I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
That may stand as one of the most revealing declarations by any American fiction writer. The writing of many of our most revered short-story authors — and Flannery O’Connor is one of the greatest— has a guiding principle: carefully prepared outlining and development. It is a mantra taught in college writing courses, and one that is even truer for the American commercial-screenplay writer. It is so emphasized inside the studio system that screenwriting teachers channeling Robert McKee’s “story seminars” can cite near page-by-page directives for the flow of scenes, “acts,” conflict points and dramatic turning points.
O’Connor’s work uniformly defies such guidelines. For her, revelations in plot and character developed from the acts of writing and rewriting; essential to understanding her work is a willingness to step into the wild unpredictability of her characters. You must abandon expectations about how and why human beings act the way they do.
To some, this is a prescription for behavioral absurdity, even nullity, beyond that of even the acclaimed French Existentialists. But O’Connor was no agnostic or atheist; rather, she was a deeply moral woman, a devout Catholic who took sacraments and daily prayer as her life force. Even in the mad depths of their darkest moments, her characters often find themselves locked in battle with the insistent force of “grace.”
Flannery, a new documentary film co-directed by Elizabeth Coffman (whose Veins in the Gulf explored climate change on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast) and Mark Bosco (a Jesuit priest), presents, as have other films, the singular life of a writer. What elevates their film to must-see status are the uniquely articulate interviews interwoven throughout along with excerpts from O’Connor’s work. There are scenes from John Huston’s adaptation Wise Blood and animated scenes from O’Connor’s signature short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” One especially revealing interviewee is Wise Blood producer Michael Fitzgerald, whose parents befriended O’Connor after she left the upstate New York writer colony of Yaddo. O’Connor lived with the Fitzgeralds until a diagnosis of lupus required her to return to her family farm, Andalusia, outside Milledgeville, Ga., an hour’s drive from Atlanta. She spent the remainder of her short life there at her house and the near 550-acre farm which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained as a museum. In Flannery, the camera guides us through her rooms, showing us personal items that include her often-photographed crutches.
I visited Andalusia while filming the feature film A.C.O.D. in Atlanta in early 2012. My camera assistant on the film, Clyde Bryan, lives in Milledgeville. In my post about that visit, I interviewed Sarah Gordon, who was a professor at Georgia College and who wrote about O’Connor’s work. Gordon observed:
I think there were at least three lives that Flannery led at Andalusia: the quotidian one with her mother Regina, filled with hired hands, domestic issues, visits from her and Regina’s friends, and the occasional small-farm drama; the writerly one, in which Flannery devoted each morning to her work in spite of her illness or interruptions, and the afternoons to reading and resting; and the spiritual one, in which Flannery attended morning Mass each day, said her prayers, read theology (especially St. Thomas Aquinas), and, in her letters and essays, wrote about matters of faith and belief. Many of her readers who visit Andalusia today seem to have a sense of the difficulties and perhaps strange rewards of O’Connor’s life in this place. They are often especially moved as they stand at the door to her very plain bedroom (in a very plain house) and see her old, manual typewriter and her crutches propped against that clunky, old, classroom desk. This sight in particular evokes the simple but powerful force of her gift and the amazing stamina O’Connor possessed, signaling for many of us the presence of grace.
Though being a practicing Catholic is now a dim memory for me, my visit to Andalusia did have a component of a sacerdotal pilgrimage. O’Connor’s faith and the contours of her moral complexity do seem to “rise and converge” for many visitors, even those who have not studied her work.
As COVID-19 has forced studios and independent distributors to alter theatrical-release plans, many independent movie houses have begun virtual screenings. New York’s Film Forum is one of them, and it released Flannery online last week.
Here is a trailer for the film:
Film Forum’s exhibition of the film will also include a four-part, weekly series of virtual panel discussions, “The Modern Consciousness: A Flannery Discussion Series,” every Monday from July 20 (today)-Aug. 10. The conversations will cover a different topic each week: race, faith, disability and craft. (Participants TBA.)
Last year, after Flannery was screened at Georgia College, Marshall Bruce Gentry conducted an email interview with Coffman about the origins of the documentary; it was published in the Flannery O’Connor Review. Here is an excerpt:
Marshall Bruce Gentry: What would you like to report about the story of how you created the film? How did the film change over time?
Elizabeth Coffman: I have to say that I was intimidated from the start to produce a documentary of Flannery O’Connor that would do her life ‘justice.’ How do we create a biography of O’Connor that is dramatic, humorous, spiritual and mysterious — like her? Film biographies are always about filling in the lines — both literally and metaphorically — while interweaving a compelling story with images, words and sounds. Who was O’Connor when she wasn’t writing? Did she fall in love with anyone? How did she socialize? What music did she listen to? ‘Filling in the lines’ is a good analogy for what we tried to accomplish with archival research, interviews and animations. Because O’Connor avoided cameras — there is only one television interview of her, just a few audio recordings and not too many photographs — I had to think creatively with how we represented her life story. Besides scriptwriting, I focused on archival research, editing, use of motion graphics, animations and music. [My] co-director and O’Connor scholar Mark Bosco, S.J., maintained contacts with the O’Connor Trust and the scholar/writers who appear in [the film].
There are many YouTube entries on O’Connor and her work. Here is a short biographical piece by Mary Bauer, who teaches at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut:
In 2009, Brad Gooch (who is also featured in Flannery) published a widely regarded (and very readable) biography of O’Connor.
O’Connor’s work seems to provide an inexhaustible mine for scholarship and critical studies. (How could it not be thus when there are so many dramatic moral questions flying about inside the actions of her characters who are so inarticulate or evasive about themselves?) This is made even more ambiguous in Flannery by several “readings” from her work by friends and fellow writers. And just when you think you might have a handle on her literary voice, you must come to terms with another aspect of her work: her wildly idiosyncratic drawings and lino-cuts, which gave her great pleasure. (Many have been published by Georgia College; Dr. Sarah Gordon introduces the work.)
Many of us are still “sheltering in place” as COVID-19 continues to confound the best minds of epidemiology — and, sad to say, as the man at the highest echelon of national power denies the efficacy of our simplest defense: “face coverings.” When motion-picture production returns and Atlanta again becomes a hub for filmmakers, remember that O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville beckons you, as do her many peacocks, who fly at dusk into the shelter of the magnolia and pecan trees.
Note: A few years ago, I blogged about John Lewis’ three-volume graphic novel, March, a deeply moving account of his life during the Civil Rights Era. Lewis died this past Friday at age 80. The heartfelt tributes to him on TV and in print media brought to mind the courage and love of the 1960s Civil Rights activists, the marchers and Freedom Riders who risked and gave their lives for racial justice.
Regardless of whether they were of religious or secular-humanist bent, they felt a sense of what can only be called “grace” inhabiting their souls. Now, as I write about Flannery O’Connor, I think of the unexpected and wayward thrust of her sense of God’s grace in our lives. It is expressed, I feel, in a confrontation with the nihilism of the character of The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” — but it is there to be chosen or not.
I thought of the reaction to Lewis’ passing that was tweeted in a perfunctory missive by the president of the United States. I wonder how this man, very strange and damaged (as we can now see through his niece's eyes), must, in the dark hours of the night, alone with his cellphone, look to see whether there is any inkling of grace in the anger that infects his soul. And we can only wonder: How would Flannery O’Connor write about Donald J. Trump?
To Be Continued … : COVID-19 and the Future of Film