Kael’s blunt, brilliant, wryly amused prose is resuscitated with lively affection in “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” Rob Garver’s love letter to a woman whose infectious passion for the cinema coincided with one of the most prodigious eras in the art form’s history. Interviewing Kael’s acolytes, admirers and grown daughter — as well as a slew of filmmakers — Garver nestles their observations within a jam-packed montage of film clips that he uses to illustrate Kael’s life and career. It’s a clever, if occasionally too-on-the-nose, conceit that winds up underscoring just what an opaque figure Kael, who died in 2001, was and still is.
But even with a cipher-like central character, “What She Said” proves to be improbably illuminating. Tracing Kael’s career from doing radio reviews in Berkeley, Calif., — where her home was the epicenter of bohemian life — to New York, where she began writing reviews for McCall’s before ending up at the New Yorker, Garver goes beyond the facts and chronology of a conventional biopic to create a valuable social history of the late 1960s and 1970s, when Kael helped make films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Last Tango in Paris” respectable. Her opinions were admittedly bold and often flouted the consensus of her peers, but it was the writing itself — irreverent, erudite, uncompromising — that kept her fans coming back for more, even if they felt vaguely insulted by her cruelest put-downs of sappy sentiment and middlebrow complacency.
The strengths that made Kael’s work so compelling also proved to be fatal weaknesses: Her deeply personal tastes could give way to solipsism and, as “What She Said” makes clear, she could be a bully. And she wasn’t immune to the lures of celebrity and flattery, as a disastrous stint in Hollywood made clear. Garver doesn’t hesitate to examine these contradictions in a portrait that doesn’t just convey the fierce intellect of Kael’s writing, but a time when fierce intellect was something to be celebrated and cherished, rather than scorned. “What She Said” pays fitting homage, not just to a great writer but to a vanished age.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some images and discussion of grown-up movies. 98 minutes.