Film critic Pauline Kael might have hated the first eight minutes or so of Rob Garver’s “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” a fawning introduction to the life and times of the author and cultural icon. Or, she might have adored it. Halfway through Garver’s film, one of Kael’s own contemporaries laments that sometimes the former New Yorker critic would sit down for a film that seemed tailor-made for her sensibilities, only to lambast it later. (The example at hand is, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)
No matter how Kael might have felt about the doc’s opening minutes (which include over-the-top praise from filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, who booms, “We grew up reading Pauline Kael!”), she would have at least stuck around to see the whole thing through, and other audiences will benefit from the same. Despite that iffy start, Garver’s film blossoms into something more comprehensive than complimentary, a film that doesn’t balk at the trickier aspects of Kael’s career, even as it never fully engages with the tensions that informed her.
“What She Said” looks at Kael’s career from its earliest stages, illuminating parts of her work that might be unfamiliar (from the free radio show to a gig working in advertising to a misbegotten attempt at playwriting), though it’s understandably more beefy when looking at the stuff people normally associate with her work. There’s the zeitgeist-shifting “Bonnie and Clyde” review, the adoration for the work of then-rising auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma, and Kael’s rejection of beloved works such as “Shoah” (one of many reviews that nearly killed her own career).
Though Garver has more than enough material, the first-time filmmaker attempts to gussy it up with unnecessary additions. While an on-screen visualization of Kael’s editing process is inspired and fun, the rest of Garver’s many graphics read as fussy and affected, adding visual flair to a film that doesn’t necessarily benefit from it.
And then there’s the odd choices with narration and voiceover: Kael is intermittently “voiced” by Sarah Jessica Parker, who will pop up to read out some of her key writings when an audio or video track of Kael herself is not available. Fortunately for Garver, there’s plenty of footage of Kael talking about her craft, and while Parker is vivacious in her readings, she’s a poor mimic of Kael’s own tone. At one point, Kael’s voice is deemed “husky;” a moment later, Parker’s reading provides an aural contradiction.
Garver has assembled an enviable assortment of talking heads, from filmmakers like Tarantino, David O. Russell, and Paul Schrader to fellow film critics like David Edelstein, Carrie Rickey, and Stephanie Zacharek. While all provide their own insights — Kael surely would have relished their individual and obvious subjectivity — it’s her own daughter Gina James who provides the most clarity and insight.
It’s obvious that James loved her mother, but she’s also one of the few people willing to tell it like it is, rationally unpacking everything from financial struggles to Kael’s tussles within the community. She turns the most critical eye of all to the subject at hand, and Kael’s life benefits from such honesty.
The tension of Kael’s critical outlook — that she could definitively shred certain works of arts and their creators, even while valuing the notion that all assessments were subjective — is explored throughout “What She Said.” Once we’re past that hammy opening, Garver’s film unpacks the controversies that came from the way Kael translated her beliefs into her work. It’s all there: the threatening letters she received from angry fans, the threatening letters she received from angry filmmakers, the flattering letters from pleased talents, the feuds with her contemporaries, even her strange six-month attempt to become a filmmaker herself (via a gig with Warren Beatty that didn’t really pan out).
And yet, with so much other material to get through, Garver never fully digs into the tough stuff, instead leaving the audience to ruminate on the tricky tensions of Kael’s career. Was she a propagandist, a publicist, a shill, a free-thinker, an artist, a creator, an admirer, a fan, a flunky, or all of that and more? It’s the one thing Kael would have loved the most about “What She Said”: the opportunity to decide for yourself.
“What She Said” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival and held its NYC premiere at DOC NYC. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.