A critical review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry has a bit of a misleading title. While the documentary frames its discussion through the author’s philosophical lens, the focus is actually on the struggles of small farmers to stay afloat in an age of industrial agricultural. Even this description might lead one to think Look & See works as a straightforward piece of long-form journalism, an investigation that turns up answers, but that would be a mistake. This is a film about feelings and philosophy, about a moral and spiritual shift Mr. Berry has seen in American culture over the last fifty years. Rather than encourage discussion or provide a nuanced picture for viewers to puzzle over after the credits roll, this approach quickly settles into subdued pontificating, eschewing enlightenment for preaching.

Read the whole article by Jacquelin Hipes at Red Carpet Crash.

 


A conversation with Laura Dunn, director of Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

Sean Malin: Wendell’s performance in the film of his own poem, as well as his narration for The Unforeseen, reflect how learned and clever this writer is. He has this mythology, as you and I have discussed before, that has turned him into a mythic figure. Whether this is just my own projection or a full-blown misunderstanding, it feels to me that his refusal to appear in the film physically is a perpetuation of his personal mythology. What is the mask that he wears with you when narrating for your films?

Laura Dunn: He just does not like film, Sean.

SM: Is that really it? He just says, “That’s not for me.”

LD: Yes. There are a couple of things he’s said real clearly to me. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but he believes that the pervasiveness of the screen – film, TV, computer – has contributed to the decline of literacy. He thinks that when you have a picture, your mind doesn’t have to do the work of imagining. When you just have words, your mind has to be activated and you imagine the place, as opposed to just seeing it, which provokes a laziness of the mind. I think he’s got a real point.

SM: Sure, but does that make him scornful of you as a filmmaker? I resent the concept of cinema as a non-literate art. It takes a very learned person to “read” a film completely.

LD: No, he’s not. I agree, of course – it’s your medium and mine – but you are someone who watches films and really analyzes them and really thinks about them. Most people aren’t. Most people are addicted to the medium and want immediate gratification. The pervasiveness of screens is on a continuum with so much of the decline of our culture, in my opinion. People are inside looking at televisions rather than sitting on their front porches visiting with each other.

We’re also talking about someone who is 82, you know? He is not on Twitter, he’s not on social media, he’s not even using a computer. His perspective on the screen is influenced largely by the role that television has played in the changing of community and the backyard. On top of the screen as a problem, Wendell also talked a lot about the problems of idolatry. We live in a time where people want to make idols of individuals. He feels really strongly that he is simply a function of the people that he’s around: his neighbors, and his membership in his community, are primary to his identity and to his values. Living in a little tiny rural community in Kentucky, yet being quite famous, makes it hard for him to just be a neighbor. I think he’s trying to preserve his privacy and his values so that he can simply be another member of his community.

Read the whole conversation at Cinemalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.


A brief review of Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

LOOK & SEE: A PORTRAIT OF WENDELL BERRY is a tough nut to sell. Far from being a bad film , it's pacing and low key way of doing things is going to cause some people to nod off. On the other hand the films magnificent marriage of words and image will delight many others, especially those who see this on the big screen.

Berry was a well known writer who in 1965 took family away from the big city to live in rural Kentucky. He found success in writing about the land and life he loved turning ot novels, stories, gardening books, poems, essays and pieces championing environmentalism. The film is full of friends and relatives speaking about the man and his work, as well as the man himself reading his words.

Read the whole review by Steve Kopian at Unseen Films.

 


A podcast interview with Wendell Berry filmmaker Laura Dunn

Look & See is not a romanticized version of the farmer poet, but an invitation to see the hardship, character, struggle, neighborliness and rooted love that makes up the agrarian lifestyle in Henry County, Kentucky. Laura Dunn and her crew made a generous film. I say generous because Look & See freely gave me space to ask the beautiful question – how then shall I live?

Laura and I talk about Wendell and Tanya Berry’s impact on her life, Wendell’s idea of the union of life and art, marriage as a creative partnership, the unspoken farm crisis and its implications for young farmers today, where she finds hope from the Wendell and Tanya Berry and in her community and why are there so many comedians listed in the end credits of Look & See.

Find and Listen to the interview by Paul Swanson at Contemplify.


On U. S. theatrical premier of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Next Friday (June 30) a film featuring the work of Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry will enjoy its U.S. theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York City. “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” is a cinematic account of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the mind’s eye of writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, an alumnus and former faculty member of the University of Kentucky Department of English.

The first documentary about Berry, one of America’s most significant living writers, “Look and See” was filmed in and around Henry County, Kentucky — where Berry has lived and farmed since the mid-1960s. Filmmaker Laura Dunn weaves Berry’s poetic and prescient words with striking cinematography and the testimonies of his wife Tanya Berry; his daughter Mary Berry, a UK alumna and executive director of The Berry Center; and neighbors, all of whom are being deeply affected by the industrial and economic changes to their agrarian way of life.

Read the complete article by Whitney Hale at University of Kentucky News.


On "Look & See" and Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry has been born again! (Cinematically speaking.) Not that he appears to us in the revamped documentary Look and See. We see the people and place that made Berry into America’s preeminent scribe of rural life, but we never see him, except in archival footage. Berry is famously anti-screen, and he made staying off-screen a condition of this big-screen adaptation of his work. Fortunately, though, we hear his words, spoken by the man himself. And Berry’s words are worth seeing.

Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell’s film first debuted as The Seer, and around this time last year I offered a positive review of that beautifully shot look through Berry’s eyes. An infusion of funding then allowed the filmmakers to tinker with their work and respond to the subject’s request for a title change. Berry has never been comfortable with his reputation as a prophet, and so The Seer became Look and See.

Read the complete article by John Murdock at First Things.


Review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Much of the documentary depicts Henry County, where Berry was born in 1934 and returned to in 1965, buying a farm in the land of his birth. Indeed, this Kentucky farmland becomes a recurring character in Look & See, just as on the urban flipside, say, New York is in Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan. Henry County provides the documentary with a sense of place, where Wendell’s philosophy is deeply rooted — and where, over the years, the seasonal rhythms of family farming and an agrarian way of life are being eroded and upended.

At the heart of Look & See, and what makes it important viewing for environmentally minded moviegoers, are Berry’s trenchant, urgent arguments against the industrialization of agriculture and in favor of family farms. Berry blurs the distinction between art and life as he critiques the consolidation of American farming in the pursuit of greater efficiency, productivity and profits, at the expense of the spiritual aspects of humans being planted in and connected to the land. In news footage Berry is seen debating President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, an  acolyte of maximizing profit through assembly line-type, increasingly technological methods of mass farming.

In his poetry and activism, which often intersect, Wendell advances a profound critique of corporate capitalism that ravages the tillers of the earth. The Kentuckian argues that industrialization and the mechanization of agriculture replaces traditional rural values with urbanism. In Look & See the poet/activist comes across as the champion of the common man and woman, advocating for a contemporary Jeffersonian democracy, with the family farmer at the heart of liberty.

Read the whole article by Ed Rampell at Earth Island Journal.


Laura Dunn speaks about her film and Wendell Berry

Q: This may seem like an obvious question, but what’s the movie about? The title is “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” but the viewer never sees him, other than in old photographs, and only hears his voice on occasion.

I wanted to make a portrait. I didn’t want to do a sprawling issues piece. I had done that, and artistically, I was inspired by the idea of a portrait -- something more intimate.

If you look at the definition of a portrait, it’s a likeness of someone. There are many different ways to draw a portrait.

When I got to know Wendell better, he made it clear that, first, he didn’t want to be on camera and, second, no story could be about him, because we live in a culture where people like to idolize people and put them up on a pedestal that’s not real.

He explained that he is his place, that he’s nothing but for the people around him -- his family, his neighbors, his friends.

That’s where I got the idea of a portrait. It’s the shape of him, but the frames of this portrait are his place -- what he sees, and what he cares about. It can’t be the likeness of his face, because that wouldn’t reflect the essence, just some piece of the essence of this person.

Read the whole interview at Faith & Leadership.


Actor encourages reading of Wendell Berry

But the film perhaps dearest to Offerman’s heart is the one in which he was least directly involved. Offerman co-produced a documentary about his favorite author, Wendell Berry, called “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”

“This is very moving,” Offerman told the audience Tuesday before the screening. “Wendell Berry is my favorite author. I think his work should be required reading, and (if it was), we’d have a lot fewer a------s to deal with.”

Berry, 82, is a celebrated author whose novels, short stories, poems and essays are all devoted to bringing dignity and insight to American rural life, celebrating charity, clarity and the virtue of hard work. He practices what he preaches, having lived most of his life on a small Kentucky farm. He has no television or computer, although he has a telephone, which he often uses to tell people he doesn't want to be involved in their movies.

But Berry eventually agreed to take part in Laura Dunn's terrific, lyrical film. He didn't want to appear onscreen, but his words and his spirit permeate every frame.

Read the complete article by Rob Thomas at The Cap Times.