Thinking like Pauline

Ray Sawhill: What were your favorite movies of ’97?
Pauline Kael: Two I really liked were [Robert] Duvall’s The Apostle and Bertrand Blier’s Mon Homme.  The Blier is really a Shavian play of ideas, but with the eroticism that Shaw left out.  As for The Apostle, the friends I’ve sent to see it have been almost as enthusiastic as I was.

The above exchange is from a frustratingly brief interview with Kael done in 1998 for a special edition of Newsweek to commemorate the first hundred years of cinema.  Kael doesn’t elaborate on why she liked The Apostle; this was after she had retired from writing reviews.  Nor does the film come up in her conversations with Francis Davis from 2000 (which were later published as Afterglow).  Watching The Apostle with the knowledge that it was one of the last films for which Kael went to bat during her lifetime, one can’t help wondering about why she had responded to it, and what her review might have looked like. 

It’s not a perfect film; it’s long and loosely paced, and there are a few sentimental touches that made me wince.  But its looseness, and its deep feeling, may have been attractive to Kael.  Its main character is a version of the particularly American type that appealed to her in movies like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Melvin and Howard—the huckster with the heart of gold.  Robert Duvall’s holy roller is no less holy for having killed a man, and his faith is real: this is a drama of sin and redemption as serious, and as compelling, as any from the Old Testament.  But the film treats its characters and their religious fervor with simplicity and humanity, and a sense of humor, that Kael may have appreciated.  She liked Robert Altman’s films and Jonathan Demme’s films because they celebrated the kinds of un-self-consciously eccentric people that can be found in every small town (and big city) in America.  In spite of her reputation for being hifalutin, and in spite of her association with New York City, Kael was a populist; she respected mass taste, and her sensibility arguably remained West Coast than East Coast even after she left California to go work at The New Yorker.  The Apostle has a little bit of Altman’s crazy-quilt populism in its church scenes, where poor Southern black and white people laugh and sing and cry and pray and embrace each other.  (Watching it, we also remember that one of Duvall’s first big breaks was as the holy roller in Atlman’s M*A*S*H, a movie that Kael loved.)  I suspect that what Kael saw in The Apostle may have been this humane understanding of people and what moves them.

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