Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What She Said: The Pauline Kael Doc

In the internet age, there should be thousands of different critical takes on any given movie, but perversely, the interconnectedness of online criticism has instead led to conformity. Cats should be an exceptional case of critical uniformity, but it is rather an extreme example of an everyday phenomenon. Armond White often catches a lot of flak from our colleagues for being a frequent outlier, but they are not angry at him for being wrong. They’re insecure in their own judgment and afraid he might be right. Outliers are important, because often they are indeed more on-target, like Pauline Kael’s dissenting (at the time) rave for Bonnie & Clyde. The famous film critic gets her own moment on the big screen in Rob Garver’s documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, which opens today at Film Forum.

It is a shame Kael could not review her own documentary. Frankly, there is a good chance she would argue it lacked sufficient critical distance. It is not exactly hagiography, but pretty much everyone heard from in the film starts with the assumption Kael is the most important film critic, ever, perhaps excepting the Cahiers du Cinema crowd that became the nouvelle vague filmmakers Kael helped champion.

Regardless, Kael was something of a pioneer a couple times over, as someone who became famous writing about film on a professional level and as a woman in a journalistic field. She famously championed films of the so-called “New Hollywood,” especially Bonnie & Clyde, but she also infamously panned many beloved films, like The Sound of Music.

Garver covers her critical feuds and her most controversial reviews, most notably her panning of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. However, he ignores the most famous quote, somewhat apocryphally attributed to her. John Podhoretz sets the record straight, but Kael proudly acknowledged she only knew on person who voted for Nixon in 1972, just the same. It is still inadvertently revealing, because it admits an insularity of perspective.

Regardless, Kael’s Shoah review 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. Yet, in retrospect, it is not entirely clear why she became the critic many readers loved to hate, because so many of her pieces essentially biographical writing dressed up as informed analysis.

What She Said invites us to take a nostalgia trip from a slightly different perspective. It will be an entertaining way to spend ninety-some minutes when it streams on Netflix (gosh, what would Kael make of that?), but its just not insightful or special enough to justify full New York movie tickets prices. Earning an in-between recommendation, What She Said opens today (12/25) in New York, at Film Forum.