There were no half measures with Pauline Kael. She was a critic people loved or hated, filmmakers and readers alike. “One thousand reviews later, you’re the only writer who understood Jaws,” said Steven Spielberg in a telegram to her. In the New York Review of Books, Renata Adler called a collection of Kael’s work “jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless”.
Kael — a legendary film critic for The New Yorker between 1967 and 1991, who died in 2001 aged 82 — is the subject of What She Said, a documentary by Rob Garvey showing at this year’s Jewish International Film Festival. Garvey has marshalled a wide range of filmmakers and writers to testify to her impact and influence.
Some are recent interviews, such as those with Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell. Others come from the archives: David Lean, Ridley Scott, Jerry Lewis. But this isn’t a film of talking heads. Garvey makes deft, sometimes playful, use of movie clips, often from the films Kael wrote about, neatly illustrating the points she — or the documentary — is making.
Her most controversial piece of writing was her dismissal of the Holocaust documentary Shoah, a review that The New Yorker’s editor William Shawn did not wish to run: when it finally did, it provoked widespread, often angry, criticism. She called the documentary “logy and exhausting” and she suggested its favourable reception was on account of its subject matter.