Thursday, July 16, 2020

Flannery: A Moral Writer for Our Times

Notoriously, a snobby establishment writer asked distinguished editor Robert Giroux: “do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great writer? She’s such a Roman Catholic.” It was the sort of tone-deaf comment that reveals more about the speaker than the subject, like Pauline Kael wondering how Nixon won because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. Of course, O’Connor’s Catholicism thoroughly permeates her work, along with her mordant wit. For those who make a point of being put-off, she is easy not to get. Fortunately, the talking heads mostly get her in Elizabeth Coffman & Mark Bosco S.J.’s documentary, Flannery, which opens virtually tomorrow, in conjunction with Film Forum in New York.

She was a Southern Catholic, which was almost a contradiction in terms during the early to mid-20
th Century. It made her an outsider, yet both very directly shaped her identity. Her life was short, due to lupus, but her work continues to resonate. Wisely, Coffman and Father Bosco frequently let O’Connor speak for herself, through letters and journals read by Mary Steenburgen, her only long lost (until now) television interview, brief animated renderings of her work, and excerpts from film adaptations. Indeed, her filmography is not so inconsequential for someone considered so difficult to translate to the screen, including John Huston’s Wise Blood and a 1957 TV production of “The Life You Save,” starring Gene Kelly.

Her fascination with the grotesque is widely noted and generally approved. Yet, rather frustratingly, the film’s own experts sometimes appear compelled to apologize for O’Connor’s iconoclasm and disdain for pretension. She could skewer the pomposity of Eastern liberals just as ruthlessly as the ridiculous (yet sinister) rituals of the Klan. Even the theater listing hedges with caution, regarding potential hot-button objections.

Frankly, O’Connor is too complex, too bold, and too uncompromising for our current era of Twitter-mandated morality. It is a near miracle she hasn’t already been canceled. The irony is that she wrote with more moral authority than almost any other American writer. However, her stories did not present the easy, virtue-rewarded happy endings, like the kind found in recent Evangelical films. Instead, she presented the messy and uncomfortable truths of faith and grace, somewhat akin to Ferrara’s
Bad Lieutenant and Scorsese’s Silence, if we can continue the film comparisons.

Still, it is impressive that Coffman & Bosco set out to profile O’Connor in the current climate. In fact, it is in times like these that we need her writings most. Recommended as a start, but not as the final word,
Flannery opens virtually tomorrow (7/17).