This review is also a reminiscence. I knew Pauline at an interesting time, in the late 1960s in Los Angeles.
Firstly the film.
What She Said — The Art Of Pauline Kael does not really go deeply into her mind or her critical and often abrasive personality. It tracks her career path and her rise to New Yorker mag film critic — about as high as you could go then for someone who did what she did.
The fact that she was female and outspoken and abrasive to the vast consensus of her readers was very important to us film nuts then. Because she had an edge to what she wrote, she was often attacked for it. In the ‘60s we all wanted that then. That is, if the L.A. Times or the ‘trades’ — Variety, Hollywood Reporter etc. — were ‘for’ something we’d oppose that.
As a critic Kael was ruthlessly unpredictable. You never knew beforehand where she was coming from. For example, she ruthlessly panned the then darling 2001 A Space Odyssey (I found it a bit boring but before viewing it I remember the queue of UCLA film students at an 8am Saturday screening on Hollywood Blvd. to see it first — yes I was there!)
Kael’s opinions often ran contrary to the consensus of her fellow critics. Occasionally, she championed films that were considered critical failures, such as The Warriors and Last Tango in Paris. She was not especially cruel to some films that had been deplored by many critics — such as the 1972 Man of La Mancha, in which she praised Sophia Loren’s performance. She also condemned films that had elsewhere attracted admiration, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Shoah, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the last of which Kael dubbed a “monumentally unimaginative movie.”
The originality of her opinions, as well as the forceful way in which she expressed them, won her ardent supporters as well as angry critics. In this film Quentin Tarantino, among several others, appears to evaluate her importance to him and cinema thought today.
There is another point here I want to make.
In society in general, and thus also in our little cinema world, this is now the time of the woman.
Recently another film, about a culturally important woman writer at the end of the 20th Century — Molly Ivins — reminds me very much of this work, I speak of Raise Hell— The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.
Not only stylistically but also thematically. Each film is about a woman writer who changed our thinking in that period — 70s, 80s, 90s. Each was not particularly writing about women but about larger issues. Molly about the political scene, the parties, movements, direction. Pauline about the changes in cinema which of course reflected social upheavals and change.
I saw the Molly film at Sundance recently so the similarities between the two films for me is provocative. Living through those crazy times — the Viet War, urban uprisings, civil rights, the women’s movement — formed us.
What perhaps is most strange is how these prophetic voices, such as these rwo outspoken, leading female thinkers have so long been silenced.
That they are now able to be promoted and publicized through these works speaks well for our society and for the new generation to fully understand our social history, where they come from.
As for me personally. I knew Kael her in the late ‘60’s when she was established and I was a struggling filmmaker.
I was introduced to her then by my (still) friend an Israeli Tunisian filmmaker Tzvi Boker. We socialized, saw films, argued politics. As with today there was lots to discuss then.
The funniest anecdote about her is worth recounting here. At my senior undergraduate year at the University of Wisconsin I made a student film. It was 10 minutes, b&w 16 mm, silent. Called Greasy Meat it was three of my friends eating a disgusting meal, throwing food, getting covered with it etc. Over the top gross. People liked it (???) and it got me into UCLA Film School.
My first days at UCLA there were new student film screenings and this was shown among the many others. Pauline Kael, teaching there then (I hadn’t yet met her) was in the audience. After five minutes of silent, gross disgusting nonsense (my film!!) Kael spoke out loudly. ‘How long do we have to watch this crap?’ Of course they stopped my film and went on to the next.
I never mentioned this or reminded her of it when later we met and became social friends. Then as later with her writing her instincts were, I think, very correct.
Sydney Levine is one of the most respected voices in the world of Independent Film. Her extensive experience in the international film business includes executive positions in acquisitions as well as teaching and writing. She co-founded Film Finders, the first independent film database. She writes and curates this column.