Nothing in American literature rivals the combination of ferocity, integrity, and religiosity (a lot of hilarity, too) found in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and novels.
O’Connor (1925-1964) was female, Southern, and Catholic, a rare trifecta among midcentury American authors — or American authors at any time. Her gifts included an exacting ear for vernacular speech, a rare talent for comedy (usually but not always mordant), and a view of human nature so uncompromising as to seem pitiless.
Maybe it was O’Connor’s pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Just because God bestowed grace didn’t mean her characters necessarily possessed it — which tended to make them seek it all the more fiercely. That fierceness could verge on the grotesque — a quality to be expected perhaps, from a Southern writer who could be both very funny and as unsentimental as a saw mill.
O’Connor’s affinity for the grotesque also had personal roots. It’s that much easier to take a dark view of existence knowing that one’s own life will be cut short. O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that killed her father, when she was 25. An awareness of one’s own mortality can make it easier to favor art over life. As The New Yorker’s Hilton Als says in “Flannery,” “I think she loved writing so much because it freed her from the corporeal.”
Als is one of numerous talking heads in the documentary. Now available for streaming via the Museum of Fine Arts Virtual Screening Room, “Flannery” has much to recommend it — as well as much not to, including the title. Would a comparable documentary about a great American author who was male risk the appearance of condescension with a title limited to its subject’s first name?
The documentary has marvelous and unexpected things to offer. Newsreel footage shows a 5-year-old O’Connor. She was deemed newsworthy because of owning a backward-walking chicken. A gifted cartoonist, she’d had hopes of seeing her work in The New Yorker. “Flannery” includes numerous examples of her drawings. The eye for detail on display easily translated into her fiction. There are excerpts from a 1955 TV interview. O’Connor’s wariness is even more eloquent than anything she actually says. The novelist Alice Walker mentions that her family were neighbors of the O’Connor’s, in Milledgeville, Ga. Walker and Als speak with sensitivity and nuance about the not-untroubled subject of O’Connor and race.
An unseen Mary Steenburgen reads from O’Connor’s writings. On camera, so do several of the writers and scholars interviewed about O’Connor. They include Mary Gordon, Alice McDermott, and Tobias Wolff. It’s an inspired touch. The best interviewees are long deceased: her editor, Robert Giroux, and her longtime friend Sally Fitzgerald, who compiled the remarkable collection of O’Connor’s letters, “The Habit of Being.” “She was shy,” Fitzgerald says, “but she was not timid.” That’s an excellent pairing for a writer.
What’s problematic about “Flannery” is how reductive the filmmaking is. If there’s a film or TV version of O’Connor’s fiction, clips will be seen. This is distracting. The sound of a typewriter is frequently heard on the soundtrack. (O’Connor was a writer, get it?) The clacking of keys is preferable to the plinkety-plink of the pallid score. A letter from O’Connor is read, complaining that an Atlanta newspaper had its gardening writer review her novel “Wise Blood.” The letter includes a pretty funny line, “they shouldn’t have taken her away from the petunias.” The wit is rather diminished by the close-up of petunias filling the screen.
The prettiness of the petunias makes things worse, but it’s in keeping with numerous glossy shots of the Milledgeville farm. “Flannery” will eventually be broadcast as an “American Masters” on PBS. Sometimes, it seems more suited to another PBS series, “Antiques Roadshow.” Worst of all is the frequent recourse to animation to render scenes from O’Connor’s fiction. It’s hard to say which is cruder: the drawing style or the lack of faith in the imaginative capacity of viewers. Reading O’Connor can be painful, as only revelation can be. Watching these animations is painful, too, though only as lameness can be.
Directed by Mark Bosco and Elizabeth Coffman. Streaming via the Museum of Fine Arts Virtual Screening Room, www.mfa.org/programs/film. 97 minutes. Unrated.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.