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maryann johanson | takeaway only

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael documentary review: art and trash in measured quantities

What She Said The Art of Pauline Kael green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A terrific portrait of the legendary critic, as objective as she was proudly subjective. Pulls no punches on her complicated life and work but rightly hails how she revolutionized thinking about film.
I’m “biast” (pro): interested in female film critics, for obvious reasons
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

I don’t know whether to be heartened or depressed by What She Said, a terrific documentary about the life and work of legendary film critic Pauline Kael. In her own words — through vintage TV and radio clips as well as her writing read out in narration by Sarah Jessica Parker (New Year’s Eve, Sex and the City 2) — and tales told by others — most notably including her daughter, Gina James — we hear how challenging it was to make a living as a critic; the abuse she took from readers, including death threats; and just the general awfulness of men, in her personal life as well as professionally, who simply weren’t interested in listening to any woman’s enthusiasm about anything, and particularly not if she disagreed with him.

Damn. Kael’s struggle is my struggle, and that of many female film critics, and that of many women in the world no matter what field we’re in. To know that even the great Kael was in the same position is… well, is it a good thing or a bad thing that not much seems to have improved? Is there hope for me yet, or is even the best-case outcome of my life’s work going to be a difficult path to travel?

What She Said The Art of Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael, holding court and holding her own among men.

I am, however, absolutely definitely nothing but depressed that director Rob Garver, in his feature debut, inadvertently reminds us that in a time — right now — when women film critics are fighting to be heard and to be taken seriously, the film critic who is perhaps the most famous one ever was a woman. Kael was a brilliant wordsmith: the snippets of her work we hear are full of a luscious love of cinema and a wise appreciation of what film means to us. But even more dramatically, she fulfilled the dream of many a writer: her words had a real impact; she revolutionized the thinking on film, making room for personal passion that needn’t be dry or academic in its assessments, and making the careers of filmmakers in the 1970s who themselves went on to change everything we think about movies.

So how is it that there are people — mostly men, but some women, too — who still think today that film criticism is a man’s game that women ought not to intrude upon? How is it that film criticism is still dominated by men?

How is it that, after Pauline Kael, film criticism is still dominated by men?

What She Said pulls no punches on Kael’s complicated and sometimes contradictory life and work, but rightly hails her genius, her fervor, her voracious appetite for all sorts of art (music, theater, and literature all informed her approach to film). This portrait is as objective as Kael was proudly subjective, clear-eyed about her railing against timid critics who don’t love what they do, her often caustic contrarianism, her devotion to her own idiosyncratic emotional and intellectual response to movies no matter what the critical consensus might have been… and why all of that built the towering figure that she has become.

Kael is a huge inspiration for me, and she should be to everyone who loves movies, whether or not you agree with her opinions or her philosophy on criticism. Because probably the most astute thing she ever said — as quoted here — was “Without critics you have nothing but advertisers.” That is the vital importance of film criticism, and Kael boiled it down into a nugget that would have been a tweet if Kael was still around today. It makes you long to know how she would have made the most of today’s fractured critical environment and sprawling movie ecology. Because she absolutely would have.


What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for December 20th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.



green light 4 stars

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2019) | directed by Rob Garver
US/Can release: Dec 13 2019

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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