Berlinale 2019:The Art And Life Of Pauline Kael

Plus, Udita Bhargava’s ‘Dust’, an abstract movie-painting about the Maoist struggle
Berlinale 2019:The Art And Life Of Pauline Kael

One of the films I was looking forward to the most was Rob Garver's What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. The documentary features names like Sarah Jessica Parker, Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell, but the star, of course, is the critic herself. I wouldn't be saying anything revelatory if I said how much she opened my eyes to the way — an intensely personal way — one can watch and absorb a movie. Hundreds of working critics will vouch for this. Filmmakers, too. In a clip from the documentary that surfaced during its post-production (and was written about in The New Yorker), Tarantino says, "We grew up reading Pauline Kael. She was our Kerouac." That's no exaggeration. Of On the Road, Allen Ginsberg said: "It turned on an entire generation." Kael's reviews did the same to a movie generation.

If you are familiar with Kael's life and times, there's little here that's truly new information. (This raises the question: How will this film speak to those who don't know Kael? Are the bits and pieces read out from her review enough to convey a sense of why she still matters?) The narrative halts at all the milestones. The super-critical Sound of Music review (she called it a "sugar-coated lie") that got her fired. The auteur-theory slanging match with Andrew Sarris. The Bonnie and Clyde review that made her reputation, and, in a way, made the movie. Her days as The New Yorker's critic. Her evisceration of David Lean, which left the great director shattered. The public outrage over her Shoah review. (The importance of the subject matter, even if it's the Holocaust, does not make a film important, she argued.)

If What She Said does not dwell on the more, well, criticised stretches of this critic's career — her humiliating Hollywood stint, where she turned producer, is just glossed over — it doesn't matter. This isn't an… evisceration. It's a celebration — of both Kael and movie-love (which is what she was all about). When we hear about Kael's dating life, we cut to a clip of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. When we hear about one of her early jobs, we cut to Jack Lemmon walking into his office in The Apartment. This cross-cutting gives a sense of a life that constantly found itself in the movies. In one of her review-compilation books, she wrote: "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." She poured herself into the films she saw, and the reviews she wrote about them. That was her autobiography, though the most autobiographical bit in this film may be when Kael is asked about her favourite books as a child. She names the Oz books. "There was no message for us. And the characters were just there for our pleasure." That was her.

Camille Paglia, one of the many people here who speak about Kael, says that one doesn't read reviews to be converted to the critic's viewpoint. "A critic should stimulate you to develop your own opinion." Which is why it doesn't matter whether you "agreed" with Kael. Sometimes, it was more rewarding to read her when you didn't. Clearly, she lived the way she wrote her reviews, boldly and without apology. She spoke the way she wrote, too. After one of her scathing reviews, she was given the all-too-familiar "why don't you go make a movie first?" retort. She said, "You don't want to have to lay an egg to know that it tastes good." She explains why a writing career is such a joy: "Writing is putting down what you think, and so you're being paid for what you think. I can't think of a better way to live." I've done some paraphrasing there, but you still see the person she was, the personality she was. She needed the movies and the movies of the time needed her. Every time I imagine her writing weekly reviews now, in these superhero- and franchise-infested times, I think of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard declaring, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."


Udita Bhargava is easily one of the more interesting filmmakers at the festival. Introducing her feature debut, Dust, which was world-premiered in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section, one of the programmers said, "We've had Udita on our radar for quite some time, and we're glad it worked out now." Watching the film, you see why. The synopsis in the brochure is all about plot: "A man retraces the footsteps of his lost love. His journey takes him into the troubled heart of India and inexorably leads to a confrontation with the past." But the film is all about mood, imagery. For instance, the picture of a little boy that comes into focus as the negative is developed. CUT TO the present. The photograph lies on a bed, crumpled. And nearby lies the man (Danish actor Morten Holst) who will go searching for the boy.

Dust is as poetic a title as you can expect for a film about the Maoist conflicts in central India. At the beginning, Vinay Pathak's voice utters, "Hum ladenge aakhir tak, mitti ke liye." (We will fight till the end, for our land.) But there's no actual fighting. Vinay Pathak's face, painted on a wall, is riddled with bullets — that's the vague sense of violence we are left with. And we are left with the sense of being an outsider to the problems of these people. (What better way to emphasise this outsider-ness than by casting a foreigner, who is an outsider even to India!) Landlessness is seen in the city, too — a man carries around a makeshift tent as high rises loom around him. But unlike the Vinay Pathak character, he can do nothing about it. He is resigned to his fate. Dust is an abstract painting about a concrete issue. It will be very interesting to see what this director does next.

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