Words Count: Our Review of ‘What She Said – The Art of Pauline Kael’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - January 15, 2020
Words Count: Our Review of ‘What She Said – The Art of Pauline Kael’

In my time, I’ve written close to two million words about film and television. Watching What She Said, a documentary about The New Yorker’s premiere film critic Pauline Kael, my writing stands in contrast to hers. I don’t dare to call myself a film critic; I’m a film lover, a blogger, and am constantly working on my craft with new and old films. I’ve taken film courses, read books about film making and can recall with clarity the first film I saw  when I first discovered movies in 1975. And yet, I still haven’t learned enough.

I can say I’m still seeking my voice, trying to find my groove. I know what I like, and I know that I don’t always agree with others about films. Kael argues to find the courage to stand by your thoughts and your writing, not to succumb to pressure from peers or from the companies who would rather not hear bad reviews.

And she could write them.

Kael crafted turns of phrase and sentences that could elevate or eviscerate; the directors and auteurs she would champion and celebrate helped shape the images we would see on the screen. She was passionate about film, and had the ability and sharp wit to be able to translate that love into the written word. A word that would reach people around the globe

I love to talk about movies, and while I recognise styles, shots, framing techniques, I tend to speak more from an emotional and subjective place when I see a film. And therein, I can relate to Kael. We can find our joy in film, discover something new in cinema, or lose ourselves in popcorn movies.

Having delved into her history, glancing at the personal and professional as they were doled out in Rob Garver’s documentary, I wondered what she would thought of this look into her life and work. Would she see the need for it? Would she recognise the desire to document a time when film criticism wasn’t the purview of anyone with a blog or a YouTube account? To see her influence in the times? And to see how that has changed?

The film looks at her work objectively, as well as showing the impact of the words she used on some who had difficulty recovering from them. And if it is the mark of good cinema, or a good documentary that it makes you want to talk about the film after, to learn more about the subject, or if you’re involved in said subject, do better, than What She Said is good cinema, and a great documentary.

There are half glimpses at things I would love to know more of; which means more books to read, as I want to delve into her reviews, but it also makes me wonder about if the writer has a responsibility to the reader, or their subject. Harsh reviews can be brutal for those who are involved in the creative process of bringing the critiqued art to life, should reviews be tempered to speak only to the craft and ignore the personality infused in it?

Kael’s answer would be a categorical no, but the film balances that by showing the effect her writing had on director David Lean, as well as Ridley Scott. There is good and bad in her writing, as in all expression of thoughts, but I think that is what made her such a great writer, and a polarising critic.

Screening at the Hot Docs Theatre on Bloor, What She Said should be deemed essential viewing for any film writer, blogger, or critic.


  • Release Date: 1/18/2020
This post was written by
TD Rideout has been a movie fan since the moment he first encountered Bruce the Shark in 1975. As passionate about cinema as he is popcorn movies, his film education is a continuing journey of classics new and old. He is at his most comfortable with a book, a drink, his partner and his dog.
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