Review: On One Critic’s Life, Words and Influence on Film in What She Said

It seems odd to be reviewing a documentary about a film critic whose influence is still a big part of the critical landscape, in the same way it was surreal writing about the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. In a strange way, I feel like working film critics should be banned from writing about these films, especially if the reviewer personally knew or was notably impacted by the writing of the subject, because the objectivity that is so vital to our profession is thrown right out the window. But of course, film critic Pauline Kael didn’t necessarily believe those in her profession needed to be objective, so what the hell do I know?

What She Said
Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

In fact, in director Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, we are reminded that Kael saw critics as propagandists for the films they loved and were at risk of being overlooked by the public, and that she would frequently phone up her legion of reviewer disciples (affectionately known as “the Paulettes”) when she was particularly passionate about a movie and encourage them to “get behind it.” I can’t imagine any critic getting away with doing that today, but Kael always seemed to be the exception to the rule.

Attempting to review the documentary and not the person, What She Said traces Kael’s journey from frustrated nanny and ad copywriter in her younger years to her earliest years as a (largely unpaid) film critic in the Bay Area. In fact, much of Kael’s struggle as a critic was that she was never paid a living wage for her primary job and had to supplement her income by writing books (including the 1965 influential best-seller “I Lost It at the Movies”), giving lectures, writing for other publications outside of what became her regular gig at The New Yorker (for six months out of the year), and establishing herself as the premier critical voice in film.

But it was her opinions and prose (read in the documentary by Sarah Jessica Parker) that got Kael her reputation as being everything from informed and poetic to acerbic, bordering on personal attacks of some of the filmmakers she covered. She was accused of being elitist but she clearly had a soft spot for popular entertainment, including a great many exploitation films, which seemed to bring her a great deal of joy if done unapologetically. She championed films and filmmakers to the point where she made a major difference on the direction of film history, and above all else, What She Said captures her deep-seated love and passion for every type of movie while having equal intolerance for films she deemed dishonest about the lives they were portraying (she loathed The Sound of Music, for example).

Like most critics and writers in general, Kael wasn’t for everyone, and as much as I have read and appreciated her writings, her points of view never really factored into my way of judging movies. There is some time spent in the documentary addressing whether Kael would have liked or loathed the current critical landscape, and I think she would have embraced the idea of everyone being their own version of a critic—which is not to say that she wouldn’t have gotten tired of the idea quickly. The film doesn’t shy away from some of Kael’s most unpopular takes on certain works considered masterpieces or her praising of those movies considered trash, and that’s as it should be; her skin seemed impossibly thick, and at times, she seemed to get a kick out of certain responses to her opinions. This is a fitting, sometimes melancholy tribute to a writer whose work in the popular sphere is in danger of begin forgotten, which would be a real shame.

The film is opening for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and is accompanied by a special series devoted to Pauline Kael’s eloquent and impassioned embrace of certain films and filmmakers, sometimes resuscitating films whose initial receptions had been chilly (Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), sometimes creating an advance buzz that paved the way for challenging films that might have otherwise met more resistance (Last Tango In Paris).

From January 10 to 22, the Gene Siskel Film Center will present seven films that are especially important in defining Kael’s taste and influence. In addition to the aforementioned titles, the series includes Jean Renoir’s The River, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, and Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War. Find the complete schedule here

Special offer from our friends at Gene Siskel Film Center: Buy a ticket for What She Said and get a ticket for any one film in the Kael’s Causes Célèbres series at a discounted rate with proof of your original purchase. General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount price applies to the second film only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.