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Mike’s Strange Cinema Cavalcade - WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael review
Documentary explores the work of the influential American film critic.

Review by Mike Vaughn

Directed by: Rob Garver

Featuring: Pauline Kael, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Paul Schrader, Quentin Tarantino

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael poster

It’s a curious thing, being a critic and writing a review of someone whose life's work was spent writing reviews. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael takes on the trailblazing female critic Pauline Kael, and through interviews and archived footage of Kael herself, attempts to unravel the sometimes-controversial film critic. Using actual reviews narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, the film gives us a glimpse into a critic who could make or break a career.

The subject of having a voice yet feeling like it doesn’t get heard and being an outsider in a ‘exclusive club’ of so-called self-appointed ‘elites’ within the film community is something I very much can identify with. So, hearing about Kael’s struggles to fight to be taken seriously as a woman in this industry, spoke to me. Yes, I realise I am not a woman, but I can relate to being the ‘other’ as an openly gay man, especially during this harsh political climate. Not to mention fighting an almost daily battle to be noticed in a sea of ‘critics’ in the age of the Internet. Garver does a good job at painting Pauline as an outsider that fought hard for her place at the table and never backed down, even when she took things too far.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael review

The documentary does a fairly good job of getting into Kael’s pre-film-critic life, though I found that I didn’t have a strong sense of her on a personal level, which hurts the film greatly in my opinion. I will say I am happy to report that the film does a decent job at showing both sides of Pauline. One being the self-made no nonsense, passionate film lover that changed modern criticism of cinema. The other side is how Pauline could be cruel, could attack films and filmmakers on a deeply personal level (which in my mind is low and not at all professional), and basically how she could be what we would term nowadays as a straight-up bully.

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The lack of humanising made it hard for me to relate to somebody that loved a laughably bad, and by today’s standards very problematic film like Last Tango in Paris (1972) but helped lead to the critical and commercial failure of Blade Runner (1982), which is now regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time. Shockingly, in an archival interview, one poor director even professes to being so hurt by Kael’s cutting words that he stopped making films altogether for a while. So as somebody who has actually been bullied, it's very hard for me to come out of this film with a positive opinion on Kael. I applaud her being a tough-writer in a male dominated place, which is what kept me invested.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael review

The other issue with this film is how it presents some very interesting questions but never tackles them. One such being the nature of the ‘superstar critics’ and if fame can be a help or hindrance when it comes to being an objective film writer. I would have loved to see a deeper dive into such subjects and how it may have framed the work of Pauline.

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For its faults, I was engaged in her story as well as the experts that shared their opinions and knowledge. The interviews are lively and Parker's narration is a nice addition. But I was conflicted. Part of me came out of this having learnt lessons like don’t be afraid of having a voice and sharing it, but on the flip side, at the end of the day I felt conflicted as to how I could look up to someone who used her platform to cut people on levels that weren’t at all professional or kind. I didn’t get to know her on a deeply human level so I had a hard time staying on her side through some of the nastier things she did to filmmakers. The wealth of rare photos and archival material really make it a well-executed documentary, though for me it lacks a true heart to keep me totally invested in her story.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael review

The picture and sound are great for an SD DVD. It was shot with newer cameras so you don’t get that grain that you get with older 35mm films upgraded to digital. I was actually pretty shocked that no subtitles were available, which seems pretty standard these days. The DVD has some really nice bonus material such as extended interviews as well as deleted scenes and even a never-aired interview between Pauline and Alfred Hitchcock. These extras are a nice touch, especially when most documentaries rarely include any bonus features.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is on Region One DVD now from MVD Entertainment.

Michael Vaughn is a rabid horror and cult fan who turned that love into a career. He is a writer, blogger and film historian and now author of 'The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema' which Shock Wave Podcast named their pick of the month, and Chris Alexander of Fangoria called “recommended reading.”

His other credits include Scream Magazine, Fangoria and websites like Films in Review and Bloody Flicks(UK). Please follow his Twitter @StrangeCinema65 and Instagram @gorehound_mike.