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Review: Flannery

While informative, this new biographical documentary of Southern writer Flannery O'Connor lacks any of the inventiveness that defined O'Connor's work. Her writing never felt safe or routine as she wrestled with faith and freak. This documentary follows the formula of A&E's Biography, never coming at her life from any angle but a cursory overview of her life.

The standard trajectory of birth to death is filled with archival photos, some old interviews mixed with some new ones, and the occasional scene from one of the adaptations for television and film of her work. Directors Mark Bosco Elizabeth Coffman choose to mix all these which can be jarring given that some interviews are for 20 years ago and others have been shot recently. In his defense, some of the people that knew O'Connor personally have passed and the best way to hear from them is from this archived interview. Still the back and forth creates a patchwork feel as if this documentary was an update of a previous documentary on the gifted writer.

One of the more creative techniques that Flannery uses are animations to help illustrate passages from O'Connor's stories. The art style emphasizes the author's fascination with oddballs and weirdos. It works to help give visuals to her words but takes some of the focus off her prose.

Flannery takes on two controversial elements of O'Connor's life. One is her partnering with poet Robert Lowell in some despicable baiting of potential communists at a writer's colony that she frequented before her illness kept her from returning. The other is her use of racist language in her personal correspondence. The film doesn't do a good job of offering insight into these complexities of O'Connor. It seems content in resolving them to symptoms of the times that she lived in.

The most insightful section of the documentary comes as it explains the film adaptation of Wise blood by John Huston. Huston was a staunch atheist who only realized during the filming of the movie that O'Connor's novel is a message about not escaping Jesus or faith. "Jesus wins" he reluctantly admitted.

I wish Flannery spent more time exploring the impact of her work. The documentary is unlikely to inspire anyone to read her work, which is a real shame as is some of the most original Southern writing of its time. A viewer of the film will know the facts and big events of her life but I doubt they will get a deeper appreciation for her work.



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