'What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael' celebrates the critic

Pauline Kael film launches BIFF at one of her old haunts


GREAT BARRINGTON — "People don't tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts," Pauline Kael says early on in Rob Garver's documentary, "What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael." "If they like you, I think you should start getting worried."

As a film critic for The New Yorker for more than two decades, the late Kael inspired plenty of loathing with takedowns of popular movies such as "Lawrence of Arabia." But she also garnered respect from some of the industry's titans, a lasting influence that Garver's film captures through interviews with figures such as Alec Baldwin, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino.

"We grew up reading Pauline Kael," Tarantino says at one point.

Garver did, too, devouring her reviews for the first time while he was in college in the 1980s.

"At that time, I had started making my own short movies and just loved everything about movies. I wasn't one of those people who read all the critics, but I read a lot of them, and Pauline really stood out. She stood out because I think she had this unbelievable enthusiasm," the film's producer/director/editor said.

On Thursday night, Garver will be on hand and participating in a Q&A session after a screening of "What She Said" at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The event opens the 2019 Berkshire International Film Festival in Great Barrington, where Kael spent many of her later years and died on Sept. 3, 2001, at age 82.

"She did go to the Mahaiwe cinema in the last years of her life, even in the '80s when she was still reviewing," Garver told The Eagle by phone. " ... She would hear from a lot of filmmakers who wanted to screen their films for her. So, they would [send] the film prints up and screen them for her personally in the theater."

The documentary doesn't spend much time focusing on Kael's Great Barrington life with her daughter Gina James, who still lives in the town. It begins in a different place: Petaluma, Calif., where she was raised. Eventually, she would end up in New York City, leaving an indelible mark on the movie business and film criticism for her completely subjective stances. For example, her appreciation for Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" helped make him a household name.

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"Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn't apply her 'approach' to a film. With her it was all personal," Roger Ebert once wrote of Kael.

Though interviews with famous film types help guide the viewer's understanding of Kael's career and impact, her own writing is a major character in the film. Sarah Jessica Parker assumes Kael's voice. Garver had initially reached out to the actress because of her close connection to both New York City and the writing world, but he soon learned that Parker used to read Kael's reviews with her mother during her youth. Kael's last review, published in 1991, also concluded with a nice line about Parker's performance in "L.A. Story."

"It turned out that she knew that, so I think she felt a connection, too," Garver said of Parker.

To make Kael's prose visually compelling, Garver pulled about 400 clips from films that relate to her words.

"I've seen a lot of movies, but I haven't seen all the movies in my film," Garver said.

This taxing compilation process was a major reason why it took Garver several years to complete the film after learning that nobody had completed a documentary on Kael.

"I thought it would be an interesting idea to try to make a movie that expressed the same feeling that I had when I read her as a young person, just the love of what she was doing and the wit and the insight and all those feelings mixed together," Garver said, "and also to try to tell her own personal story through the movies."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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