Tallgrass Film Festival Review: What She Said? – The Art of Pauline Kael

She wasn’t a contrarian or a troll, but rather a visionary. Her words helped shape modern American cinema and help film criticism achieve an art previously unknown in the format. She came in with aggression and a unique viewpoint that championed that which others wouldn’t while being willing to decry things that no one else would. 

Her name was Pauline Kael.

The woman is a new figure in my life, someone I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Her work in film writing has proven to be highly influential and changed the way a lot of people viewed movie-making. I spent a lot of time catching up on her reviews in preparation for this documentary, hopeful that I’d be able to keep up and understand her entire point of view. Turns out no one can really understand her, you just have to take it as it comes. 

Director Rob Garver has put together a wonderful tribute to the woman’s career, cultivating interviews with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell to Alec Baldwin and Francis Ford Coppola. This collaboration of artists that loved her, despised her, respected her, and lashed out against her is all brought together to hold her up as everything from important to brilliantly devastating and everything in between. It’s a complicated portrait of someone that held…perhaps too much influence, but an important voice that was one of the first female viewpoints to enter this boy’s club of cinematic discussion. 

The documentary pulls no punches either, happy to display her aggressive side and how she defended herself against detractors. In a world where we still stand against big cinema and in defense of the arthouse, Pauline Kael championed the difference between good and bad trash. Stephen King touched on this for the literary world, discussing how his mother would approve of some trash and not of others while stating that he hoped his own work was good trash. Kael took this stance as well, happy to stand for big budget schlock as well as smaller filmmakers she thought went ignored more than they should be. Steven Spielberg pointed out that after a thousand reviews she was still the only person that really “got” his film Jaws. Her statements motivated filmmakers and changed the way America made movies. Her aggressive and avant garde takes helped shape the American New Wave. Hell, her book titles are sexy enough to be taken in the night under a thin sheet as long as you use protection. 

It’s hard for me not to gush over this, but it really is a loving (if quickly paced and brief) documentary that chronicles the influence of a woman that broke David Lean and championed the likes of Scorsese and De Palma. It’s not just an impressive track record, but an important one that took a verbiage akin to a dirty limerick and twisted it into discursive art. 

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