And Said It Well

Sarah Jessica Parker reads Pauline Kael’s work during What She Said. The documentary features others, including major names like Quentin Tarantino, yet Kael’s work alone tells her story. Each feature or review evokes a feeling and a certain time in her life, readily evident when placed together in narrative order. It’s fascinating, and if there’s ever a sign of Kael’s success, it’s there, in ink, and pristine.

Kael agitated people. As told by those who knew her – even her daughter – the anger didn’t phase Kael. The rejection in a male-dominated industry only increased her wit and snap, even fury. What She Said pulls an interview with David Lean where he dejectedly remembers an interaction with Kael, one so mean-spirited it’s clear Lean never forgot the moment.

People change as they age. What She Said reveals a woman who didn’t

The poorest critics refuse to be honest with themselves. “Poorest” in the quality sense; the honest ones remain financially poor. Although a near permanent figure in The New Yorker, that alone didn’t allow stability, and yet from various TV clips, she doesn’t begrudge her position or career. That fearlessness (even after being dropped by publications who rejected her contrarian style) is something few people can manage.

What She Said doesn’t build any central conflict. Any that appear do so organically, notably the sexism, which often appeared as male directors or editors clashed against her words. Instead, What She Said finds Kael, or as much of her as any 90-minute documentary can. Speaking with Kael’s daughter, there’s unique insight on what it means to grow up with a critic (one especially fond of the critical). There’s talk of how she let people in, but only until they disagreed on something.

There’s a sense Kael wasn’t an easy person to know or speak with, at least in many circumstances. She was brash, but needed to be. Her voice mattered. She was sure it remained untouched. In that process, she left breadcrumbs as to her personality, and aggressively campaigned for films willing to expose uncomfortable truths. What She Said reprints angry letters from readers, offended by her pro-violence stance. Controversies ensued as Bonnie & Clyde found a defender, because Kael saw a film willing to address Vietnam’s gruesomeness, under cover as a historical story. And again, this is done through her own words. There’s little doubt she was being truthful.

People change as they age. What She Said reveals a woman who didn’t. Horror movies began to affect Kael differently after living in New York, yet through each narration or interview, Kael’s consistency is a dazzling, special, even remarkable quality. It’s as if she always knew who she was, and found her niche, finding a voice immeasurably valuable when set against today’s effusive fandoms.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
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Exploring critic Pauline Kael through her own words, What She Said reveals a woman sure of her thoughts and who she was.

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