Friends, enemies, and angels in new Flannery O’Connor documentary

Documentary Flannery, co-written and directed by Elizabeth Coffman and available to watch in virtual cinemas, is an affectionate exploration of Flannery O’Connor’s life, full of the voices of people who loved, worked with, and admired her. Those voices include her friend and mentor Sally Fitzgerald, her editor, Robert Giroux, and her cousins and friends. They also include authors and critics who love her work, among them Alice Walker, Mary Karr, Hilton Als, and Alice McDermott. Seeing all these people who knew her personally has helped me realize that O’Connor wasn’t alive all that long ago; she just died young, and wrote in a very strange way that feels outside time. (AEL: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

I wrote my Master’s thesis on Flannery O’Connor, largely because all the tensions and contradictions in her stories didn’t make sense to me, and I felt I could fill a year of my time and fifty pages (and probably a lot more) trying to untangle them. My supervisor approached this with reluctant patience, which I thought was funny. “Ugh, I guess I have to read Wise Blood again now,” she said when I was due to turn in a draft.

I don’t blame her. O’Connor’s first novel is horrible, and by that I mean the imagery is often actually nauseating. There’s a scene where a young girl cradles a shrunken head stolen from a museum case as if it’s a baby (outside its preservation environment, it dissolves into dust the moment it’s handled roughly). Wise Blood is about someone who sees God so plainly in front of him that he has to deny and destroy everything around him, and eventually himself, just to try to stop seeing it. It’s a painful and somewhat inexplicable way to write a religious novel, and it’s very brilliantly O’Connor.

O’Connor was aware that her fiction was painful to read. In fact, she felt it was essential. She is quoted in the documentary: “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” A scholar observes in the documentary that O’Connor often ignored critics, whether they shared her world or not. In Milledgeville, Georgia, she was considered odd, uninterested in being a wife and mother. In the academic and creative communities she joined in her young adulthood, none of her colleagues shared the religious framework that gave her entire life purpose, and people often commented that her regional Southern accent was so difficult to understand that it was like a language barrier. Even among Catholic readers, she was often dismissed as anti-religious, though she found some of her closest friends, like Betty Hester, when they reached out to her because they understood that her writing was about God. 

From one of O’Connor’s letters.

In Flannery, documentarians do the ambitious work of trying to bring her difficult fictional stories to life on screen, intertwined with her life story. As O’Connor’s work is very visual and often violent, it lends itself well to the cartoonish illustrations and absurd facial expressions presented in the film. Someone with a Georgia accent reads the prose out loud, in a tribute to the strong regional accent that made O’Connor stand out when she moved in national literary circles.

But Flannery is more about the person than the work. It reminds me a lot in tone of Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Connor: playful, intimate, and appreciative of the unique challenges and joys of O’Connor’s life. Cartoons, quotes, and pictures of the objects that populated her life (which can still be found at the museum that used to be her house) illustrate the anecdotes and observations shared by colleagues and friends. O’Connor makes an especially good documentary subject because she wrote so much about writing, in essays and prolific letters. Her words serve as chapter marks, guiding us through her own story.

For my thesis, I focused on three physical books that held special meaning for O’Connor—the very private “prayer journal” she kept while a student; a creative writing textbook she used at her University of Iowa program; and a book on Catholic philosophy by Jacques Maritain. I used this lens to explore O’Connor’s Catholic approach to reading and writing (she referred to her favorite textbooks and philosophy books as her “bibles”). I thought about the act of reading as prayer, which might have explained why O’Connor’s stories are structured the way they are. Although in plain language, they are opaque and demanding on the reader, often made with inscrutable figures rather than characters. I thought they might be like Bible stories, inviting exploration and skepticism, but also asking the reader to pull in very close.

She became a kind of muse for me. I’d wake up every day and read her fiction while I ate my breakfast. I read chapters of Brad Gooch’s biography at night. Her own experience as a student had not been so different from mine: while grad school required me to move, alone, between my room and the library for most of the day, O’Connor chose to live her life like this, even in undergrad at Georgia College or at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she was surrounded by other creatives but wanted to spend most of her time writing. She just preferred being in her room working on her craft. Or rather, she felt like she had to. Either way, she was content, and I tried to be like her, to be content with nothing but my own work to give meaning to my days.

Illness was a dominant force in O’Connor’s life. When she was a teenager, her father died of lupus. In her twenties, she got sick with lupus herself, though her family and friends hid it from her at the request of her mother, who didn’t want O’Connor to have to know that she was suffering from the same illness that had killed her father. Illness and bodily suffering pervade O’Connor’s work. The documentary makers point to the strong autobiographical links in “The Enduring Chill” and “Good Country People,” both of which feature characters who have physical limitations due to illness or disability. O’Connor’s interpretations of bodily suffering are at times sour, at times funny, and often transcendentally beautiful. This year, it feels important to turn to O’Connor’s fiction again, as a way of bringing her perspective to the trauma and grief of this pandemic.

An illustration accompanying a reading of O’Connor’s story “Revelation.”

Living the majority of her life in rural Jim Crow Georgia, O’Connor had a complicated relationship with the racism that made up the fabric of her world. According to the documentary, O’Connor tried to transcend the world she lived in to examine that racism, but she often didn’t do enough. The documentary angle suggests that when she made choices like declining to meet with James Baldwin in Milledgeville because it would be such a problem for her neighbors, she was only doing it because she had no choice, because the social and financial pressure against it was so strong. I don’t think we should ignore that kind of complacency with the status quo so easily, but I do think O’Connor’s work examined racism in a way that was new and incisive in her world.

When I think of O’Connor and race, I think of the story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” about a mother and son taking a bus on a recently racially integrated public transit system. The mother, overtly racist and uncomfortable with being on the bus with Black people, becomes enthralled with a young Black child and offers him coins. The child’s mother, hurt by the patronizing and hateful offer of “help” from this racist white woman, scolds her and takes her son away. The white mother is so shocked that she dies. The story is a stark satire of this mother, of her intolerance and her attempt to be a “good” person in a way that is deeply dehumanizing. O’Connor was interrogating the perspectives on race of white women like herself and those closest to her, in stories that were largely going to be read by her neighbors and peers, people who would see themselves in the those characters.

In this documentary, we can celebrate how O’Connor questioned everything she could see about the world around her. Although her life was shorter than she or her loved ones wanted it to be, her work endures, and it’s a lovely summer release I highly recommend watching at home while supporting local cinemas.

To explore other movies about fiction authors, check out Katusha’s piece on Sylvia and Giorgi’s on Vita and Virginia. 

© Amelie Lasker (7/20/20) FF2 Media

O’Connor with her peacocks at her home in Andalusia.

Photo Credits: Long Distance Educational Media

Q: Does Flannery pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

Women are abundant on both sides of the camera in this documentary all about Flannery O’Connor’s life and work. O’Connor’s work itself is often about women and relationships between mothers and daughters, particularly in her short stories.

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Amelie Lasker
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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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