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What she said: The Art of Pauline Kael review


By Alex Deleon

A portrait of the work of controversial film critic Pauline Kael and her influence on the male-dominated worlds of cinema and film criticism.

You either loved her or hated her, but her influence was undeniable.  If they don't like what I write about their movies they can go fork themselves. I know the difference between Shit and Shinola, 

On a sunny Sunday the 69th Berlin Film Festival has reached its last day, the day of repeat screenings when everyone hopes to catch up with films that were missed during the week because of overpacked schedules at scattered venues all over the city.  This morning I finally caught the Highly touted Pauline Kael documentary fully entitled "What She Said --The Art of Pauline Kael",  solemnly compiled and fully packed with testimonials from a steady stream of prominent film personalities, by an obvious admirer, New York based Rob Garver, his first feature length film.

Aside from the keen intelligence and sparkling wit of her reviews Pauline Kael was known for championing films everybody hated, (Last Tango)  ridiculing films that everyone loved (The Sound of Music), and generally calling the critical consensus into question.  Her ability to sway viewers taste could kill a film with rosy prospects or turn a shaky film into a runaway hit (Bonnie and Clyde). She eventually became kind of a critical terrorist with directors living in dread of having Kael rip one of their films to shreds.  Preeminent British director David lean was so crushed by her panning of his films, notably the giant international hit Lawrence of Arabia, that he retired from directing for several  years!

Among those seen in the film besides Kael herself at various points in her life are: directors Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, Woody Allen, David O. Russell, John Boorman, David Lean, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, actor Alec Baldwin, and half a dozen female film critics all commenting on how Kael influenced them one way or another.  At one point Allen says that even though Pauline trashed some of his movies he valued her comments and insights and considered her to be the best critic around.  

(But sometimes her judgement was questionable!) 

Comedian director Jerry Lewis chimes in graciously with: "She's never said a good thing about me yet, that dirty old broad. But she's probably the most qualified critic in the world".

We see flashes of innumerable clips from films she commented on, both positively and negatively, included Citizen Kane, Last Tango in. Paris, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, early films of Joan Crawford, and many others.  Throughout excerpts from her articles published in the New Yorker and elsewhere are read aloud over shots of the original articles while, most enlightening of all are numerous scenes of Kael herself discussing her views on film criticism and the reactions to her writing.  As her notoriety mounted she was canned from several upscale women's magazine gigs before settling in as the long term resident film critic of the genteel widely read New Yorker Magazine where she built up a dedicated following and spent the bulk of her late career.   Having become a celebrity in her own right she was a frequent guest on the top TV talk shows, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.  The Cavett clips are particularly interesting but are cut just a wee bit too short. We wanna see more of that!

  Her opinionation and radical views earned her at least as much venomous hate mail as ecstatic fan mail, maybe more. But she was so sure of the correctness of her calls that the hate mail to her was like water off a duck's back. (You have a right to disagree but I'm right and you're wrong).  There is so much information, visual and verbal, in the relatively short 98 minutes running time that what we get is virtually a mini history of cinema as seen through the sharpest of eyes related with a most lively tongue. It was often said  that even if you had seen a film under discussion Kael's review forced you see it again as if you were seeing it for the first time. 

This critical study of America's most famous film critic goes back to her earliest days of writing program notes for the art films shown at a hole in the wall movie house known as the Cinema Guild on the edge of the Berkeley campus in the late nineteen fifties. As a UCB student back then I began to see old Hollywood movies in a new light and developed a strong interest in foreign films from the smartness of her compact summaries.  Above all It was Pauline's acerbic wit that hooked us all.

Like it or not, Pauline Kael, despite the fact that she rubbed many people the wrong way with her often acid laced controversial views, (grounded however in an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and an astounding  memory for details of films seen years earlier) was the most influential film critic of the latter half of the XX. Century.  She published 13 books of reviews some of which like "I Lost it at the Movies" became best sellers and conditioned the film habits of an entire generation at a time when movies had suddenly become intellectual property, not merely weekend entertainment.

This is the kind of film one wishes would have run twice as long because so much juicy stuff must have been trimmed away in the final cut, and the personality of the woman on which it focuses is utterly fascinating.  I myself often disagreed 180° with Kael's opinions regarding certain films, for example, Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris", which she praised to High Heaven while I thought it was pure unadulterated garbage -- but I read her reviews regularly anyhow, for their verbal agility and pure unadulterated obstreperousness. Their entertainment value!  .Even when you disagreed with Kael on matters of opinion the reasoning  behind her views kept you on your toes and made you question your own reasoning. Sometimes it just pissed you off! At others you had to let out a shout of "Right on! ~ Tell it like it is..."

This film was possibly the hottest ticket of the entire festival and I missed four Kael press screenings during the week, all fully booked early in the day.  Finally, in desperation fearing it would be very hard to catch it anywhere else,  I had to purchase a general admission ticket to see it this morning.  Although I have tickets for two other screenings today, because this Pauline Kael and What she said was the perfect capstone to this festival, and the rich taste it leaves behind is not be further diluted, my other tickets will not be used and so for me the 69th Berlinale is over, done with, and in the bag. THE END.


See you next year.

Alex, MacZooCafé,

Berlin, Feb. 17

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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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