Saturday, May 11, 2024

To Hell With Symbols: Ethan and Maya Hawke and the Christ-Haunted Cinema of a Flannery O'Connor Biopic

In between two Adeem the Artist music sets in East Nashville on a steamy spring Thursday, we crossed the river and town at peak traffic to Hillsboro Village, to our beloved art house theater The Belcourt, to see Wildcat, the new Flannery O’Connor biopic directed by Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter Maya Hawke, as the enigmatic southern gothic fiction writer, who gave us the idea of the south as more Christ-haunted than Christ-centered. Deep down, I sensed I needed this film for its confrontation with my mystic doubt and my region’s irresistible authenticity and demented hypocrisy. 

I have always appreciated the reputation of Flannery O’Connor without having spent enough time with her, even with me as a professed and professional literary fiend. For some reason, I kept her at a distance, and unlike with Faulkner, I had not been required to take a deeper dive for my literary education. 

This film is a needed gateway, opening still raw wounds and windows of wonder that shimmer with southern reality and freaky surreality. Keeping Flannery O’Connor at any distance ended for me in a movie theater on Thursday. 

Peer and admirer and fellow Catholic, Thomas Merton shared upon her passing: “Her South was deeper than mine, crazier than Kentucky, but wild with no other madness than the crafty paranoia that is all over the place . . . . Only madder, craftier, hung up in wilder and more absurd legends, more inventive of more outrageous lies!”

Right as we were leaving Grimey’s New and Preloved, to get into the car, my spouse showed me the Nashville Scene, which seems to have panned the creatively ambitious film. But I love a good 20th century period piece, love a good biopic, with addicted musicians and/or literary geniuses, especially, preferred. If it involves tortured writers banging out mystery on old-school typewriters, more of this please. The film just drips in its saturated colors and period costumes, all vintage arthouse vibes and then some. O’Connor can be weird to a fault, unfailingly fallen and dark, but also fiercely funny. I was unprepared and hungry for her dark, biting, and bitter humor. 

Just the backstory of how Maya, the daughter, actor, and singer (about to release an album, too) discovered Flannery O’Connor in 10th grade English class and gave her father, Ethan, O’Connor’s prayer journal and studied Flannery with her father and asked him to make this movie for her to star in, that backstory was enough to draw me in. I am someone who already absolutely loved the elder Hawke’s directing in the music biopic Blaze and acting in recent feats of cinematic provocation such as First Reformed and The Good Lord Bird. If there is anyone working in Hollywood who shares some of my preoccupations with outlaw country music and revolutionary spirituality, also dealing with themes of human failure and liberation, it’s probably Ethan Hawke.  

The biographical themes of the film seem to dance around Flannery’s singular commitment to her craft, her loving but difficult relationships with others, such as her mother as portrayed by Laura Linney and the poet Robert Lowell portrayed by Philip Ettinger, her lifelong struggle with disease, which resulted in her passing at 39, and finally, with her at times unlikely and yet totally devout and unrelenting Christian faith. I found the biographical portions of the film both believable and intoxicating and fell hard in love with Flannery for the ferocity of her comebacks and asides. Decades before online meme culture, she was a font for epigrams and one-liners, such as “I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” 

So a Flannery O’Connor biopic was the biopic I desperately needed -- yet didn’t know that I needed.

 But the Hawkes in their shared creative ambitions didn’t stop there. They pulled something ever more meaningful, mysterious, and miraculous, by weaving in and out of Flannery’s short fiction with subtle ease, with a nod to famous short stories, including: “Good Country People,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” The not-so-nice review in the Scene seemed to take issue with these, but to me, the Hawkes did this perfectly, with Maya and Laura Linney also starring in all the visionary vignettes. They were simply mesmerizing in embodying the southern gothic aesthetic to a tee. It’s hard to imagine this film not finding its way on to countless syllabi for a Flannery O’Connor revival in English departments, where her flower may have faded, for I feel the Hawkes have made Flannery O’Connor more accessible, profoundly relatable and attractive, and certainly more teachable.  

But for all the stunning art and biography of Wildcat, I was not prepared for how it devastated and delighted me spiritually. I remember precisely the portion of the movie when I started bawling, and I pretty much wanted to weep for the rest of the film. Keep in mind, my love of art, literature, and music are predicated on their way of breaking me in my egoic shell, or even worse my everyday mundane complacency, and religion, when it has worked for me, provides the same therapeutic triggers of subversion and transformation.  

As Christ-haunted and church-saturated as our region remains, I go through long stretches of late, as deeply disconnected, if not outwardly defiant, of the patriarchal and patriotic threads within Christendom, all this after a period as a called and installed rural preacher, that ended ever-so abruptly during the George Floyd uprising of 2020. My current spiritual practices when communal are mostly live music, 12-step recovery meetings, or occasional attendance with Unitarian Universalists. Other times, my spirituality is mostly solitary and deeply nature-based (which in all honesty was true before and after my recent sojourns in the chapels of Tennessee). I sometimes prefer out-and-out rejection of church doctrine to any kind of integration of multiple beliefs and practices into a holy hybrid. 

And here I remain in Tennessee. I am not sure my own born-again experience and subsequent theological career in the “professional prayer trade,” could have happened the way it did, were I not an adopted southerner. But the last four years of personal deconstruction, concurrent with the rise in religious nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-queer hate doctrine, have left me feeling allergic to religion in the same way I am allergic to alcohol. The late queer and southern actor Leslie Jordan said he was baptized 14 times but never felt more shame than in a church pew. I hear that! 

All this to say, even as I was clearly compelled to see this film, I did not go seeking a confrontation with Christ or the cross or the sacrament of communion. But that is what happened.  

The scene that floored me as with a Pauline or pentecostal experience takes place at a dinner party. As an intellectual exercise, as guests pontificate on the metaphor and symbolism of the eucharist, Flannery interjects, her voice shaking, “Well, if it is a symbol, to hell with it.” 

Maybe it is just a story, maybe it is just a myth, maybe the accumulated hypocrisy and violence of centuries of authoritarian Jesus-conscripts undeniably undermine the utterly weird cannibalistic blood rite of holy communion, that we once called a love feast, but suddenly, shockingly, the cinematic wild apologetics of a gothic, proto-feminist novelist at a dinner party, are neither crude nor conservative, nor silly nor superstitious, because for some possibly illogical and insane reasons completely outside me, I still think she might be right, and that this meal might foreshadow all human liberation, and whereas I have at times taken that food weekly, or monthly, or even daily, I feel the words of invitation echo in my bones after a very long lapse, and I am suddenly hungry for holy food, even with a belly full of the communion of fresh theater popcorn and fountain coca cola. 

If it is a symbol, to hell with it. If it is the body and blood of God’s self, do you have any, or where can I get some?

The Hawkes fuse that scene with another quote from O’Connor about who or what God might be. This is the longer version that I have found from her non-fiction writing. O’ Connor says: 
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child's faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can't believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”

Religious seeking when practiced with childlike wonder can be an adventure. Open-mindedness, without contempt before investigation, can produce delicious discoveries, even fruits. But my yo-yo, see-saw-like conversions and reversions, confessions and obsessions, sometimes these all feel like so much mental masturbation and existential exhaustion. I honestly understand the idea of “spiritual but not religious” more than I ever have, but I also crave community. Frankly, I prefer curiosity to certainty, but not fakery and falsity in any form. Mere symbols or metaphors? Screw that! 

Did the Hawkes provide only a sacred trace, a primordial memory of that which preoccupied me during a different phase? Or maybe that shot of hot tears at Flannery’s flippant testimony was only a fanciful feeling of a faith more forgotten than doubted? As I watched them both being interviewed by a bishop, neither came across as orthodox or devout, and I realize from recent experience, that I probably just need to flow and roll with this, whatever this is.  

Leaving this rambling reflection for now, I close on this: Flannery O’Connor is a staggering and mesmerizing female saint of the 20th century, who lived out a calling, also a profound weirdo outsider/suspicious insider version of her subversive faith. Others that share that space for me include Dorothy Soelle, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil. Today, I might also include someone contemporary in this lineage, someone like Sophie Strand. Regardless I am grateful, deeply so, to Ethan and Maya Hawke, for such a disturbing and gorgeous exercise in devotional cinema that brought me, for two, tear-soaked hours, in contact with the haunted, creative, and deliciously divine, however you might name or un-name that thing that some call God. 

No comments: