What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Knowing ahead of time what would more than likely piss off your readers gives a critic the advantage of the preemptive strike. Probably the greatest compliment I ever got was from an angry college kid who sought me out to scream, “You don’t know anything about movies! And I know this because I read you every month.” Exactly: he READS me!

Have you ever taken a contrary position to your own and defended it?

Once waiting in the lobby before the movie started at the Plaza Theatre (I think it was for a screening of Make Them Die Slowly), I had a rowdy conversation with a small group of filmgoers over my own film reviews. Now a good critic invites rebuttal especially from those who haven’t got a clue that the subject at hand is standing right in front of them, so I provided the “con” to their “pro” defense of David T. Lindsay’s writing! I’d say, “Lindsay seems engaged in a death sport when he’s writing about a crummy movie.”  They’d respond: “He’s not like other critics hobnobbing around celebrity worship; you know when he likes a movie…and when he doesn’t!”

As a scourge of words, I was drawn to the writings of Pauline Kael, who worked for little to no pay raising her kid, paying to see the movies she reviewed and hated for it.

As she would say, “The process is thinking – writing is putting what you think down in print for the world to see.” If Pauline Kael taught me anything it was to not fear what others thought. For one thing, nobody is going to swipe the ideas of someone they hate, because those ideas would put them at odds with their fellow critics who they are hoping to impress. And also, other critics wouldn’t be able to defend any position I took if challenged. I never cared what my fellow critics thought or said.

In this, his debut documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, director Rob Garver gives an almost chronological presentation of the film critic’s blueprint for survival by upping the ante when faced with insurmountable difficulties due to editors changing her words or fearing repercussions from advertisers, from audiences that sent hate mail demanding her firing for biting banter, or film company publicists who employed intimidation by denying access to movie screenings. Instead, Kael would dig in and grew thicker skin with every death threat she received.

And there were quite a few times one of her reviews would piss me off! So much so that I learned from her: know your shit and let the world keep spinning!

Pauline Kael hated my two favorite films: The Searchers (she made her disdain for westerns no secret), and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (about which she commented that “all the interiors look like cold latrines.”) But it was purportedly when she attacked The Sound of Music that McCall’s dropped her column. Then she’d criticize tedious foreign films such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s La Notte for being about nothing more than “the rich gravitating from party to party.” And though I completely agree with her assessment of La Dolce Vita, I disagreed with her opinions more times than not.

But one of, if not her greatest contribution was in trying to get readers to see beyond the camera frame and look to the words. Her review of Godard’s Band of Outsiders observed how French filmmakers could take a banal American crime novel and translate its poetry between the lines. Today, this feat would be comparable to a director that can take a comic book and reflect what America is here and now (i.e. Joker!) It irked Kael that American audiences read bad film critics, only to see a movie about, let’s say, bullfights and imagine they’d figured the movie out when in fact, in her review she’d be able to explain that what she’d seen in the very same movie was an attack on the political climate in Spain! I remember every fellow critic saw The White Ribbon as a response to corporal punishment when I said it was the German generation between wars that had taken to heart the teachings of Hegel and Kant and would replace the white ribbon with a black arm band in the coming years!

When an audience has been misdirected or conditioned to accept film criticism that pummels them to shut down their minds when entering a theater, it’s no wonder that smaller, quiet movies get passed over for action blockbusters.

Kael championed the emerging new talents – Spielberg, Scorsese and Peckinpah’s carnage found a house alongside her appreciation of Bertolucci’s carnality in Last Tango in Paris. Though she hated Star Wars (!!!) and she described The Godfather as “old men carrying out grudges…when they can no longer tie their own shoes” (exactly!), it was her review supporting Bonnie and Clyde that saved it from imminent crib death and thus spearheaded the new American film Renaissance of the 1970s!

Her reviews for The New Yorker and New Republic are read by Sarah Jessica Parker for this documentary. What isn’t made clear here, however, is that once you’ve grabbed the world by its ear, the second handers – those film critics without the insight or background – want to benefit from what you’ve accomplished, and when you resist, they hate you too.

As Kael puts it, “the challenge is in fighting off the successes that trap you.”

Pay no attention to the reaction of others.

“The public tends not to like a good critic but tends to hate your guts.”

[NR]