In his documentary “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” director Rob Garver pays homage to a titan in film criticism, whose sharp wit impressed cinephiles through the ’60s and the ’80s and radically transformed the way people write about movies. Pauline Kael was a major voice at The New Yorker, alluring readers with breathable prose that shrugged off the pompous style of academia. She personalized her reviews, blending criticism with memoir. She acknowledged the rituals at the movie theater as much as she discussed the movie itself. Garver captures the magnitude of Kael’s influence by inviting renowned filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino, to discuss the impressions left by her works. Garver seamlessly visualizes Kael’s words by weaving clips from famous movies alongside a voice-over reciting Kael’s writing.
“What She Said” leaves moments in Kael’s personal life underdeveloped, including Kael’s relationship with her daughter and her California sojourn with Warren Beatty. The film fixates on her professional accomplishments, instead of her personal life, meaning “What She Said” occasionally feels like a well-crafted resume rather than a biopic. Garver’s documentary suffers from recycling its declaration of Kael’s exemplary talent without deepening the central thesis. Nonetheless, the documentary is elevated by the voice-overs enlivening Kael’s unapologetic opinions.
“What She Said” strikes a balance between discussing Kael’s ability to either empower or destroy a movie. Garver conveys her warmth in encouraging intellectual discussions as well as her ability to disrupt a social event with her blistering, uncensored opinions. Yet, the film affirms the undeniable and compelling power of her voice. She reigned as a brave and caustic critic who unapologetically embedded her own thoughts in her work, which flowed independently of the will of advertisers and popular opinion. Kael’s pen guided a generation of filmmakers and moviegoers. The film illustrates the critic’s role is not to convert, but to converse.