Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is known for creating outrageous characters: manic ministers, eccentric children and mystic loners. Her singular unique writing may not be to every taste, but she is seen as a kind of queen of Southern Gothic fiction with fans like Tommy Lee Jones, Conan O’Brien and director John Waters. Her books have been adapted into films, especially “Wise Blood,” directed by John Huston.
A new documentary has arrived from Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco that presents the author as is, with trials, tribulations, offenses and spirit.
O’Connor was born shy, always thinking she was different. As an only child, she painted and drew cartoons, preferring to be by herself. She sent her cartoons into the New Yorker and the local newspaper in Savannah. Starting to write, she got accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The other students did not know what to make of her. But through a recommendation, she secured a space at Yaddo, the famed writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs. “Wise Blood,” about a crazed minister, was published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux.
From time to time, O’Connor would become very ill and almost incapacitated. She was led to believe it was arthritis. In actuality it was lupus, the same illness that killed her father.
O’Connor was a devout Catholic. She spoke to God and asked for advice and guidance, sometimes writing and seemingly championing outwardly racist characters. She had no need for the limelight and she was quite lonely. She lived with her mother.
This is a brisk and informative documentary. A highlight is an interview and reading led by the author in her unique voice along with colorful drawings based on the author’s legendary short stories. There are also insights from Hilton Als; Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”); O’Connor’s cousin, Louise Florencourt; and her close friend Sally Fitzgerald.
One would like to think that O’ Connor was open and progressive. She wasn’t. She refused to meet James Baldwin at her house citing racial issues. Despite the national unrest in her time she wrote feverishly, unbothered, seeing herself recording all she observed no matter how disturbing or violent.
O’Connor met and developed a crush on a young Erik Langkjaer who was working for Harcourt Brace. The two developed a rapport and went for walks. Though Erik did not have deep feelings for the author, he kissed O’Connor. Langkjaer recalls that it was like “kissing a skeleton.” When O’Connor discovers Langkjaer‘s announcement of marriage in the paper, she is profoundly hurt.
Though O’ Connor’s racist view is repugnant and her refusal of accountability unfortunate, the author’s work still remains accessible, in company with Eudora Welty, Truman Capote and the aforementioned John Waters.
“Flannery” is a lively and thoughtful primer for anyone interested in O’Connor or the Southern Gothic.
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
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