A documentary on film critic extraordinaire, Pauline Kael is in the making. And it’s about time.

She was the leading voice of film criticism for The New Yorker, for more than twenty years. “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”, a documentary written and directed by Rob Garver, attempts to bring back Kael’s unique perspective of film criticism and no nonsense discourse, fourteen years after her death.

For more than thirty years, Pauline Kael was to the New Yorker what Vincent Canby was to The New York Times. One of the most controversial film critics of our time, Pauline Kale was either adored or despised by readers, filmmakers, and listeners of her radio broadcast on KPFA, Berkley’s alternative public radio station. Not one to hold back. Kael many times even went out of her way to challenge the verdict of her peers on a particular film; often her target of choice was The Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris, who Kael attacked in many of her essays due to Sarris’ defense of the auteur theory.

Film critic Pauline Kael at her office in The New Yorker. Photo: The New Yorker.
Film critic Pauline Kael at her office in The New Yorker. Photo: The New Yorker.

Born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California,  Kael began her prolific career as film critic for the New Yorker when she was already in her late forties, defying not only a niche that at the time was mostly dominated by men, but also managed to upscale most film critics, steeled with a bold prose and sharp wit. Undoubtedly of high intelligence, Kael defied those who frequently and sometimes angrily, disagreed with her reviews, by applying a sort of dignified distance; however, it was not uncommon for her to openly comment on her radio show, about one or several of the less than flattering fan mail that she sometimes received. Pauline Kael died on September 3, 2001, only days before the attacks on the World Trade Center, at the age of eighty-two. She left an empty void in the world of film criticism, which no one has been able to adequately fill since.

However, Pauline Kael’s fans still manifest themselves in various ways. Such is the case of film director Rob Garver, a New York-based filmmaker who has written, produced, and directed several short films that have been screened in local New York cinemas, such as Comic Belief, a documentary profile of cartoonist Dan Piraro; The Man in the Yellow Cap, and Two Roads From Belfast, Maine. Garver, a long time admirer of Kael’s work, launched in July a Kickstarter crowd-funding project for What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a full-length documentary about her life and prolific work. Although the money raised on Kickstarter was insufficient to successfully fund the film, Garver assured that he is looking towards other financing sources. “Private investment was always our Plan A”, he stated. “Kickstarter was more of a vehicle for spreading the word about the film”.

In this positive light, we can only hope that Garver’s documentary obtains the needed financial resources for the project. In the era of widespread social media that Kael never got to see, when the phrase “everyone’s a critic” has become harsh reality instead of a washed-out cliche, perhaps Garver’s documentary will serve as a reminder of why the world now is in desperate need of great film critics.

Cartoon of Pauline Kael. Source: The New Yorker cartoons.
Cartoon of Pauline Kael. Source: The New Yorker cartoons.

Art Film File conducted an email interview with Rob Garver about the project, and why he thinks it’s the right time to remind people about Kael’s extraordinary quantity of work.

AFF: First, I would like to start with the beginning. How did this project come about, and why do you think now is a good time for a documentary on the life of Pauline Kael?

R.G: I read Pauline Kael as a kid, and her voice always stayed with me.  A couple of years ago, I read something about her, and thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be interesting to make a movie about writer about movies, using the same medium she wrote about?”  Pauline wasn’t just a critic, some of her best pieces were essays about the experience of going to  the movies.   The idea I had for the film was to use her writing to tell both the story of her life, and the story of how she saw the movies in the time she wrote, from the 1950s through the 1990s.

AFF: Kael was such an accomplished film critic, writing the reviews for The New Yorker for so many years. She had many fans, but there were was an equal amount of people that didn’t like her, and thought that her reviews were too subjective and many times even nasty. With this documentary, will the more “human” side of Pauline Kael be portrayed, or will it be more of what her colleagues, film directors, actors, etc thought of her work?

R.G: It’s both, I hope.   We’ve conduced 43 interviews, with people from many different parts of her life, and there are a lot of stories about Pauline that make her very human.   We also spent time at her archives in Indiana, and found letters she wrote as a very young person.  They’re very revealing of who she was then, and also her early gifts as a writer.   

Photo of Pauline Kael, presumably at the Cannes Film Festival. Source: Associated Press.
Photo of Pauline Kael, presumably at the Cannes Film Festival. Source: Associated Press.

AFF: With the Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” being well received among the public that loved Ebert’s work, is “What She Said” an opportunity for Pauline Kael to also have her last testament on film?

R.G: It’s funny, I hadn’t known about the Ebert doc when I started working on this film.  But  I don’t know about a “last testament”.   I just know what kind of a film I am making— one that shows Pauline’s Kael’s particular point of view about movies, and one that will try to find out what made her tick.  She was an amazingly insightful, funny and obsessive in ways that made people either admire her or turn them off her completely.   For me, that’s part of what makes her a great subject.     

AFF: How is the funding process going? 

R.G: We’re finished with principal photography, and are looking for finishing funding now.  

AFF: Who are some of the people that you interviewed or will interview for this film?

R.G: Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, David O. Russell, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Morgenstern, Stephanie Zacharek, James Toback, Alec Badwin, Molly Haskell, John Guare, Christopher Durang, David Edelstein, Greil Marcus, and many others.  

AFF: Do you have an estimated release date for the film?

R.G: There is no firm date yet, but most likely, it will be in the first part of 2016.

Interview conducted by: Adriana Delgado









About ADRIANA DELGADO 68 Articles
Art Film File is a site for cinephiles ,who like myself, have a deep respect, love, and admiration for independent and foreign films of every era. Readers who follow Art Film File are for the most part adverse to the "Hollywood Blockbuster" theorem (although there are many good ones out there) showing instead a strong inclination to connect with films that explore topics such as life, identity and philosophy without necessarily following a neat studio-oriented narrative. In the past, much like it is now, many independent and foreign films get done many times with countless challenges. Small budgets, little or no outside funding and absence of willing distributors are some of the problems that many American and foreign independent filmmakers face regularly. Art Film File acts as a conduit in bringing these films, past and present, to the public's attention. Art Film File is also a site that displays detailed reviews about films they haven't seen as well as for films they have seen and wish to share their own views. I plan to include interviews with filmmakers and actors of indie and foreign films in addition to articles depicting topics of interest for readers who already follow Art Film File and for those waiting to discover it. Adriana Delgado Founder and Blog Manager of Art Film File

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.