Reflections on the Wendell Berry documentary

I was introduced to the agrarian world of the writer, Wendell Berry, in my intro to philosophy class in college. I have been an avid reader of Berry ever since. His novels, essays, and poetry, have been a rich source of comfort, hope, and rebuke in my life.

There is something to Berry’s writing that I am drawn to. He carries a degree of elusivity that requires constant unpacking. It contains a truthfulness that I am not always able to exhaust. His prose are beautiful and turns of phrase poignant. His characters are rich and their relationships dense.

Last night, I went with my wife and a few friends to watch the film, Look and See, which is a documentary portrait of his life. There were two moments in the film that brought me to tears and put words to unexpressed elements of my attraction to Wendell’s writing. I want to share them quick before I write a longer post reflecting on the film as a whole.

Read the full article by Kris Rolls at Being-in-the-World.

 


Laura Dunn interviewed about Wendell Berry film

By way of answering that question: what did Mr. Berry think of the film? Has he seen it yet?

He saw a 20-minute version of the film very early on. I was a little worried that once he saw that he was going to shut the whole thing down, but apparently — I don’t know this from him, but from Mary — it really moved him emotionally. But he also wondered, “Is the argument clear? Could it be clearer?” Those were his two responses, and for me that was good feedback.

To my knowledge, he hasn’t yet seen the full film. The indication is that he will eventually. He doesn’t have a TV, he’s not going to go to a movie theater — God forbid he ever set foot in a movie theater — but we’ve provided him with the means to see it, so I hope he will see it. Tanya and Mary and Steve Smith, the farmer in the film, they’ve all seen it many times now. But Wendell did tell me how much he thought the 20-minute version captures something, and how important that is, and so that’s good enough for me.

Read the complete interview by Daniel Clarkson Fisher at NONFICS.


On Wendell Berry's current book and film

WENDELL BERRY CELEBRATED his 83rd birthday in August. He is old. But not so old that he can’t kick and spit and fight every force that threatens to destroy his way of life and, thus, his worldview. “What I stand for is what I stand on,” the seventh-generation Kentucky farmer and urgently prolific scribe wrote in 1980. And, indeed, Berry returns again and again to his hometown of Port Royal (Port William in his fiction). By pledging allegiance to all things local, he has brought global attention to the plight of fragile rural economies and the importance of sustainable agriculture.

In his latest book, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (available in November from Counterpoint), Berry continues to rage against machines: the laptops and high-tech tractors he believes are causing us to lose touch with each other and our environments. He laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Yes, Berry’s a bit of a curmudgeon, who likens our smartphone obsession to drug addiction and prefers horse-drawn plows to simulated horsepower. He writes longhand before his wife, Tanya, converts the manuscripts on a Royal Standard typewriter. Such anachronistic tendencies, however, point to more than mere nostalgia—namely, a clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress. As the journalist David Skinner noted in 2012, “Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times.”

See the complete article by Brian Barth at Modern Farmer.


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.