As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019

It’s no exaggeration to say that Pauline Kael revolutionised the industry of film criticism.  As arguably the most famous writer on film of the twentieth century, besides possibly Roger Ebert, she almost single-handedly hauled film criticism away from the academic approach and slavish devotion to the highbrow and the arthouse.  Instead, she applied the type of glittering prose she found elusive as a playwright to popular mainstream cinema.

What She Said is a whistle-stop tour through Kael’s career, from a struggling writer with a passion for film to the conclusion of her tenure at the New Yorker, by which point she had proven herself the most influential critic in the World.  Predictably, the documentary’s greatest focus is on the quarter of a century she spent at that publication, where her blistering and contrary insights drew admiration and hatred alike.  Director Rob Garver draws on archive footage, the countless reviews themselves (narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker), and interviews with some of the may filmmakers who found themselves on the sharp end of her pen, for better or ill.

From the beginning she was a tireless champion of new talent, but also fearlessly heedless of reputation.  It’s pointed out that she helped to kick-start the American New Wave by staunchly defending Bonnie and Clyde when the likes of Bosley Crowther dismissed it as trash.  She also helped push Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg towards public prominence.  On the flip-side of her character, she once savaged the venerable David Lean to his face so traumatically he questioned his place in the industry.  “I thought to myself, ‘Why am I making films?'” he exclaims in old interview footage.  “I don’t have to.  And I didn’t, for a bit.”

Garver takes pains to present both facets of Kael’s mercurial nature, but the barreling pace and cursory glances at some of the stages of her career mean that we never get too critical an assessment.  Kael’s daughter Gina James is undoubtedly very candid in the frequent moments she’s pushed for an illuminating reminiscence, and the aim is never outright hagiography, but the overall tone is certainly one of outright consistent admiration rather than objective inquiry.

Indeed, her take-no-prisoners approach, while occasionally described as both mean and contradictory is posited throughout as a positive trait for a fearless reviewer, and not a character flaw.  When we hear a 2017 interview with Ridley Scott grumbling about her assessment of Blade Runner 35 years earlier the documentary’s context is kinder to Kael than it is to him.  Hindsight may be with Scott about the merits of his film, but he comes across as a curmudgeonly old man nursing a grudge.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a hugely entertaining if surface-level documentary on someone whose importance is difficult to overstate, and who still divides opinion nearly two decades after her death.  It’s hard to watch a film in which the subject is a film critic, without wondering what they would have made of the film itself, and this gives the film a pleasurable little frisson to take away and ponder.

UK Premiere screenings as Odeon Edinburgh Mon 24 and Vue Omni Centre Sat 29 Jun 2019