What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

As an overview of the career of the contentious film critic, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a congenial ode to a unique and important cultural voice of the 20th century

Film Review by Oliver Thomas | 28 Jun 2019
  • What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
Film title: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
Director: Rob Garver
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Camille Paglia, Paul Schrader, David Edelstein, Greil Marcus, Molly Haskell, Robert Towne, Stephanie Zacharek, John Boorman, Lili Anolik, Alec Baldwin, Craig Seligman

With the advent of her centenary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with the contentious film critic’s pervasive work. For those uninitiated, Kael was one of America’s most influential film critics, working at The New Yorker for over 20 years. Often vitriolic, always insightful, as a female film critic with assertive opinions she was easily distinguishable from her more academic male peers. This documentary from Rob Garver offers an enjoyable overview of that extensive career, engaging in her successes and losses as well as giving glimpses into her juicier conflicts. It also acts as an affectionate tribute to a writer whose work continues to inspire and polarise readers to this day.

One of the film's most enjoyable aspects is the inclusion of Kael's reviews, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, played over various classic moments of American cinema. The documentary delights in oscillating between films she praised and ones she slated, keeping any audience members unfamiliar with Kael’s work enjoyably on their toes. Her caustic takedown of The Sound of Music being read over images of smiling Von Trapp children and a guitar-wielding Julie Andrews is a humorous highlight.

It would have been interesting to gain more insight into some of the meatier areas of Kael’s career which largely remain unpacked. Her public and personal attack on film critic Andrew Sarris, or Renata Adler’s scathing review of her sixth collection of film reviews, When the Lights Go Down, are fascinating disputes that are glossed over to maintain the documentaries buoyant tone.

With the likes of Quentin Tarantino, John Boorman and Paul Shrader all popping up, the talking-head interviews – with the exception of Lili Anolik – present a striking absence of female voices. Overall, though, Garver’s film is a congenial ode to a unique and important cultural voice of the 20th century.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival

Oliver Thomas is a student at King’s College London and part of Edinburgh International Film Festival's Student Critics Programme. For more on EIFF's Student Critics Programme, click here

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