Thoughts on Wendell Berry, that Film, and His Not-Quite-Rockstar Status

Three years ago I had the pleasure to attend a talk between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson at Cooper Union in New York City (my first time in New York City as an adult, which was a story in itself), moderated by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. Wanting to quote a particular exchange between Berry and Jackson for a recent post here on From Filmers to Farmers I listened to the audio recording of the event to transcribe what I was after. While I was able to locate the sought after passage, I was aghast to find out that my favourite portion of the entire event was absent from the publicly available recording, something that was relevant to this post you're currently reading. So not only do I unfortunately not remember the lead-up to the particular exchange between Berry and Bittman, but I'm also forced to quote from memory. As I recall:

Bittman: You're a rock star.

Berry [quietly and sombrely]: No.

That got a bit of a giggle out of me. But as my sense of humour's fortune would have it, Bittman wasn't about to give up so easily.

Bittman: Yes, yes! You're a rock star, you're a rock star!

Eschewing an elaborate retort or explanation, and even more quietly and sombrely the second time around, Berry lowered his head, ever so slightly shook it, and once again simply said –

Berry: No.

Well that was just too much for me, and as I kid you not that that was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen and heard in my life, I couldn't help but instantly burst out with an appropriately over-the-top boisterous laugh. Thing is, and as I just as quickly noticed, not a single other person in the entire audience was laughing as well – not even a peep. So just as fast as I started laughing I somehow managed to contain my convulsions, kind of clearing my throat and sheepishly hoping that my tiny outburst could somehow be disguised and confused for a weird sounding cough.

While I of course wondered to myself why nobody in the entire audience seemed to have even snickered (Cooper Union – and the rest of New York City – was full of rock stars?), and more recently have wondered why said portion was edited out (I wanted to see if I could hear my "cough" and what it sounded like!), the more pertinent question is, Why did Berry disagree with being called – appropriated as? – a "rock star"?

This is just the beginning. Read the complete essay by Allan S. Christensen HERE.


Wendell Berry film will show at Sundance

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Film buffs and industry insiders attending the annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah will get a glimpse of Kentucky through the words and vision of one our most notable writers, Wendell Berry. “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” will screen in the “Spotlight” section of the renowned film fest on Friday, Jan. 20.

“Look and See,” formerly known as “The Seer,” premiered last year at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to much acclaim, but the time between the two festivals allowed the filmmakers to tweak the film and its title. Directed by Laura Dunn (“The Unforeseen“) and produced by big Hollywood names like Robert Redford, Terrence Malick and Nick Offerman, the film also includes many Kentuckians who worked to get it to the screen, including co-producers Gill Holland, Owsley Brown III and Elaine Musselman.

“Look and See” is a beautiful love letter from Kentucky to the world, alerting people to the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America. It’s not necessarily a documentary on Wendell Berry, it’s a documentary on his place in the world — his home, his family, his farm and his neighbors in Henry County — and the ongoing plight of farmers today.

To read the much longer article by Sara Havens at Insider Louisville, go HERE.

See the Park Record interview with director Laura Dunn HERE.


Two Birds Film Changes Wendell Berry Film Title

Two Birds Film has announced that the film formerly known as The Seer (formerly known as Forty Panes) will now be known as LOOK & SEE: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.

Two Birds Film explains:

"We also decided to change the film's title after learning Mr. Berry had misgivings about being labelled a prophet. There were a few other reasons for a title change, but that alone was sufficient." 

I personally preferred the earlier Forty Panes, but understand that that may have suggested a narrow structure that the film couldn't live up to. Titles can be such pesky imps, but "A rose by any other name ..." May this important movie find much success.

UPDATED: I've been corrected about the original title. It was Forty Panes, not Forty Windows and was dropped because people heard "Forty Pains". Thanks, Two Birds!


WorldArk Review of "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

When a New York Times reporter asked Wendell Berry whom he would like to write his life story, he shuddered. “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.” So you can imagine the challenge documentary filmmaker Laura Dunn faced when she set out to create a film about Berry—a man famous for not owning a computer or a television, and harboring a general distrust of all things mediated by screens.

Dunn’s previous film, The Unforeseen, features a poem by Wendell Berry. She said she was surprised by how many people asked her about the poem’s author. While Berry was a transformational writer for Dunn, many people in her audiences had never heard of him. She decided her next film would focus on the writer and farmer, a man Michael Pollan credited as the instigator of the “national conversation around food and farming.”
 
Berry refused to appear on camera for the film, so Dunn had to reimagine her approach. The result is a powerful documentary that seeks to not so much look at Berry as with him. The Seer tries to capture through Berry’s eyes a vision of American agriculture as farming became more industrialized and many agricultural communities faded away.

Read the complete review by Ragan Sutterfield at the WorldArk blog.


On Wendell Berry as "The Seer" from 'Nowhere'

Produced and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, and executive produced by Redford and Malick, The Seer is less a biographical study of Berry the man than an illustration of things that he values: the beauty and importance of his place and other places like it, and the people who live in it, care for it, and love it. In fact, the film’s footage is largely made up of video interviews with Berry’s friends and fellow natives of Port Royal, each of whom seems to view Berry as a kind of comrade in arms—a sympathizer—rather than a celebrity. And from early on in the film, it’s clear that Berry loves these people, that he values them. In a sense, the film feels like an elegy to people like them and the places they inhabit, a mournful recognition that we have forgotten them too easily. “The great cultural failure that we have made here in the United States,” he says midway through the film, “is to mistake millions of individual small places, with their own character, their own needs and demands in use . . . for nowhere. And of course there’s a penalty for that and of course we’re paying the penalty.”

There’s an ecological cost, to be sure, and Berry specifically mentions soil erosion and polluted rivers and toxicity, each of which he has castigated for decades. But there is also a very real human cost: towns that are dying, farms that are failing, and communities that are fading. This is not a problem unique to Kentucky or to the South or to farming communities. It’s an American problem, and it’s a problem of our own making, Berry argues.

Read the whole article by David Kern at Christ & Pop Culture.


WPFL reviews "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Partway through the documentary “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” Mary Berry, daughter of the esteemed Kentucky writer and activist, says that places like Henry County, Kentucky are often flippantly called “nowhere.”

“Or the sticks,” she says. “And there are other names for places like this and names for the people who live in them.”

She says that’s why it was key that when making the film, director Laura Dunn understood how important the culture of rural Kentucky is and detailed how it is falling apart. This mirrors what Wendell Berry has written for decades — honing specifically in on the topics of farming, faith and fellowship, and in this narrative how the three are intrinsically tied.

Read (or listen to) it all at WPFL.


An Appreciation of The Berry Center

The Berry Center addresses topics such as land use, farm policy, local food infrastructure, urban education about farming, and general farmer education with the overarching aim of promoting a healthy and sustainable agriculture in this state and in this country.

 In order to accomplish such a significant task, The Berry Center focuses its work around focused efforts that include programs and policies that protect local food producers in the marketplace; establishing a repository of papers, speeches and letters from three generations of Berry men on issues related to small-farm agriculture; organizing and participating in conferences with like-minded institutions that seek to work on problems and solutions for small farmers and rural communities; and preparing farmers and future generations of farmers to commit to small-farm agriculture through the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program.

Read it all at Kentucky for Kentucky.


Insightful Review of Wendell Berry Film

Though I’m sure many will miss seeing Wendell Berry filmed by Dunn, there is something of a congruity created by only hearing his voice over scenes both pastoral and horrific. As I see it, his absence accentuates the message his distinctive and identifiable speaking conveys. Berry’s absence is parallel to the vanishing traditional farmer’s voice who we only now hear somewhere in the back of our minds.

That echo is lamentable, for as Berry said in the film, “I think when the traditional people disappear, the traditional values disappear. How could they survive? I don’t think that you can love those values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time.” At risk of grossly oversimplifying Berry’s body of work, in that series of statements we have Berry’s lament.

It is poignant then, as Berry is making that statement as one of the last great American apologists against industrial agriculture that a combine is shown harvesting corn leaving a remnant of a row standing as if in defiance and only to have the combine circles around to come back again and cut it off.

Read all of Dan Grubbs' review at Sustainable Traditions.


On Wendell Berry and "The Seer"

I first came across Wendell Berry a couple of years ago when I started reading The American Conservative and Front Porch Republic on a regular basis. After spending a night or two digging around in the ‘bowels’ of each website, I soon realised that the octogenarian Berry is a figure of great importance to Burkeans and counter-cultural conservatives in North America, and I could see why.

Berry is a rare-breed; a person who actually practices what he preaches. Yes, he’s written and continues to write novels, novellas, short-stories, poems, and essays, all dealing in their own way with the toxic impact of the industrial revolution on community, agriculture, and work. But he’s also spent the best part of fifty years running the family farm with his wife, Tanya, in Henry County, Kentucky. That lends a certain authenticity to his words; an authenticity that’s often lacking when the pen is in the soft hands of an academy-bound intellectual.

Read more at Atlantic Bulletin.