From a still pond filled with duck songs, the camera directs our eyes to look up to a Southern mansion at the end of an amber dirt road. Inside, a rotary phone, a pillbox hat resting on a chair back, a Madonna figurine, and then a somewhat mysterious zoom in on a hypodermic needle bring us into the world that populates Flannery O’Connor’s famed fiction and the 39 years of her own. As the camera takes us down the colorful country road settling into this scene of the bucolic White South, an archived grainy black and white TV interview interjects. This is our first meeting with the subject of the film, here being interviewed by a chain smoking and admiring interlocutor.
So begins FLANNERY, much like its eponymous subject’s work, giving a portrait of time and place-- the mid-19thCentury South, and, to a certain extent, the North that contrasted with it.
FLANNERY explores the work, life and legacy of American author Flannery O'Connor. Throughout, Flannery O’Connor’s writings spice the narrative, sometimes with cartoon re-enactments of her stories or clips of Hollywood film adaptations. We also get to see her own cartoons and other artwork, many hundreds of photos of her family, her colleagues from University of Iowa University, Yaddo, and other places where she briefly lived before settling back on her family’s Georgia homestead. We meet many family and friends who knew her best. We read her correspondence with these intimates. Her life story, from childhood to college and early literary years and later decades when she endured crippling Lupus—reportedly always with good cheer—moves back and forth between her life events and her professional accomplishments. Interview clips with her many admirers and disciples (Mary Karr, Hilton Als, Alice Walker, Tommy Lee Jones, Conan O'Brien, her editor Robert Giroux and more) are intersticed between rare clips of O’Connor speaking about her writing and the influence of her environment on her characters. Her famous quotes, read by actress Mary Steenburgen, such as “I write to learn what I know” lace the story.
A Redemptive Worldview
FLANNERY traces the influence of O’Connor’s strong Catholic religion, a rarity in Georgia, on her life and her writing. Faith is not a small factor in Flannery’s life, we learn—seeing not only the chapel she goes to daily, but also the realizations, one after another, by her admirers of how grace and faith are at the heart of all she wrote. Yet, as the film’s press release notes, O’Connor’s provocative, award-winning fiction about southern prophets, girls with wooden legs and intersex freaks was not only unlike anything published before but more, just not what you would expect from a devout Catholic spinster. Over the course of her short-lived but prolific writing career (two novels, 32 short stories and numerous columns and commentaries), the film also suggests that O’Connor never shied away from examining timely themes of racism, religion, socio-economic disparity and more with her characteristic wit and irony. More than one of her admirers notes that her talent was in her ear for the local vernacular of her characters.
FLANNERY Portrays Both The Writer and Artist
In addition to her literary works, many, like this writer, are also introduced for the first time by this film to the writer’s work as a cartoonist and painter. We learn that at one point her life plan was to support her writing with sales of political cartoons. Most of the cartoons shared in FLANNERY are from her school yearbooks and newspapers, and her letters—fun, with a gift for satire. In a self-portrait, we experience her self-image as a naïve weirdo crowned by one of her many pet peacocks.
FLANNERY is an Award-Winning Documentary
The film’s promoters remind that FLANNERY is the first-ever winner of the prestigious Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, a distinction that recognizes documentarians who focus on American history. To fully appreciate FLANNERY, the viewer should be familiar with her writing. But the fascinating person revealed by FLANNERY is likely enough to inspire most viewers to read her stories.
A four-part live, virtual discussion series follow the release of the documentary: “The Modern Consciousness: A 'Flannery' Discussion Series” will feature guest moderators and panelists alongside the filmmakers for conversations 'On Race' (July 20); 'On Faith' (July 27); 'On Disability' (August 3) and 'On Craft' (August 10) in relation to O'Connor's work and writings. More information on these virtual events, which audiences can participate in via the film's Facebook Live stream, to come. Follow Facebook.@Flanneryfilm.
Written and Directed by Elizabeth Coffman & Mark Bosco
Producers: Mark Bosco, Elizabeth Coffman, Chris O’Hare
Executive Producer Bob Hercules
Director of Photography Ted Hardin
Editors: Elizabeth Coffman,Joe Winston
Original Score Miriam Cutler
Narrator Mary Steenburgen
Associate Producer Ted Hardin
Interviewers: Mark Bosco,Elizabeth Coffman,Kim Connor, Chris O’Hare
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All Photos Courtesy of FLANNERY
About the Author: Ann Boland
Reviewer Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater. Involved in the audience since the early 80’s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of our theater scene, our exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. Ann handles public relations for authors and works on programs to help seniors with neurological movement disorders. Please visit her website for more information.
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