'She couldn’t not be critical. She was always criticizing'
The real test of a documentary about famed film critic Pauline Kael is: What would Kael think?
There’s no telling; she died in 2001. And the critic, best known for her work in The New Yorker, could be a real contrarian.
She called The Sound of Music “a sugar-coated lie” and its star Julie Andrews “sexless and inhumanly happy,” asking: “Wasn’t there perhaps one Von Trapp who didn’t want to sing his head off?” On Lawrence of Arabia: “I want my T.E. Lawrence back.” And of 2001: A Space Odyssey: “The most gloriously redundant plot of all time … A celebration of a cop-out.”
She carried that nature into her daily life. Her daughter, Gina, tells filmmaker Rob Garver: “She couldn’t not be critical. She was always criticizing.”
And book critic and friend Craig Seligman talks about trying to make conversation when she was near death. “It never ceases to amaze me how many people who call themselves writers actually can’t write,” he said. Her quick response: “Yes. They say things like, ‘It never ceases to amaze me.’”
Garver’s film captures her incendiary and multi-faceted life. Born in 1919, she was old enough to remember watching first-run silent films with her mother. And she had an encyclopedic, photographic memory for movie moments.
None of which made her infallible. She once warned Francis Ford Coppola against using “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, because it had recently been used in Seven Beauties, and everyone would be reminded of that film. He went ahead anyway.
What She Said sometimes leans too heavily on tricks; episodes in Kael’s life are often illustrated with movie clips that echo that moment – readers’ love-hate relationship calls up Han Solo saying: “Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.” And Sarah Jessica Parker as the voice of Kael when reading from her works sounds distractingly unlike the critic.
But what comes through is a portrait of a complicated film lover, and one always ready for a fight. She famously quarreled with New Yorker editor William Shawn about the language in her reviews. And to a male reader who suggested that she should try making films herself, but that she needed to have balls to do it: “You don’t have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good.”