“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theater,” wrote Pauline Kael in her seminal February 1969 Harper’s essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”
“A good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city,” Kael wrote. “Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again…The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.”
This is probably as good a capsule summation of Kael’s critical esthetic as can be made, and Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a persuasive, compulsively watchable introduction to Kael’s life and work.
As Garver demonstrates, the life and the work were virtually synonymous. We learn a few things about Kael’s personal life—her childhood on a ranch near Petaluma, Calif., and her daughter Gina James, born of a brief liaison with poet and filmmaker James Broughton. The truly significant portion of her life, however, was her writing life—especially the twenty-three years she spent as film critic for The New Yorker, from 1968 to 1991. In this, Kael lived vividly and passionately. During this time, she became the first truly influential American film critic, her enthusiastic and often barbed opinions launching any number of illustrious cinematic careers. If Roger Ebert was the first film reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize, Kael was the first to win the National Book Award.
What She Said contains archival footage and home movies of Kael herself, as well as quotes from her reviews and autobiographical writings read by Sarah Jessica Parker. However, the preponderance of the film consists of clips from movies—some of which she loved and championed, some of which she famously hated—and reminiscences from some of the filmmakers she either championed or influenced. These include Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, John Boorman, Ridley Scott, and David O. Russell.
There are also appearances by critics who were her proteges, such as Carrie Rickey and Joe Hoberman. It was sporting of Molly Haskell, critic and widow of Kael’s nemesis Andrew Sarris, to appear in the film. Kael mercilessly mocked Sarris for adopting the Cahiers du Cinema theory of the auteur, yet she herself was a tireless advocate of directors she admired (Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma) and a scourge against those she hated (Cecil B. De Mille, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lean, whom she berated at a New York event in his honor). One of my favorite takedowns of any movie—not quoted in the film—was Kael’s capsule review of Samson and Delilah: “De Mille, with God as his co-maker…The sets are wondrous chintzy.”
Kael comes across in What She Said as a sharp, buoyant and courageous character, but Garver does not try to hide her warts: she did not brook being contradicted within her circle, and she was as ruthless as Ayn Rand in expelling people from it. The dictatorial side of her nature attracted opprobrium, and she received as many denunciations as she gave, most notably by Renata Adler in The New York Review of Books.
Kael’s influence was unprecedented for a film critic. No other reviewer, except possibly for Roger Ebert, was such a powerful tastemaker. Movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Last Tango in Paris, and Chinatown found audiences because of her advocacy. Yet it was Ebert who pointed out the limitations of Kael’s esthetic. Kael, according to Ebert, “had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her ‘approach’ to a film. With her it was all personal.”
It's hardly earth-shattering to note that Ebert was also pointing out the limitations of most film critics, including the one you’re reading now. Excellence in filmmaking craft, and the lack of excellence, are obvious. The basic criterion is whether you feel the vision of a skilled filmmaker is valid. There is an enormous difference between Citizen Kane and Plan 9 from Outer Space, but what is your choice between Citizen Kane and Vertigo?
In every case, you hope that the critic is informed by discerning taste and a reasonable knowledge of film history and esthetics. After that, it is all a matter of opinion and the critic’s ability to express that opinion persuasively. Pauline Kael expressed her opinions forcefully and with conviction, in a witty, truculent, epigrammatic style that no other critic has matched. That is why she mattered, and continues to matter.
Because Kael’s opinions were so intensely personal, it is difficult to predict which movies that opened since her passing in 2001 would have won her approval. I am not sure how she would have felt about Netflix, a vector for the release of new movies that she could not have anticipated. Given her predilection for Scorsese, I think she would have loved his Netflix film, The Irishman. And given her praise for Alan Parker’s divorce drama Shoot the Moon, I think she would have been just as enthusiastic about Noah Baumbach’s Netflix film Marriage Story.
Slower and more elegiac than Scorsese’s previous mob epics, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a Philadelphia truck driver whose life changes forever through a chance meeting with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who eventually recommends him for a job as a bodyguard for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film’s 209-minute running time would make it nearly impossible as a theatrical release, though it did open in a few theaters. Television allowed Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian the leisure they needed to tell this story.
Personally (and many critics disagree with me), I thought The Irishman could have lost an hour and been a sharper film. But Scorsese and Zaillian sought something other than what conventionally passes as sharpness in the cinema. The Irishman is nothing less than a panorama of mob involvement in seventy years of American history—including both the election and the assassination of John F. Kennedy—as seen through the eyes of a minor but crucial player. Despite the dozens of characters, the story eventually narrows to Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa, the three men together a metaphor for the rot underneath American society. Pacino is blazingly charismatic as Hoffa, De Niro and Pesci vastly quieter but just as fascinating as the career criminals whose job it is to “retire” those individuals who are bad for business.
The Irishman is not without Scorsese’s bravura flourishes, such as the opening tracking shot through the assisted living facility where Sheeran is spending his final years. Altogether, however, The Irishman is deliberate in a way Scorsese’s previous crime epics were not. At the ends of GoodFellas andCasino, Henry Hill and Sam Rothstein are left to examine the wreckage of their lives; neither can be said to have gained any wisdom. Frank Sheeran, an old man at the end of an eventful and worthless life, has gained a killer’s wisdom, at the cost of everything else. That could stand as the operant metaphor for most of Scorsese’s work, if not indeed for most of history.
Ray Liotta, Scorsese’s Henry Hill, shows up in Marriage Story as a divorce lawyer who makes Crazy Joey Gallo look like a flower child. Liotta’s character serves as the operant metaphor for the myriad wounds and humiliations inflicted on Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).
The film begins sweetly, with a montage of Nicole in her daily life and a voiceover from Charlie enumerating what makes her unique and lovable. The sweetness quickly turns sour: we see that Charlie is reading the list in a marriage counselor’s office in which Charlie and Nicole gaze at each other poisonously. Charlie and Nicole prepared lists at the counselor’s request; Charlie is smugly proud of his, whereas Nicole doesn’t even want to read hers.
Charlie is an avant-garde theater director, Nicole an actress in his company. Nicole is angry over the affair Charlie had with an actress in the company, but not nearly as much as she is over having to make her career subservient to his. Charlie, for his part, insists their careers are in New York, and is unsympathetic to her desire to move back to her home town of Los Angeles. Such is the crux of their misery, which escalates in their war for the attention and custody of their small son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Nicole hires Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). a hard-charging women’s advocate who rates all men on a scale ranging from Harvey Weinstein to Henry VIII. (“This society’s perfect woman is the Virgin Mary,” Nora declares in a show-stopping monologue that earned Dern this past year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. “She’s a virgin, and she gives birth!”) Partly in reaction to Nora, Charlie switches attorneys from the kind and fatherly Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) to the shark played by Liotta.
The courtroom conflagration, however, is secondary in Marriage Story to the rueful bits of wisdom Baumbach strews throughout the script. There is no way Nicole can explain to her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) that it is no longer appropriate for her to hug Charlie.
Baumbach’s finest and most famous previous film, The Squid and the Whale, portrayed a divorce from the viewpoint of the children; Marriage Story, fully its equal, tells the story from the perspective of the divorcing couple, and Baumbach is admirably equitable in dividing both blame and sympathy between Charlie and Nicole.
They are flawed but not bad people; their virtues are exactly as enumerated at the film’s beginning, and their faults are amplified by the unhappiness of their marriage. The high point of the film comes toward the end, with a searing argument in which Charlie and Nicole finally unleash their rage against each other, alone. This is a cathartic moment for both characters, and for the audience; it also demonstrates—as if we needed proof—that Driver and Johansson are two of the finest screen actors working today.
The ending of Marriage Story is the calm after the storm, showing there can be civility, respect and even love after a bitter divorce. Especially in the vexed times we live in, that qualifies as news good enough to take us out of our dull funk.