In his new film, Walker Percy: A Documentary Film, Win Riley offers a touching, nuanced portrait of Percy, the great Catholic novelist and philosopher. Deftly alternating between interviews with friends and scholars, narration, photographs, and original video recordings, Riley highlights Percy’s search for meaning and his escape from the shadow of family suicides and the tragic, early death of his mother to an understanding of himself, God, and possibility for human significance founded in the Christian faith. The film was an “Official Selection” of 2010 New Orleans Film Festival, and is scheduled to be shown at select locations around the country. Mr. Riley was kind to answer a few questions about the film and Percy’s life.
First of all, why a documentary on Walker Percy? What attracted you to him?
To me, Walker is one of the most fascinating figures in American letters, a man who wrote elegant, affirming philosophical novels and essays—and as a filmmaker based in New Orleans, I found him to be irresistible as a subject. I’ve been curious about Walker since, as a teenager, I first pulled The Moviegoer from my parents’ bookshelf. I think I was attracted by the title, by its tone and sensibility. I was enthralled with it. Later, I read The Last Gentleman, and my curiosity grew. I sensed that Walker was trying to communicate an important message, but it wasn’t transmitting completely or clearly—it was opaque.
After college I became involved with documentary filmmaking. I’d just finished a project about the artist Walter Anderson, and my younger brother Tom and I started talking about the idea of a film about Walker—it was something we both wanted to see. So I started looking into the possibilities. Part of my curiosity came from the fact that Walker was steeped in the traditions and culture of the South, yet his interests led him to people like Camus and Sartre and Kierkegaard rather than someone like Faulkner. That was intriguing to me. And the story of moving from medicine to fiction, from agnosticism to faith, was very, very interesting.
What most surprised you about Percy's life?
I was surprised by the consistency of his thought. If you look at those early essays, like “The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry,” written in the fifties, and then look at things he worked on toward the end of his life, like the speech for the NEH or The Thanatos Syndrome, there’s a common thread. That to me is very interesting. His view of “man as more than organism, more than consumer, man the wayfarer; man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey,” as he says in the film, is a view that, in my opinion, he held from his earliest endeavors as an adult writer. That surprised me.
And then there is the arc of his thought—coming from this old, influential southern family, with its Stoic codes and traditions, and finding his own way as a writer and as a man, finding his way from agnosticism to Catholicism. It’s a fascinating story.
Percy was an intensely private man, and part of the reason for this, as you note in the film, was to maintain as much as possible a normal, everyday existence. Why was this so important to him?
He wanted to focus on the things that were important to him, to be able to control the flow of social interaction, the distractions of urban life, as much as possible. It’s not that he was averse to these things, but they could be a distraction. And I think in New Orleans there were the parties and carnival balls and things that people of Walker’s milieu were expected to be involved with. And to Walker’s great credit, this stuff didn’t interest him. He had other concerns—luckily for us, his readers.
It was wonderful to see Percy’s brother and wife in the film. I found it extremely touching and difficult to watch his brother recount his mother’s death. The moment communicated very clearly the darkness and despair from which Percy, in part, escaped. Other than Percy himself, who else would you have wanted to interview had they been alive and what would you ask them?
An interview with Shelby Foote would have been interesting, though, of course, there are the archival interviews with him that I use in the film. William Alexander Percy comes to mind. Arthur Fortugno would have been a fascinating person to interview. Fortugno was a devout Catholic who was with Percy in the sanatorium, after he had contracted tuberculosis. Fortugno argued with Walker about faith and encouraged him to read Aquinas and Augustine more closely. This was just a short time before Walker converted to Catholicism. That would have been an interesting interview. I’m not sure exactly what I would ask. I think I’d just listen.
Regarding Percy’s conversion, why the Catholic faith? Percy’s mother came from a Presbyterian background. To what extent did Percy’s uncle, William Percy, influence him in this regard?
I think the fact that Will had been a Catholic may have influenced Walker to a very limited extent. Will, as Paul Elie notes in the film, was “unconsoled”—he’d lost his faith as young man. Why the Catholic Church? Percy often said that he became a Catholic because “I believe what the Catholic Church proposes is true,” his way of answering a question that came up in almost every interview that was conducted with him. I think he grew tired of answering, partly because he understood Pascal’s notion that God is “felt by the heart,” and the reasons for one’s faith are often deeply personal, perhaps ineffable. As Walker told Doug Marlette, faith is not something you figure out. It’s a gift.
It took me a long time to come to this—early on, in the making of the film, I felt as if I had an obligation to fully explain Percy’s faith. Finally, I came to realize that it couldn’t ever be fully explained. I can say, as several people told me in interviews, that Catholicism offered Walker an objective view of human life that was very much what he was looking for.
A number of film directors interested in biography have chosen the biographical film over the straight documentary. The most recent example is the film Howl, where actors were used to recreate a period in Allen Ginsberg’s life, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman experimenting with traditional plot structure and the use of mixed media. Why the documentary and not the biopic? What are the advantages of the straight documentary?
I never really considered making a biographical film with actors and so forth.
Dramatizing Walker’s life in that way seemed like a strange concept, especially since, as Jay Tolson wrote in his biography of Percy, the drama of Percy’s life “arose out of the quarrel with himself.” This would be hard to depict with actors reading lines. And it might go against Walker’s sensibilities. I’m not claiming to have avoided cliché in my film, but it becomes harder to avoid in a feature film. And I think this is very important. In an essay entitled “Novel Writing in an Apocalyptic Time,” Percy writes about the “evacuation” of meaning through cliché:
Words are polluted. Plots are polluted. In the best movie of last year, a disturbed young man played by Timothy Hutton consults a psychiatrist a couple of times, breaks down, hugs the psychiatrist, says “I love you,” and is cured. He also has a communication problem with his father. They both break down, hug, cry, say “I love you.” All is well. Lines of communication are opened. Love is the answer. Who is going to protect words like “love,” guard against their devaluation?...There may be times when the greatest service a novelist can do his fellow man is to follow General Patton’s injunction: Attack, attack, attack. Attack the fake in the name of the real.
Attack the fake in the name of the real. It’s a remarkable turn of phrase that gets at the heart of what Walker Percy was up to in his work. As much as I’d be curious to see someone like James Franco play him, I can almost hear Walker quietly laughing at the idea.
What are your hopes for the film?
First, and perhaps most important, I hope it brings more people to Percy’s work.
I’m planning for the film to be broadcast on PBS later this year.
One final question: One thing that is striking about Percy is the respect that other novelists and thinkers have for him regardless of their ideological differences. Why do you think this is the case?
In part, because of his enormous talent as a writer. The Moviegoer is a jewel. And I don’t think his best novels promote one particular ideology or philosophy—they ask questions of the reader, they encourage a new awareness of the world. They’re not didactic. And I think his way of blending wry humor with serious introspection, to paraphrase Robert Coles, is very moving. It’s irresistible.
Walker Percy: A Documentary Film is directed by Winston Riley. To book a viewing of the film, contact Mr. Riley here.
Micah Mattix is Assistant Professor in Literature at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of Saying 'I'.