Thursday, July 16, 2020

A biographical look at author Flannery O'Connor

     Flannery, a documentary from directors Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, deals with the life of Flannery O’Connor, regarded by many as a master of short stories and, by some, as an essential voice of the South.
     Working in a straightforward style, the directors explore Flannery’s short career (she died in 1964 at the age of 39) and the peculiarities of her personality and her work. 
     In many ways, Flannery serves as a kind of biographical highlight reel, making use of interviews, historical footage, and illustrations that accompany brief readings from Flannery’s work. We follow O’Connor from her childhood to her death with stops at an Iowa writers’ workshop, Yaddo and New York City.
     The interview list includes critic Hilton Als, novelist Alice Walker, and publisher Robert Giroux; the filmmakers also include portions of an interview in which O’Connor talks about her approach to fiction.
     The directors never lose sight of Flannery’s faith. She was a devout Catholic but her work didn’t always convince readers of her faith. She focused on characters she called “freaks” and had a taste for the grotesque reflected in a story — referenced in the film — about a Bible salesman who steals the wooden leg of a woman who thought he might be a lover.
     O’Connor, we learn, began her creative career as a cartoonist — and some of the work we see is quite good. She thought that cartooning would provide her with a means of supporting herself as a novelist.
     It takes about an hour for the movie to reach the subject of race. You’ll have to make up your own mind whether O’Connor was conveying the language and attitude of the people she observed or whether some of that language reflects the author’s views. She did not shy from the “n” word.
     O’ Connor also found herself siding with poet Robert Lowell, with whom she spent time at Yaddo,  during a time when the Red Scare of the 1950s was wrecking lives. Lowell was a staunch anti-Communist. 
    Toward the end of her life, O’Connor lived with her mother on a farm in Georgia where she kept pet peacocks, had an almost “love” relationship, and developed friendships that lasted until the end of her life.
     We hear pieces of O’Connor’s stories and actress Mary Steenburgen, unseen, supplies O'Connor's voice.
     Although informative and sometimes reflective, Flannery never generates much excitement, although it does provide a picture of a segment of the American South and some of its denizens during a time before the toppling of Jim Crow. 
     It might be best to think of Flannery as a conventional documentary about a very unconventional author.

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