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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kael remembered in documentary ‘What She Said’

Dan Webster

Those of us who have made a living writing about movies owe much to the critics who came before us. Two of my mentors were Richard Schickel and Pauline Kael.

Schickel, who died in 2017, was known for his longtime tenure at Time magazine (1965-2010). But he first came to my attention before that when his reviews ran in Life magazine. Schickel's reviews spoke to a young movie fan, his words reflecting a love for the art form even as he held that art to a high standard.

Kael, who died in 2001, is a different case altogether. Her long association with The New Yorker (1968-1991), during which she shared time with fellow critic Penelope Gilliatt, was a perfect match: Never afraid to run long stories, the magazine was a great host for Kael's informed, often discursive and occasionally biting commentaries.

It's Kael who is the subject of the documentary "What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael," which I streamed for home viewing.

What's most impressive about "What She Said," which was written and directed by Rob Garver, is that it is, at times, nearly as critical of Kael as she was of those whose work she had no use for. I say "nearly" because when she was at her worst, Kael — who was always direct in her comments — could be downright nasty. Just ask David Lean.

It's true that Kael was writing during a time when criticism in most fields was dominated by men. And it's also true that, as some of those interviewed by Garver — a group that ranges from Jerry Lewis to David O. Russell and Paul Schrader — consider her one of the 20th century's great film commentators. Though she had her faults, which even her own daughter is willing to point out, she was one of the major voices that helped break film criticism out of the staid Bosley Crowther format that had held sway up to that point.

If not for Kael, Garver's documentary argues, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman might not have enjoyed such successful careers. Or any careers at all. It's clear that she championed a number of the films that marked the golden era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the same films — such as Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" — that Crowther despised.

That's not to say, of course, that she was always right. But this can be said of any critic, especially by those who judge art on the basis of the thumbs up/thumbs down school of criticism. As I've said more than once, movie reviewing is the great American art form. All movie fans think they are experts.

Schickel and Kael, though, were the real thing. Even if you thought they were off base, you had to at least pay attention to what they were writing.

As some of us strived to do.