Pauline Kael portrait comes to Docaviv

Docaviv, the Tel Aviv international documentary film festival, runs from May 23 to June 1 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and other venues throughout the city.

Pauline Kael (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pauline Kael
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Her mind was the thing that made her a success,” said Rob Garver about Pauline Kael, the subject of his documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a portrait of the celebrated and controversial film critic, which will be shown at Docaviv on May 25-26, which Garver will attend. On May 29, the film will be screened with a panel discussion. “She thought clearly and she got right to the meat of things. That was her gift.”
Docaviv, the Tel Aviv international documentary film festival, runs from May 23 to June 1 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and other venues throughout the city.
Garver’s documentary is witty and engaging as it tells the story of Kael’s life and career through the use of over 200 film clips of the movies that shaped the critic, as well as home movies and interviews with her daughter, colleagues, filmmakers and writers who were influenced by her.
“I read her as a young person when I was in high school and college, that was in the 80s, and her voice always stayed with me,” said Garver. “I loved movies and I loved making them especially. And here was a woman whose voice was as enthusiastic as I felt, as a young person, and it turned out, I didn’t know who she was when I first read her, that she was a middle-aged woman... That was the spark... I wanted to express that feeling of excitement that I had when I first read her, and that so many people had. I was attracted to her personality. She was unapologetic. I often disagreed with her, but that wasn’t the point. It was like she was talking to you.”
Kael changed the way Americans talked and wrote about movies and she hit her stride when she was hired by The New Yorker to write weekly movie reviews, for half the year, in the late 60s, just as a new wave of American directors came into their own – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah and others. Known as a critic who was honest in describing her visceral reactions to movies, she avoided pretension and conventional wisdom.
“She wanted to get away from the intellectualizing of movies... She felt that since movies were a popular art, she wasn’t going to write about them as if they were highbrow,” said Garver.
LIKE GARVER, I also grew up reading Kael’s reviews in The New Yorker and anthologies of her work with suggestive titles, such as I Lost It at the Movies, and even met her once when I was a child. When I saw that my father, who was a big talker, couldn’t get in a word edgewise with her – he sat in silence as she raved about Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist for more than an hour – I realized I had to become a movie critic myself.
But although she was the most celebrated American film critic of all time, nothing came easily to her, as Garver details in the movie. Born in California, in a rural environment light years away from East Coast elites, Kael lived a bohemian lifestyle and struggled to raise her daughter as a single mother. Moving to New York, she wrote for a series of publications until she found The New Yorker magazine. In 1979, feeling she could change movies for the better, she accepted Warren Beatty’s offer to become a consultant for Paramount Pictures. She didn’t last long in Hollywood, and the move was sharply criticized by her detractors – of which she had many, since her writing inspired passionate reactions on all sides.
“I was surprised by how hard she fought to establish herself, to develop her voice, her honesty... She had to hustle to make a living,” said Garver. “She had a famously contentious relationship with [New Yorker editor] William Shawn. Her nature was really the West Coast rebel. She wasn’t part of the East Coast establishment, and other New Yorker writers were not happy with what she was writing... There was some jealousy and people took offense, they did not like it that she was writing about movies like Carrie and Dressed to Kill that weren’t considered highbrow. But, she did attract a lot of readers.”
Looking through her archives, Garver was pleased to discover that she was “one of those people who saved everything... Her letters and papers showed her raw feelings about what it was like to be alone in New York, struggling and poor, feeling like an outsider. They were enormously helpful.” Gina James, her daughter, who was interviewed in the film, gave Garver access to home movies that show Kael in unguarded moments, at the center of a social circle of artists and intellectuals. Noting that she almost always had a drink or a cigarette in her hand – or both – Garver called her “the Keith Richards of film critics.” But speaking more seriously, Garver acknowledged Kael’s outspokenness at a time when there were many fewer women critics and writers, saying, “It’s interesting to see how she fits in with contemporary culture as a woman who came of age” at the beginning of the feminist era.
KAEL FAMOUSLY went to bat for the films she loved, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde – now recognized as a classic, but which was dismissed by The New York Times and the establishment press when it was first released – and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. But she could also be tough on movies, even those that were widely celebrated, and the film explores the very controversial pan she gave to Claude Lanzmann’s acclaimed Holocaust documentary, Shoah.
Although Kael wasn’t religious at all, “She was obviously a Jew... She was simply writing about the movie in a way that she thought the filmmaking deserved.”
She is well known for mentoring younger writers, among them Paul Schrader, once an aspiring movie critic who went on to write the screenplay for Taxi Driver and to direct movies of his own, such as last year’s First Reformed. “He has said he wouldn’t have been in film business if it wasn’t for Pauline.”
While the movies and criticism have changed since she stopped writing, due to health issues, in the 1990s (Kael passed away in 2001), her work will live on in book collections still in print, on the Internet and now through this movie. Few critics – in fact, few journalists – have ever written so many memorable lines. A few of her most famous lines are, “Perfection going slightly to seed is maybe the most alluring face a screen goddess can have,” and – about Robert De Niro in Awakenings, playing a man who has just come out of a coma – “He does the tics and jiggles well. It’s in the quiet moments that he’s particularly bad.” She was alone among major critics at the time in discussing the creepiness in the movie Manhattan, writing, “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?”
Garver said he particularly admires Raising Kane, her book-length essay about the making of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, as well as a piece entitled, Trash, Art and the Movies, although he admitted that it was impossible for him to choose a single favorite line.
“She loved writing,” he said. “She was like a performer on the page.”

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