DVD : What She Said: The Art Of Pauline Kael

STUDIO: Juno Films/MVD | DIRECTOR: Rob Garver
RELEASE DATE: June 16, 2020 (DVD); Aug. 7 (Blu-ray) | PRICE: DVD $17.99, Blu-ray $19.95
BONUSES: Never before released interview of Pauline Kael with Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Schrader Interview Excerpts, deleted scenes
SPECS: NR | 98 min. | Documentary | 1.85:1 widescreen | 5.1 Surround | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

For a few decades—from the late 1960s to 1980s—Pauline Kael was one of the best-known film critics in the world, penning perceptive, slangy and often divisive reviews for McCalls, The New Republic and, most prominently, The New Yorker. The documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael delves into her celebrated career and, to a lesser degree, her personal life, with archival footage and a surfeit of commentary from friends, followers, fellow critics and her own daughter.

Such was Kael’s influence that adoring pals who also reviewed movies were called “Paulettes,” as they cherished her over her rival, Andrew Sarris, the auteur advocate headquartered at the Village Voice, the publication that christened Kael “Queen Bee of Film Criticism.”

The film goes into some detail on her life, from her college experiences at Berkeley’s University of California campus to her post-college Bohemian days in the Bay area; from her brief marriage to experimental filmmaker James Broughton and the birth of daughter Gina through her early gigs writing notes for repertory movie programs and reviewing films on radio, then moving to New York, where she became a much-discussed arbiter of cinema taste, her review collections bearing the such sexually-suggestive titles as I Lost it at the Movies, Taking It All In and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Pauline Kael, holds her own in a discussion with actor Tony Randall.

Like Kael herself, the film doesn’t shy away in showing her preferences. It details how her much-quoted reviews of Bonnie and Clyde, Last Tango in Paris and the works of Robert Altman and Brian De Palma helped bolster a particular film or directors’ visibility and led to, if not box-office success, then at least critical triumphs and discovery by her devout readers. Also covered is 1974’s The Citizen Kane Book, Kael’s still-provocative look at Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece which argues that screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s contributions to the film have been unjustly overlooked.

Additionally, What She Said, written and directed by the debuting Rob Garver, recounts Kael’s run-ins with Sarris and others (notably her editor at McCalls, who axed her after she panned such hits as Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, which Kael called The Sound of Money). Here brief flirtation with Hollywood in the late Seventies, when Warren Beatty recruited her for an ill-fated production position at Paramount, is also given a few minutes.

Among those adding insights and trying to crack the tough cookie that was Kael in What She Said are such critic devotees as David Edelstein, Owen Gleiberman, James Wolcott, Carrie Rickey, Michael Sragow and Molly Haskell, Sarrris’s widow, who claims there was no shortage of testosterone in Kael. Filmmakers Paul Schrader, John Boorman and Francis Ford Coppola, who experienced the critic’s warmth and wrath, are also on board to add their two cinematic “sense.”

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael would be better off with more archival footage and vintage photos, but after working four-plus years on the project, one suspects director Garver has no other choice than to use the parade of talking head interviews featured here, filling in for the lack of older and more personal material. Still, the documentary makes a nice primer on Kael, who died from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease in 2001, and her influence in the art of film appreciation and criticism.

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About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.