Thinking along with "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

But Look and See is not about Berry as much as it is about what Berry can teach us about seeing. To underscore this point, Berry himself is noticeably unseen in the film, though he is heard throughout. Much of the film consists of voiceovers from Berry, often reciting his own poetry as we see images of trees, dirt, streams, skies, all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lee Daniel, who previously shot films like Boyhood and Before Sunset.

A motif and guiding frame of the film is the forty-pane window that Berry sits before as he writes. From his desk, he looks out through this window and sees tobacco fields and the Kentucky River. He describes the window as “a graph” that structures our seeing but nevertheless cannot contain the wild, organic, and unstructured life on the other side of the glass. “The window has forty / panes, forty clarities,” we hear Berry read, from his “Window Poems,” describing how the “black grid” frames the wilds of nature beyond: trees, rivers, slopes, clouds.

To learn to see, we must learn to love windows as Berry loves his, to love them for their “clarities” in spite of their smudges and dust. To see well is to position ourselves before windows but to also recognize their limits. Any given window can only frame part of reality, just as any given photograph or film shot can only glimpse a fraction of what is seeable. A window helps us see because it fosters curiosity. Its limits and boundaries beckon us to explore beyond, to imagine where the river bends next and from where the wind blows.

Read the whole article by Brett McCracken at The Other Journal.


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

For 52 years, the nature writer Wendell Berry has sat down to work every day at a long wooden desk in his office, facing a large window with 40 panes of glass. The window, which Berry built himself, overlooks his farm in tiny Port Royal, Kentucky. Most people would say the view isn’t much: just a few tree branches and a river off in the distance. But Berry revels in the smallest, most mundane details, and he’s written volumes of poetry based on the view from his window. He thinks of its 40 panes as a graph, a framework he can use to make sense of the world outside. “In a sense what I’ve done all my life,” he says in a new documentary inspired by his work, Look & See, “is hold up an artifact that you can, so to speak, see through against the world.”

At 83, Berry is one of the most celebrated environmental writers and activists in the United States. He’s published more than 40 books in genres as diverse as lyric poetry, political essays, an eight-novel series and at least 47 short stories. Berry has won almost every major literary award and often draws comparisons to Faulkner and Thoreau. He’s an acclaimed activist who once debated the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, yet he’s also notoriously media-shy, preferring to grow vegetables and raise sheep on his family farm rather than participate in movies or magazine profiles. Last year, when the New York Times asked him who he’d want to write his biography, he replied, “A horrible thought. Nobody.”

Read the complete review by Rose Cahalan at Texas Observer.


Wendell Berry, the recent film, and the economy

In “Look & See,” Berry, now 83 years old, reads his essays in a Southern drawl over images of his working farm, the land he and his family have cultivated in Kentucky for five generations. He and his wife returned to this land after graduate school, in search of home and sense of place or, as William Faulkner once called it, “significant soil.”

The film tells Berry’s story without interviewing him on camera. Instead, it takes you into his world. You hear the sound of footsteps as an unseen person walks through the hills or around the farm. You get to know some of the people Berry loves: his wife and collaborator, Tanya, his daughter, Mary, and his fellow farmers, both industrial, subsistence and organic.

Berry is an advocate of small farms, rural communities and Judeo-Christian values like kindness, all of which have been harmed by “get big or get out” industrial agriculture.

His life and work bear witness to the fact that it is never Christian to say, “I can do whatever I want with my own land” or “my own body.” We are stewards, not owners. What’s more, the attitude of “I can do whatever I want” is toxic to earth and water, family and community. Berry, an early critic of mountaintop removal mining, writes, “I saw the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley.” Nature itself bears witness to the fact that it is not, in fact, all relative. Certain farming practices enrich the soil and worker’s well-being. Others deplete them. As Pope Francis reminds us in “Laudato Si’,” it is all connected.

Read the whole article by Anna Keating at America Media.


Disapproving of the Wendell Berry film

In its brief, 80-minute running time, “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” encompasses two different films, and neither one of them is, in fact, a portrait of the poet/novelist/farmer/activist Wendell Berry. Neither one of them, despite sincere intentions, is very good.  

One film is a tribute to Berry, with archival footage, interviews with his family, and poems read aloud over screensaver-pretty pictures of rural images, accompanied by a plinky piano or solo violin. There are many sun flares, we assume, in part attributable to co-producer and sun flare-lover Terrence Malick. We know where this is going from the sight and sound of an analog typewriter, keys smacking a fading ribbon to press letters imperfectly into paper. The film argues that technology, big corporations, and pretty much modernity itself are what’s wrong with the world.

The other film, intermingled with the first, is a documentary on these issues, interviewing farmers about their love for farming (one says, “I’d rather make one dollar farming than ten dollars fencing”), the challenges they face (one says he cannot bring himself to admit how much he owes), and, in one case, a farmer talks about deciding to go organic.    

Read the full review by Nell Minow at RogerEbert.com.


Review: Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

A documentary can be the trickiest of visual things to pull-off. It can be especially tricky if your subject is niche, something that perhaps not everyone is familiar with.

Going into Look & See I had never heard of Wendell Berry. I was tempted to look him up but decided against it. Arguing that, as a documentary titled ‘a portrait of’, surely it will tell me all I need.

I mention this as the title of director Laura Dunn’s (Green, The Unforseen) film is a little misleading. After finishing the documentary, I’m not convinced I’m much the wiser about Wendell Berry, but that’s not the whole story.

What Dunn has created is a beautiful ode to the land we live on, the land we live off, the land we abuse and take for granted, the land we’re losing.

Read the complete review at Operation Condor.


Brief NYT review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Wendell Berry is difficult to classify. “Some people would think he’s a novelist and some think he’s an essayist and some think he’s a poet — and it kind of drifts off into nothing in particular,” his wife, Tanya Berry, says with a laugh toward the end of “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.” Laura Dunn’s documentary is not simply a biography but an attempt to show how Mr. Berry sees the world.

Judging from his sonorous voice, he may have missed his calling in radio. Throughout “Look & See,” Mr. Berry is an almost spectral presence, heard in narration and seen in archival footage. Mr. Berry has been compared to Henry David Thoreau. A longtime resident of Port Royal, Ky., he writes about the environment and the lifestyle of farmers with a naturalist’s curiosity and a poet’s gift for description.

Read the whole review by Ben Kenigsberg at The New York Times.


Another critical response to "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

“The limits of a camera is that it’s always looking through a frame,” the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry says in Look & See, a documentary about the man in which the man imposes his own limits on the camera, refusing to let himself be photographed. He continues, his voice a rumpled American marvel: “There’s certain things that you can’t show that living eyes can see. To determine where to set that lens, where it’s going to look from, requires imagination.” Laura Dunn, the film’s director, accepts this as a challenge. Look & See will, like Berry’s vigorous agrarian verse, look and see, through the rousing Kentucky farm and landscape studies of director of photography Lee Daniel, and through James Baker Hall’s still photographs of the writer and his family in years past.

Read the full article by Alan Scherstuhl at The Village Voice.


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.