A documentary on Pauline Kael sheds light on a cultural icon who left a lasting imprint on the film scene and the craft of criticism

WHAT CAN be more meta than a film critic watching a film on a film critic? What She Said, a documentary on the life and work of Pauline Kael, leads you down many thought-provoking paths, not the least of which is examining the role of the critic in today’s day and age.

Kael’s journey to becoming one of the most influential film critics of her time is almost as interesting as the quarter century she spent as a formidable force at The New Yorker. She came from a failed career as a playwright, a daughter born out of wedlock, and an inability to find her groove in Berkeley where she spent her early years. But her doughty belief in herself never wavered. Her professional life took off after her glowing review of Bonnie and Clyde. It not only changed the fortunes of the film, which had a lukewarm reception amongst audiences till then; it changed the face of movie criticism.

The 1967 film starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as tearaway bank robbers who meet a tragic end. After Kael’s ecstatic review, it became a landmark. It turned into a box office success; it was also hailed as the film that spoke for youthful rebellion, and the characters were anointed as those who broke the rules to break out of stultifying middle-class values.

Kael became, almost overnight, the voice everyone turned to, whether it was filmmakers petrified of what she was going to say, or readers who took her criticism very seriously indeed. Sometimes, her lashing out (in her reviews) felt so personal that some filmmakers never quite recovered. David Lean was one such, who quit making movies for several years after Kael lit into his Ryan’s Daughter: she was equally dismissive of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, which many hailed as a masterpiece. She loved Bertolucci’s highly divisive Last Tango In Paris. She adored the films of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets became as visible as it did only after Kael came out batting for it), and Brian De Palma; for her these filmmakers, with their fast-talking crooks and criminals, could do no wrong.

Reading her could be, and is still, exhilarating. Her propulsive writing, which leaps off the page, blew a large hole through the genteel unspoken collusion amongst those who made movies, and those who commented on them. It was with her first collection, I Lost It At The Movies, that many of us realised that writing on the movies could, and should, be an art form.

It was not just about throwing away plot points, and stringing some loose factoids in a few paragraphs. It was a full-fledged examination of the film, the filmmaker, the intention of the work, and whether it delivers. Her reviews could be very entertaining, but only if you were not the receiving end. For the rest, they were lacerating.

Rob Garver’s 95 minutes film delves deep, talks to many filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino sounds like a fan-boy, almost like a ‘Paulette’, the phrase used for star-struck young critics that Kael liked to gather around her) and fellow professionals and builds a snapshot of the America from the ’60s to the ’80s. Molly Haskell, another much respected critic, is quoted as saying that Kael had more ‘testosterone’ than many male film critics. Of that, there is no doubt; love her or hate her, the fearless Kael was a bona fide cultural icon who left a lasting imprint on the film scene, and on the art and craft of criticism.


After the cool intellectualism of the Kael documentary, I walk into a gently turbulent feature, A Tale Of Three Sisters. The Turkish film by the well-regarded director Emin Alper, is almost poetic in the way it gives us the three young women whose lives are entwined by fate and circumstance. The eldest has a baby, the second has been thrown out of her job as a nanny, and the youngest, still in braids, doesn’t know what life has in store for her. The girls’ father, who orders them around, needs another man’s helping hand in order to help his daughters.

These women are not helpless. They are aware of their needs. And yet they defer. The struggle for women to be their own persons is a long and arduous one. At every step, says this marvellous film, there will be blocks, but the only way forward is to take the next step. And the next.

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