THE FIRST thing that jumps out when watching Flannery is the accent, and the accents. Like most readers, we read in our own voice. So when Hazel Motes is talking in the book, it’s not Brad Dourif we hear, or Flannery O’Connor herself, but our own mind/voice/imagination. After all, Flannery O’Connor didn’t make many TV appearances, and before this week we just assumed she spoke in a deep west-of-the-Mississippi hard accent of the American South, sorta like a maiden version of Tommy Lee Jones. (What an ugly thought!)
But then this documentary made its way to Hot Springs, and our in-box, and it turns out Flannery O’Connor really did speak like a woman from east Georgia. That is, joejah. And what an accent, by jingo!
The makers of this film found the one extended interview M.F. O’Connor gave to a
television crew, and her accent pushed us east like a heavy summer wind. This is the accent that most women actors try to fake when they read in the teleplay that the character is from “the South.”
What they don’t know, most of them, is that an Augusta accent is so very different from a Texarkana accent is so very different from a New Orleans accent is so very different from a Nashville accent.
Note to Hollywood: Don’t fake an Augusta accent and try to pass it off as Texarkana. You just ruin everything.
Flannery O’Connor’s voice drips of Georgia, and, now that we’ve heard it for the first time, there’s nothing fake about it. She couldn’t finish an R at the end of a sentence on a bet.
And the people who knew her! Why, of course. She’s not ancient history, Mary Flannery O’Connor. If she’d lived past 39, she’d be about 95 today, but she probably wouldn’t say so in front of company. So there are plenty of folks around Milledgeville, Ga., who still remember the woman fondly. And were willing to talk to the makers of Flannery, most of them in accents that had us wishing for ripe peaches and boiled peanuts.
WHAT A talent, Miss Flannery O’Connor. And what a documentary these folks, Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, put together from limited sources and resources. No wonder it won the very first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. Much deserved.
Besides the television interview in black and white, the filmmakers pull much of their movie from old pictures, modern interviews with her friends, and Flannery O’Connor’s letters. Where the writer isn’t available, and she mostly isn’t, the producers use Mary Steenburgen to do the honors, which she pulls off perfectly. Maybe because she’s from Arkansas and understands the Texarkana/Augusta/New Orleans trap.
Also, the background music could have been put together by Ry Cooder or Randy Newman. For what the cereal boxes used to call an Extra Added Bonus.
Speaking of Mr. Newman, a modern writer for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, wrote a few months back that Randy Newman couldn’t put out “Good Old Boys” in this day and age, and more’s the pity. We think that’s true. And it’s also true that much of Flannery O’Connor’s work would have been killed in the crib, as well. That is, if an editor of the modern variety could have gotten anywhere near it with a red pen.
The film spends a lot of its time—but not too much—exploring Flannery O’Connor’s religion, and how it bled into her work. She was a devout Catholic in a part of the country that, back then, looked at any outside religion as an invasion force. First Yankees, now this.
At the peak of her writing years, the Klan was still big business in the South—and she diligently reported on it, and those who might not be caught dead at a night meeting, but still thought the Klan did its duty keeping “outside agitators” out of mama’s kitchen.
Oh, Flannery O’Connor reported on those church-going, strait-laced, starchy closet racists, all right. One of them could make an appearance at any point in her stories. Which might have been why so many people in her part of the country didn’t visit more. Why, the things she might say. And later write! Some of her friends would read a story and later write her a
horrified letter: Was that me?
This documentary told one such a story. Flannery O’Connor was a Southern lady of a certain time and place. So when confronted, she told her correspondent: Don’t be silly. The Bible salesman in the book was most assuredly not you. (We can all make our own conclusions about how forthright proper ladies might be when soothing a gentleman’s feelings.)
THERE IS one Flannery O’Connor story that didn’t make the final cut of this remarkable documentary, and yes, it has much to do with her Catholic faith. When this shy frail thing was sitting around at a gathering of her betters discussing religion—a gathering probably, but not definitely, put together with Miss Flannery in mind—somebody mentioned faith, and symbols. From one of her letters:
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
Whenever a columnist or editorial writer is given the task of defending a symbol, whether the flag or a statue, it helps to quote a witty young lady from the Deep South who thought much about symbols in her life. And who could put it plain in one paragraph whereas an overheated editorialist might waste 30 inches before getting to the point.
We were happy and gratified to see Flannery in the modern, and local, film festivals. It gives us hope for the future. It was as if somebody knew we wanted another reason to open Wise Blood again. And dive into the familiar odd. And read the old stories again. And tell them, too.
Our sources tell us that, by the end of the year, Flannery should be available for streaming or purchase.
Our considered editorial opinion: Five stars.