Pauline Kael, longtime New Yorker film critic who started in the Bay Area, is the subject of a film by Rob Garver screening three times at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Courtesy photo)

Jewish film fest doc spotlights rise of Pauline Kael

Bay Area-bred, New Yorker film famed for her combative style

Feisty Bay Area-bred film critic Pauline Kael is among the subjects profiled in the 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a slate of some four dozen movies from around the world opening this week in The City and continuing in the East Bay, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

Making its local debut is “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” a documentary about the writer who was raised in the Bay Area and known for her no-holds-barred, captivating movie reviews at The New Yorker that reverberated on an international scale.

Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma to a Jewish immigrant family from Poland (June 19 would have been her 100th birthday), but moved to San Francisco at age 8 when her parents lost their farm (later becoming grocers). She attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied art, literature and philosophy until 1940.

“Most of her youth was as a member of a blue-collar family, and that outlook definitely affected the way she wrote and her taste,” says Rob Garver, who directed, wrote and produced “What She Said,” which screens at 4 p.m. July 20 in Palo Alto, noon July 28 in San Francisco and 4 p.m. Aug. 4 in Oakland. “You can see that in her writing, that she appreciates the stories that are honest about working-class people and people overcoming challenges.”

A single mother in the 1950s, Kael was writing books and reviewing films for magazines such as City Lights, for the Berkeley Cinema Guild, and on the Berkeley radio station KPFA, where her pithy critiques gained a significant following. With the Bay Area a hotbed for independent, alternative thinking, many of the era’s intellectuals found a hospitable environment at Kael’s home, where she invited them for screenings and exchange of ideas.

“When she became a critic and interested in movies, she felt she was fighting against the East Coast establishment,” Garver says. “She was in San Francisco, which was a much smaller market then, and you can see in her first books her railing against Bosley Crowther, who was the most respected film critic at The New York Times. She had an opinion different from his, and it was wasn’t just with him, it was with a lot of other critics. She battled them.”

In 1968, The New Yorker hired Kael as a film critic, a post she would remain at almost continuously until 1991. (Kael died in 2001.) Throughout that period, her combative, highly readable style reached and entertained an immense audience, even as her punchy reviews left her unpopular with the directors, actors and writers whose movies she unabashedly skewered, stimulating what she called a “conversation” she thrived on.

“She loved the friction and received a lot of blowback from directors and actors and was afraid to go out alone, often bringing a male companion with her because she would run into somebody who was upset with something she wrote,” Garver says. “Kael said if people like you, you’re not doing your job, and she realized her job was to be a critic, be honest and find flaws in a work if they were there; it was completely subjective and that was her approach.”


San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

When: July 18 through Aug. 4

Tickets: $13 to $75

Contact: (415) 621-0523,

Note: Screenings also are at Albany Twin in Albany, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Cinearts in Palo Alto and Piedmont in Oakland.

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