What she said and not much else: The art of minimizing Pauline Kael

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 - 6:54pm

NOSELL

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Offering a delicious and aesthetically-appealing string of clips from classic Hollywood cinema and underscored by lively orchestral tunes with narration from a honey-sweet Sarah Jessica Parker, biographical documentary “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” was fun to look at and fun to listen to. A film fanatic might fall in love with the movie’s indulgent supply of cinematic clips in its attempt to provide an immersive look into Pauline Kael, the unapologetically ferocious, hyper-opinionated film critic who brought her Berkeley-bred wit to the pages of publications such as The New Yorker.

To the typical “Paulette,” the nickname bestowed upon Kael’s loyal followers decades ago, “What She Said” is a dream. The film devotes 98 glorious minutes to illustrating Kael as a sheer force of biting opinion. Authors, actors and filmmakers alike speak on the late film critic’s impassioned writing style while touching on the many idiosyncrasies that separated Kael from her gentlemanly colleagues: her affinity for popular cinema, her love for conversation, her tendency to incorporate the responses of the film-viewers around her into her reviews. With the majority of the film relying on narrations of Kael’s own writings, it truly is “What She Said,” but not much else.

I wish we lived in a world where female creatives like Pauline Kael were household names, embedded into America’s collective psyche and allowing “What She Said” to serve its intended purpose — highlighting the bold, trailblazing women we already know and love. But, we don’t live in that world. And, truthfully, few people know Kael’s story, which is where “What She Said” should have come in and fulfilled its great artistic purpose. Though, because the film spends more time gushing about Kael’s masterful writing than it does positioning Kael as she existed in a gender-normative 1940s America, it fails to tell Kael’s whole and immensely significant story. 

In “What She Said,” the entire narrative offered concerning Kael’s early life consists of a narration of one of Kael’s writings that describes the cultural quirks characteristic of her West Coast upbringing. An instant after this underwhelming attempt to capture Kael’s entire young-womanhood through a few lines of her own writing, we learn she went to UC-Berkeley. One would think her time at Berkeley would have had a significant impact on shaping her art, writing and intellect. Though, much like the short Hollywood film snippets that make up the documentary’s principal visual element, Kael at UC-Berkeley comes and goes. And soon, we’re expected to believe that, almost instantaneously upon entering her career in the arts, Kael became the fearless critic and literary mastermind we know her to be today. 

Glossing over Kael’s early career in this way — that fierce female writers just emerge from a vacuum and magically disassemble centuries’ worth of culturally-ingrained sexism overnight — is a great disservice to Kael and her story. And frankly, as a young female writer, it is deeply disappointing to watch. In order to do justice to the work of Kael, I wanted the film to explore such questions as, what kind of home did Kael grow up in? What was she like as a child? Was she always as sharp-tongued and boldly opinionated as she appears in her film reviews? Did she have a female figure in her life that emboldened her and modeled what a witty woman could do in 1940s America? These are things we need to know in order to truly appreciate Kael as a whole person, with a whole story to share.

Near the end of “What She Said,” the documentary trails off in a sad attempt to acknowledge its context within the America we live in today. A few outdated YouTube videos and flimsy article headlines displayed on the screen are supposed to signal to us that we have transitioned from Kael’s Hollywood universe to the digitized, tech-crazed world of today. An interviewee ponders: Amongst Rotten Tomato ratings and punchy, 280-character tweets, how would Kael’s work be perceived today? With media fragmentation lessening the hold publications like The New Yorker have over our national mediascape, would Kael even maintain the same cultural prominence she once carried? But, moreover, one might wonder: Would Kael’s hyper-emotional, untamed writing voice stand a chance against a president that dismisses all media as “fake news” and basks in his ability to deride female journalists? “What She Said” offers no answers to these pressing ideas. 

By neglecting to position Kael in the context of both the 1920s America that bred her and the 2020s America that followed, “What She Said” fails to illustrate the full breadth of significance Kael carries as a fiercely controversial critic, a female intellectual who successfully entered one of America’s many boys’ clubs. Ultimately, the film doesn’t make us care about Kael, even though she is definitely someone worth caring about.