Producers: Bob Hercules, Christopher O’Hare and Stefan Sonnenfeld Director: Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco Screenplay: Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco Cast: Mary Steenburgen. Hilton Als, Sally Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzgerald, Robert Giroux, Mary Gordon, Mary Kerr, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice McDermott, Conan O’Brien, Alice Walker and Tobias Wolff Distributor: American Masters Films/PBS
Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s documentary on Flannery O’Connor won the first Ken Burns Prize of the Library of Congress, which is perhaps indicative of its style—it’s utterly traditional in approach but clear and informative, with an eye for the telling anecdote (like one about a chicken that walks backwards). As might be expected, it’s also a very positive portrait that while not totally ignoring persistent concerns about some aspects of the Georgia-born writer’s attitudes (particularly on race), tends to explain them away in a fairly facile fashion. (The section about her reluctance to meet James Baldwin during his travel in Georgia doesn’t delve as deeply into the matter as it might.)
While one might wish for a more rigorous examination of such matters—a film that would include observations of well-disposed critics as well as friends and admirers—“Flannery” is nonetheless valuable as an appreciation, especially for those who might not be as familiar with her life and work as those whose interviews provide the backbone of the presentation. Some are celebrities like Conan O’Brien and Tommy Lee Jones, but most are personal acquaintances, scholars, and fellow authors; one, Robert Giroux, was her editor/publisher.
Using excerpts from these sources as well as archival materials—film clips, sketches (including some of O’Connor’s early cartoons and her later drawings) and still photographs, as well as excerpts from her writings and letters read by Mary Steenburgen in O’Connor’s voice—the documentary does a good job of constructing a virtual biography, accompanied by analysis and appreciation. There are elements that are somewhat problematical—the animation that accompanies the readings, for example, is garish, and the habit of inserting bits from screen adaptations is heavy-handed, though to be sure the treatment of John Huston’s “Wild Blood,” if a trifle overextended, is interesting, especially with the observations of co-screenwriter Michael Fitzgerald added to the mix. (Huston’s admission that the material triumphed over his own religious—or anti-religious—views is enlightening.)
The film does a good job of explaining the influence on O’Connor of the various places she studied writing—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Yaddo in particular—as well as the intimate relationships she developed over the years. Naturally it also emphasizes the physical limitations caused by lupus that dominated her later life (the many photos of her on crutches emphasize her constant suffering), as well as the devout Catholicism that imbued her work.
“Flannery” is elegantly made in the Burns style, with expert cinematography by Ted Hardin and skillful editing by Joe Winston and Coffman. Miriam Cutler provides a supportive musical score that occasionally incorporates some popular tunes like Burl Ives’s rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In.”
“Flannery” is a technically conventional introduction to O’Connor’s life rather than a full examination of her work, but as such it’s a worthy tribute to a major American literary figure.