There’s one thing upon pretty much all who are interviewed over the course of What She Said can agree: Kael changed the landscape of film criticism forever. She was one of the first film critics to relate the films she saw to her own life experience, and furthermore, one of the first critics to be more subjective than objective. Many people did not appreciate this, including Norman Mailer, Ridley Scott, Orson Welles, and by his proxy Peter Bogdonavich. Welles even has a rather unpleasant character played by Susan Strasberg named Juliette Riche, who is based on Kael, in his last film The Other Side Of The Wind. It’s either too bad or really good that the film was released after both were dead because God knows what Kael would have had to say in response to it.
“…a great film for all current film critics to watch to remind us what we’re here for and where we can take our writing.”
The film also goes through some of Kael’s best reviews, both positive and negative, including those for The Sound of Music (negative), Bonnie & Clyde (positive), 2001: A Space Oddessy (negative!), Apocalypse Now (also negative which I could write a whole other article about in and of itself because that movie is perfect), and more. The film made me think about how homogenized and boring a lot of film reviews are today as they were before Kael came onto the scene. Alec Baldwin says “Critics are forced to the mute their criticisms of the goose that lays the golden egg in the movie business and there are very few critics who have the guts…to write an honest review of a bad movie.” I think that isn’t necessarily true across the board, but I do think it’s out there, and that’s scary. Almost in answer to what Baldwin said, Kael offers the solution to this problem, “Without critics, you would have nothing but advertisers. So it’s the job of the critic, in terms of the social function, to try to alert people and interest them in anything that’s really new or innovative that spells the future of the art form”. I think that should be every critic’s mission statement.
In closing, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a wonderful visitation of the famed critic’s life. It’s also a great place to start if you know nothing about her. I also think it’s a great film for all current film critics to watch to remind us what we’re here for and where we can take our writing. It reminds us that we can usher in a new wave of good filmmaking just like she did, but do any of us have what it takes? That remains to be seen, but I hope so.