Film Review: “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” — Rebellion Has an Expiration Date

By Bill Marx

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, directed by Rob Garver. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.

Pauline Kael capitalized on counterculture snobbery, the pecking order of the oh-so-enlightened.

Film critic Pauline Kael. Photo: Wiki Common.

In 1966, film critic Pauline Kael famously proclaimed that trash has its invigorating rewards. But who is going to enjoy a documentary this bad? Rob Garver’s film is weak tea, filled with useless movie clips, meager historical context, too little of Kael’s distinctive voice, and far too many boneheaded observations from current and former loyalists. The film fails miserably at its mission: to hymn Kael’s enduring importance. She would have been a terrific reviewer on Twitter, a critic/fan tells us with a straight face. Kael will be best remembered for bringing her “humanity” (!) into her critiques, says another. In a revealing moment, Kael calls herself a “propagandist.” Not all critics see themselves as publicists (though Kael can be credited with helping to blur the boundary lines), but her notion of reviewers as hawkers, pushing film nirvana via hyperbole, is revealing. It suggests that, along with her favorite artists, Kael was selling herself. She would have been scathing about this lame marketing effort.

Still, part of the problem is that it is becoming harder to see how Kael’s virtues compensate for her considerable failings. And I’m not just referring to the accusation of plagiarism, the sexist descriptions of women in her reviews (no one in the film dares call Kael a feminist), her conflict-of-interest canoodling with filmmakers, her appalling political vapidity, her overseeing her own bullying “cult,” and the jackhammer she wielded, at times with evident cruelty, during her tenure at the New Yorker (1968-91). For me, Kael’s primal sin was to privilege gut instinct over rational judgment. Can a first-rate critic be anti-intellectual? I don’t think so, but it is a winning American strategy. Criticism becomes a training ground for the “elect,” a way to separate the sheep from the goats, the insiders from the outsiders. In her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Kael enthuses that “a good movie can make you feel alive again.” Who is that “you”? And what if  “you” didn’t feel as Kael did? For her, that meant you must be a square, a lost soul: “For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?” Kael capitalized on counterculture snobbery, the pecking order of the oh-so-enlightened. In the process, she tossed aside what makes for fair and cogent persuasion. (It was so “Establishment,” as was any semblance of intellectual consistency.)

She didn’t argue for the “subversive gesture” of trash, a mix of anti-academic frisson and adolescent thrill, but proselytized for it, with undeniably juicy flair, fiercely denigrating whoever disagreed with her. Louis Menand’s best-case defense is that “the critical attitude Kael represented only means approaching a work of art without bias about what a ‘work of art’ is supposed to be. It is predicated on the notion that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous and therefore nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it — especially if you are a critic.” Openness is a merit, but Kael, a self-admitted propagandist, was rigid, even doctrinaire; she hamstrung her sensibility by refusing to admit that rebels have an expiration date: that explains why, once she raved about the brilliance of minor directors such as Brian De Palma, she kept cheering on her chosen ones well after the jig was up. She bet that, somehow, her kind of critic would have the God- or Kael- given instinct to distinguish the real from the phony — and she lost big time. Washed away by the tidal waves of trash.

To appreciate Kael’s strengths and weaknesses, she needs to be placed in historical context. The documentary suggests that before Kael there were no talented film critics, but James Agee, a reviewer of the ’40s whom she admired, stands as a major predecessor. In fact, I would argue that Kael’s approach was partly shaped by her rejection (the anxiety of influence?) of his left-wing Christian humanism. For Kael, unlike Agee, superior movies were fun rather than politically responsible; promulgated no life-enhancing message (liberal or otherwise); were not organic experiences (it was fine to like a junky film if there was a good line or performance). Despite all this, Kael tried to retain Agee’s humanism (he argued for the greatness of De Sica’s Shoeshine in a lengthy piece), but only after she had completely undercut its moral and political force. That made her stance daring in the ’60s and early ’70s. After that, her rebel yell began to wear very thin.

As for Kael’s zesty voice, the film suggests she created it herself. In truth, she was a member of the New Journalism movement, along with Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Truman Capote, an expert practitioner of its slangy, tangy, and effusively personal prose style. None of this background is provided in the film: those who might contribute some substance, David Thomson and Menand among them, are not heard from. The most accomplished critic here is Kael’s longtime friend Greil Marcus. We hear from a few aging Paulettes (followers/groupies), but it is better to stay out of that rabid rabbit hole. At least one member of the Kael club, nearly two decades after her death, wonders whether it existed or not: “This fantasy of a controlling shrew has been given a considerable boost by writers, some of them at one time her friends, who, deciding association with her no longer served their careers, wrote articles and memoirs about their escape from the cult of Pauline.” Betrayal! The plastic knives are out — but who cares?

My Arts Criticism students at Boston University don’t get Kael’s obsession with the inviolate power of the low, her disdain for all things academic. Why can’t movies proffer a meaningful message and be fun at the same time? They respect that she was a vital advocate during a fertile period in American independent filmmaking, supporting (then) young directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg. Still, for them and me, her prose style is what remains captivating, its excitement driven by her ability to reflect the informal ways people talk about movies.

The documentary would have provided a much fuller portrait if it had gone beyond “what she said” and served up some of the replies of the period’s other estimable critics—from those she attacked, such as Andrew Sarris, to Penelope Gilliatt, the late John Simon, Renata Adler (whose acidic putdown of Kael in the New York Review of Books is mentioned), and Dwight Macdonald. In 1967, Simon characterized Kael as a “curious combination of lively shrewdness, sentimental-hysterical self-indulgence, and dependably plebeian tastes.” Macdonald, in a 1966 letter to the managing editor of Esquire, observes that Kael is “intelligent as to all that surrounds a movie (culture-socio-politically), not as to its value as a work of art.” (A wonderful photo flashes by of a panel discussion attended by Kael, Simon, and Macdonald.) She didn’t think so, but film criticism is not simply the art of selling favorites, but generating dialogue about value, an exchange that is healthy because it is made up of clashing perspectives and ideas. The Kael mystique is partly the product of good timing; movies and critics (not just her) were taken seriously in the public sphere back then — in those days, something was at stake.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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  1. Matt Hanson on February 21, 2020 at 6:18 pm

    “My Arts Criticism students at Boston University don’t get Kael’s obsession with the inviolate power of the low, her disdain for all things academic. Why can’t movies proffer a meaningful message and be fun at the same time?”

    This is interesting, even for someone like myself who knows Kael more by reputation than anything else. Wasn’t this one of the points she fought hard to make, advocating for flicks like Bonnie & Clyde, Nashville, and so on? Or is that inaccurate?

    • Bill Marx on February 21, 2020 at 7:23 pm

      Kael is nothing if not inconsistent — all critics are, though because of the extremity of her views the whiplash is unusually severe when you read through her reviews. The short answer is that Bonnie and Clyde and Nashville were valuable because they were experiences that made the viewer feel things, intensely — not to put across a message.

  2. Tom Connolly on February 21, 2020 at 8:01 pm

    Along with disillusionment with Susan Sontag, falling out of love with Pauline Kael has are milestones marking my 21st century sensibility. I was an avid film junkie from childhood; the first reviews I ever remember reading were Kael’s. In retrospect, the 60s and 70s were her moment. For aside from her appreciations of screwball comedy, Cary Grant and the parts of Raising Kane that aren’t trying to take down Welles, she’s essentially a teenage fan-girl, given to gushing or goring. Yes, she was a grown-up, but she’s more guru than critic, a well-ripened-teen idolater. Nevertheless, I well remember myself as a teenager, dreading Kael’s half-year hiatus when Penelope Gilliat would take over as New Yorker critic.

    I also remember discovering her collected reviews. I thrilled over her pan of West Side Story at the same time I read Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” Both essays take aim at Leonard Bernstein, Kael doesn’t seem to know or care that Bernstein was a great musician in addition to being an egomaniac. Wolfe knows that Bernstein is an artist who has made a fool of himself trying to be hip. I think the best example of how her approach has faded, not that her influence doesn’t linger, is her enthroning of Last Tango in Paris as THE film of her time, if not all time. Maybe Brando’s improvised, autobiographical monologue still has something to offer as a memento mori of the Method, but the breathless, gasping, dare I say orgasmic, exhortations of Kael’s review now seems ridiculous.

    It’s not true that great critics are great because they have the perspicacity to pick the winners. Shaw couldn’t have cared less about soulfully adventuring among masterpieces. More relevant is James Agee, who writes about individual films, but whose criticism forms a body of work that informs us not so much about particular enthusiasms, but what the movies of his time were as a function of cinema. For instance, he was able to look back at silent comedies, not to show off his own appreciation, but to argue for their rightful place in film history. Kael loved the movies and was a great stylist. But because she was such a critical Medusa, daring any opponent to look her in the eye, her work is ultimately purely personal. There is no aesthetic judgment at work, just her taste. And all we’re left with is agreeing or disagreeing with that taste, admiring a turn of phrase, and little else.

  3. Adele Mathis on February 23, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Isn’t the wok of any critic always going to be personal? Certainly this review by Mr. Marx is. He seems to have a bias against Pauline from the get-go. People are subjective, and moves are subjective!

    I saw this in Cambridge yesterday, and enjoyed it immensely. Very entertaining portrait of a woman with a distinctive voice, and that voice comes through strong and clear. She was passioante about what she did for a living, and I supose that incurs some risks. But I applaud her. She was writing about an art form, why shouldn’t she be passionate?

    I think Mr. Marx wants something from the film that it chose not to deliver. It’s a portrait. Of a writer, and a woman, and an attempt to channel her voice through the documentary form, and tries to tel the story of who she was (could have done more on that). It’s not a comparison of Pauline to other critics. The filmmaker clearly himself likes her work, and so what? He shows the other side, and includes criticism of Pauline even from her own daughter, and filmmakers like Paul Schrader, Ridley Scott and David Lean. .

    I was entertained, and felt Pauline’s humor and toughness come through. She was no saint for sure, and the film makes that clear. There is a substantial section or Renata’s Adler’s critique of Pauline included in the movie.

    And — “The documentary suggests that before Kael there were no talented film critics.. ” I don’t think that’ true. The film shows Pauline as a talented critic, it certainly doesn’t say she was the only one up to that time.

    • Bill Marx on February 25, 2020 at 5:53 pm

      All criticism is subjective. The best reviewers use all the stylistic tricks of the writing trade to persuade and entertain the reader. I have been reading Kael for years and examine some of her work in my BU class on Arts Criticism. Is it any surprise that I have my judgment of her strengths and weaknesses as a critic? I have no problem with passionate evaluators — but the best criticism must have more than just strong feelings going for it — evidence, analysis, intelligence, taste, and a sense of history are some of the qualities necessary for first rate arts reviewing.

      What was the intent of the film? You think it is meant to be a portrait. But the sub-title is “The Art of Pauline Kael” — what was her art? That was unclear in the documentary. If you are going to explore someone’s art you have to see where they came from — their influences, artists they rebelled against, etc. Aside from talking (lightly) about the critics Kael attacked, there is nothing about the craft of criticism in the documentary. Artists attacking critics are a cliche (their comments can be written off as sour grapes). Better to hear from critics (or those who know about writing) about why her criticism was so good.

      And I will stand by my statement that the film says nothing about strong critics that came before Kael — I would argue that James Agee was a major influence on Kael — if only as a critic to rebel against. No mention of him … nothing about Robert Warshow, a commentator (for Partisan Review) who also probably helped shape Kael’s views of popular culture. The documentary was easy, breezy, and superficial, far too easy on Kael’s bullying and her negative impact on movie reviewing.

      • Gerald Peary on February 27, 2020 at 11:54 pm

        I don’t agree that Agee was an influence on Kael. Their prose and point of view couldn’t have been more different. You are right about Robert Warshow but also Manny Farber. I don’t know if he was an influence but there is certainly a similarity in the certitude and bullying with art critic, Clement Greenberg.

        • Bill Marx on February 28, 2020 at 9:12 am

          I alluded to Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence” in connection with Kael and Agee because it works both ways — to assert independence a critic will sometimes react against a powerful predecessor. Stake out their territory through stubborn (even complete) opposition. And I think that was the case with Kael. As I point out, she countered a number of Agee’s moral/political/aesthetic beliefs. I didn’t go into them all, such as her ideas about Chaplin (mentioned in the documentary), which challenged Agee’s.

          As for critical bullying, I see a number of interesting connections between H. L. Mencken and Kael, in terms of the belligerence (and energetic zip) of their writing styles, their rigidity (neither ever changed their minds about anything), embrace of iconoclastic outsider status, courting of popularity, weird political mix of the reactionary and the liberal, and need for an ‘unenlightened’ enemy to cudgel, over and over again. Of course, about movies they were diametrically opposed — Mencken pretty much hated them.

  4. Tom Connolly on March 3, 2020 at 5:42 am

    I think the most telling aspect of Kael’s legacy is her coterie, the so-called Paulettes. The diminutive says it all. There is also a common thread running through most of the commentary here: people seem to take Kael personally. It is even difficult to separate Kael the critic from Kael the documentary subject. The filmmakers take it as a given that she is an artist. Is Kael in the Wildean mode? Perhaps, if it is only the impact of her style that we can agree on. One thing that summoning memories of her career does is reveal how far the serious appreciation of the arts has fallen. It’s rather like the situation with contemporary poetry. It’s said there are more people typing poems at any given moment today than at any other time since the dawn of literacy. Now anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can type reviews and hope for an audience.

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