A New Yorker film critic from 1968 to 1991, Pauline Kael (1919–2001) was loved and loathed in equal measure for her idiosyncratic and often ruthless approach to writing about film. With What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, documentary-maker Rob Garver has produced an enthralling homage to her writing and to film through a collage of snippets from the movies she discussed in her reviews, talking heads and letters providing the views of her contemporaries, from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Schrader, all voiced-over in her own words read by another well-known New Yorker, Sarah Jessica Parker.
Not only does Garver bring to life his subject’s contagious adoration for cinema and her aptitude for making language to describe it sing but also the unique place she held within the film industry, driving its direction as much as commenting from without, no small feat as a female critic in what remains a male-dominated sector. We hear how in her notoriety she was both a trusted and despised voice, with her subjective, powerful and in-depth reviews capable of catapulting the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to even greater fame while equally decimating other’s contributions to the screen.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Garver at the 69th Berlin Film Festival, where What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael was screening in the Panorama documentary section, to hear about how he was inspired to make a film about her, the painstaking process of research and film excerpt collation that went into its making and how he hopes others will be as inspired by her writing and what she achieved as he was.
So thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Maybe you can start by telling me what prompted you to want to make this documentary? Was it something that you had in mind for a long time?
I read Pauline as a young person and I enjoyed her writing so much. She had such a distinctive writing voice that really stayed with me. Then the spark was really a few years ago when I had this idea about making a movie in the language of movies about a film writer and telling her own story through the movies. So that’s how it developed, that I wanted to tell a story through other movies. So I built up this library of clips of other films and that’s what I used to tell Pauline’s own story, pieces from other films. But primarily the thrust of the movie was that I wanted to try to express her writing through movies and to express the joy that was in her writing. Even when I disagreed with her, it was still just such great fun to read her because she was so passionate about movies. She had humour, she had insight, she had honesty, and it kind of just all came together in this buoyant voice. And, you know, I thought, well, that’s the kind of movie I would love to see myself, something that spans her era of movies and shows them through her lens. That’s what I really wanted to do.
I really do think it does that, it’s like a love letter to film while also capturing her, her style and her essence in the way that she liked to write. Thinking about the number of clips you have in there and the very specific way you’ve picked just the right moments – plus all the excerpts from her writing and quotes from the talking head interviews – how long did all that take to collate and prepare? And how did you go about piecing it together so there was still a coherent narrative?
That’s why it took four years. I did start out by reading most of her writing. The film focuses on her earlier writing, from the 50s through the early 80s. I went through it and came up with with different themes and subjects that she wrote about. She either wrote about directors, or actors, or she wrote about women, or she wrote about philosophy or connected it to current events. But that was the first stage of just getting all that material, the best material, in. And then, as I developed the movie, I knew I wanted to use clips but I didn’t think it would be this substantial and so I ended up really spending a lot of time on that. We also found more archival [footage] as we went along in the movie, so that’s why it took a little bit longer also. Originally I thought I would have a narrator but then I realised better not to have a narrator and let Pauline narrate herself. So you know, we found these letters of hers from her 20s, and also a lot of interviews that she did over the years. And that’s kind of how I told her story. I let her speak for herself.
How did you decide on using Sarah Jessica Parker for Pauline’s voice?
I just thought she would be a great choice because she’s kind of associated with New York, she’s old enough to know Pauline, and she did. And she was really excited to do it. Pauline also wrote her last published review on a movie called LA Story, which is a Steve Martin movie that she is in. So one of the last published lines that Pauline wrote was about Sarah Jessica Parker and Sarah Jessica knew that also. She told me that but I already knew it.
One of the things that really strikes me watching the film is I almost can’t believe the impact she had as a film critic – she wasn’t an add-on to the film industry but really was part and parcel of it, as it evolved, as it grew. You’ve used quotes from all these directors saying she either made or broke their careers. Was that something that even you were shocked by in some moments? And how was it do you think that she was so powerful?
Well, you know, there were so few voices back then, right? I mean, this was pre-digital age. So there were the major newspapers and magazines. And she wrote for the, probably the most, not popular magazine, the most respected magazine, The New Yorker. But she also wrote for popular magazines before The New Yorker. I think it’s probably an overstatement to say she made or broke people but she had a big influence on it because everybody read her. And everybody kind of weighed her opinion and gave it weight. She was fierce in her opinions. She believed that she was right and she really believed that it was her job to show filmmakers the way. She made some enemies because of that but she also got a lot of respect. I think for people who didn’t take her criticism too seriously, they could learn from her. But, you know, it was a different time. She wasn’t a TV critic and I think that made her probably even more powerful that she was just in print. She was fortunate that her editor at The New Yorker gave her a lot of space. She could write at length, and she had so much to say. She had so much interest and love of what she was writing about. And she was able to do it.
Was there one quote from any of the directors that really stood out for you, either positive or negative?
Well, like David O Russell said, he loved her even when he disagreed with her. That’s kind of what I always felt and it was great to hear that because I knew, “okay, that’s not just me”. Her writing just really kind of vibrated in you and stayed with you. Quentin Tarantino, I think he said that he wished that he’d been interviewed by her but he just missed it. When she retired I think his first film came out the next year or something, Reservoir Dogs. Also people like Paul Schrader were great because Paul could give the other side too. He was critical of Pauline and in my movie I purposely use some of the things he said that were critical of her. He had a unique history because he started out being this kid right out of college and met her and sort of gives her credit for him being in the business at all. She got him his first job and got him into film school. I didn’t use this piece but there’s a point where he says in his interview that he was worried that Pauline would die because if she died he would lose his connection to this world and it was just a thin thread. So that was kind of interesting.
Do you think it’s particularly amazing, considering even now there are issues of gender balance in filmmaking and criticism, the fact that she was a woman in that day and age and that she had that position, she had that power? Though she also faced, as female critics still do today, some discrimination or some kind of backlash for saying certain things?
Right, I think it’s true but, you know, from all I’ve read and all I’ve seen of her, it didn’t affect her externally. I mean, she never really wrote about feminism, even though she was writing at the height of the movement when it started. But at the same time she kind of led by example. I don’t think she would say that she led anything, she just did what she wanted to do and she did it the best she could. Her personal story, which I tried to show in the film, that she kind of made it on her own without a lot of help, and she didn’t make it, have success, until later in her life, I think it meant something to her. It also informed her writing. She wrote in her pieces she came out for the underdog or for the outsider. I think that was because of her own life.
What other reflections do you think that people will have today by watching this film? I’m thinking in terms of how cinema has changed and cinema has evolved but also journalism and women’s ability to write and be in these roles in the film industry. How do you think people will look back on what it shows and what it might say about where we are today?
I think people look back fondly because the landscape was so much quieter, right? There were only a few voices and it’s nice to have, like, a friend, somebody that you go to for opinions and someone that you can, in a way, discuss with, like, you would read the reviews and sometimes have an argument in your head about the movie with her if you didn’t agree with it. You have to accept the present and what it is but instead of a few voices, now, we have thousands of voices. And so you have to pick and choose, and you have to be careful. It’s just the way the culture has gone.
For me, it also gave me some nostalgia for a time that was never mine anyway, for these bygone eras of film. Was that part of it as well, looking back and just really appreciating film’s history?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a part of history and it will probably never happen again. She was really at the centre of the film culture. And I don’t think that’s happened either before or since so much, where one person was almost driving, in a way, the creative choices of people. We found so many letters from her, from people to her, and I have a scene in the film with everybody from Bill Clinton to Marlene Dietrich and all the filmmakers and writers of the day, not all of them, but many of them who really sincerely wrote to her because they either wanted her opinion on one of their own projects or just to say how much they appreciated her writing. That’s unusual.
What do you hope that people will take away? For me, I watch it and I feel very inspired actually. I want to go back and read her writing. I want to go back and watch some of those films. It makes me feel, “I could be fearless as a female film critic. What are we doing feeling closed in?”. What do you hope that people will feel after watching the film?
That’s one thing, yeah. I mean, to be inspired is great. Because I was inspired by her. That’s why I made it. I was inspired by her writing and I would love for people to see the film and think, “what a singular voice”. Even though she was a critic, she was positive. Her writing was full of joy for what she was writing about. That is really the main thing, that she was a performer, in a way, in her own right. At the same time, she was brutally honest and those two things are hard to combine.
How does it feel to have the film here at the Berlin Film Festival? What does that mean to you?
Oh, great. It’s wonderful to be in another country and have her introduced to people and for the people that don’t know her, that’s a wonderful thing too, to have somebody say, “oh, this was a really interesting person and I never knew who she was”. I love being able to introduce it to other cultures as well.
What do you hope for the film from this point on? How do you think it’ll play out differently, perhaps, in the US and in Europe?
I think it’s universal because it’s really just about a woman who made it in a difficult time. And it’s also about an artist who had a unique voice. And I don’t think those things are specific to one country or another. When we have distribution, I think it will resonate with anybody who enjoys movies and enjoys stories like Pauline’s.
Do you already know what you’re going to be doing next? Have you got your eye on the next project or are you going to let this one sink in a bit?
Let it sink in a bit! But I’m working on a fiction project. A script that I’ve written and have had in the works for a little while, so.
Brilliant. Thanks for sharing all that with us. And congratulations again on the film.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 17th February 2019.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.