Charles Taylor on Pauline Kael

Charles Taylor

Apr 30, 2020

head shot of film critic Pauline Kael with a background of "New Yorker" magazine covers

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael opens tomorrow in a Wex virtual screening room through a partnership with Juno Films. On the eve of its arrival, film writer Charles Taylor offers his thoughts on the documentary about his longtime friend, who passed away in 2001, and shares the lessons Kael bestowed.

In her famous review of Last Tango in Paris, Pauline Kael said that watching the movie was like seeing pieces of your life, so you could never resolve your feelings about it. I will never be able to resolve my feelings about Rob Garver’s documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.

For me, watching it means once again being in the presence of a close friend I miss keenly, and seeing her celebrated and discussed by colleagues and friends, one of them my closest friend. It means hearing old arguments rear their heads once more, old slanders repeated, reliving old battles. It may be a confirmation that she is the greatest writer to ever practice film criticism, and one of the four or five essential American critical voices of the 20th century, that the perception and estimation of Pauline Kael remains unresolved nearly 20 years after her death. But for those of us who knew her and loved her, it doesn’t make things any easier.

One battle still being fought is against the conspiratorial fantasy that Pauline mind-controlled a cadre of men, dubbed the Paulettes. They would slavishly follow her and, through their work, disseminate her opinion. Dissenters were banished from her orbit. That fantasy is a lingering insult to Pauline’s generosity to young critics, and it hardly meshes with my own experience: During our 15-year friendship, Pauline and I disagreed frequently, and I suffered no banishment. I remain convinced that much of the disparagement directed at Pauline comes from the fact that people can’t tolerate a strong, unbowed female voice. (Just as I have to come to believe that her being a Jew is at the heart of claims that she orchestrated a cabal of influence.)

If her public persona has been defined by fantasies, Pauline’s writing was defined by her ability to ferret out and punctuate the fantasies that, for good or bad, animated certain artists. She saw the male fantasies that lay at the heart of some of that work, and understood that for certain filmmakers they were starting points, not dead ends: Bertrand Blier satirized those fantasies; Brian De Palma, in Blow Out and Casualties of War, elevated them to the height of tragedy. Her friend Sam Peckinpah thrashed about in those fantasies, sometimes gloriously, sometimes like a man who couldn’t free himself of the knots he himself had tied.

The most amusing thing about What She Said is the way Pauline remains able to reveal other people’s bullshit from beyond the grave. We hear an inadvertently hilarious 2017 interview with Ridley Scott complaining that the really unfair thing about her pan of Blade Runner was that he didn’t get to answer it. Here’s a director who got a major studio to give him $28 million to realize his vision, complaining he hasn’t had his say. Keep in mind Scott has spent much of the four decades since the film's release putting out endless director’s cuts. If you don’t like the latest “definitive” version, wait two years. There’ll be another. 

"The most amusing thing about What She Said is the way Pauline remains able to reveal other people’s bullshit from beyond the grave."

What She Said confirms how potent and freeing it is when a writer learns to trust his or her instincts—but it also reminds us that there’s a price to be paid for doing so. That freedom comes with its own set of demands. It requires you to educate your instincts and to react as Pauline herself said, by using “everything you are and everything you know.” The point isn’t to inflict your opinion but to free others to find out what they think. It is not a method for making friends or winning steady employment.

So many of the opinions that outraged people in Pauline’s reviews still read to me like common sense. Shoah really is a numbing slog. 2001 is a nihilist vision disguised as a trippy-dippy ode to technological rebirth. The 1976 King Kong is the only version of that material with real wit and romance. (Fay Wray takes one look at her ape paramour, screams, and never stops.)

I can’t speak for other critics but I can say that her influence on me has been to realize that I can only do good work if I don’t hide from what I think. And to realize that if what you think is different from what advertisers, your editors, other critics, and the public think, that is pressure that must be resisted.

Pauline insisted that the only true response to art—and, as she would say, to good trash—begins in pleasure. Admiration without pleasure is academicism. We never like the books we are assigned to read in school as much as when we read them on our own because, as Pauline once said, art isn’t work.

Once I told Pauline I could simply not get through the late novels of Henry James. “You’ll come to them when you’re ready,” she told me, and that’s been true of my encounter with every great work that once seemed forbidding or impossible. The irony of this opinionated, irascible, impatient, and, to her detractors, infuriating writer is how fully she allowed other people to discover their own paths, to make their own schedules. I am grateful to her for that gift, and to Rob Garver for making it so palpable when the lights go down.

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s.

Image courtesy of Juno Films

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