have been a square trying to start a brawl, but catfights were never part of Kael’s agenda.
And then there’s Kael’s tiff with the Village Voice‘s influential Andrew Sarris over the latter’s support for the auteur theory. Kael thought the auteurists’ overly academic classifying of films and their directors made for dull thinking. Her style was more intensely personal —- as in her wry estimation of Gold Diggers of 1933, illustrated by biodoc director Garver’s clip of sleepyhead Aline MacMahon awakening in bed with her hair covering her face. The clips show of scenes that Kael liked is particularly charming.
Garver’s film weighs Kael in the balance and finds her worthy in practically every department. Her extraordinary energy and appetite for the pure pleasure of movie-going mark her as one of the pantheon critics (with apologies to Sarris), as does her prosecutorial skill in arguing her point. Kael grew up watching Hollywood movies from the ’30s and ’40s, and longed for the amused self-criticism of America they contained. “It was the comedy of a country that didn’t yet hate itself,” declared the critic in her essay “Raising Kane” in The New Yorker. The country needs voices like Kael’s more than ever now. As she once concluded: “Without critics you have nothing but advertisers.”