Two Recent Reviews of the Wendell Berry Film

We have lately seen two new reviews of The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, directed by Laura Dunn.

John Murdock at First Things writes in part,

Dunn’s film is not your run-of-the-mill biopic, and how could it be? Berry, though very much alive, agreed to participate in the project, but with the complicating condition that he would not appear on camera. The viewer sees recent interviews of his wife Tanya and daughter Mary, but the man himself is present only as a voice and in images from the past. With their differing views of progress, both fans and critics of this farmer/writer, who has done his varied work with draught horses and a 1956 Royal typewriter, will likely see his elusiveness as fitting.

The Seer centers on Berry’s debates in the 1970s with Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Butz had rural roots that rivaled Berry’s, but he came to see a decline from 45% of the population working the land at his birth to some 4% at the time of their encounters—what Berry labeled The Unsettling of America—as a positive development. “Butz’s law,” which he formulated, was “adapt or die,” and its measure of success was “P-R-O-F-I-T.”

Berry is seen by many as a prophet of a different sort.

Joe Leydon at Variety enjoyed much of the film, but had some reservations,

“The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” contains some interesting testimonials from Kentucky farmers, most notably Steve Smith, who admits he was ready to abandon his lifework until he switched to organic farming. And Lee Daniel’s exquisite cinematography cries out to be savored on a big screen; an opening montage of urban chaos, accompanied by Berry’s reading of his visionary poem “A Timbered Choir,” is as powerful as any similar sequence in Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyannisqatsi.” More often, however, the documentary is too tepid to generate anything like excitement or outrage, and elicits admiration more for its intentions than for its execution.

Review Finds Fault with Wendell Berry Film

The film [The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, directed by Laura Dunn] ignores the tremendous benefits of new farming techniques, not to mention technology all around. Yes, it’s cute that Berry types his manuscripts on an old manual typewriter with a worn-out ribbon, but I bet his publishers and typesetters think differently. Further, the aesthetic beauty of the film itself results from new technologies that allow digital shooting, sound recording, graphics and editing. Anyone who recalls the old method of film-splicing with razorblades and tape certainly can relate to the benefits of advancing technologies in contemporary editing booths. Shame this irony was lost on Dunn and her fellow filmmakers.

But our curmudgeon persists on romanticizing the old ways: “We haven’t valued farmers or farming so we’re losing them,” he intones. Forgive me for saying this, but that’s as much malarkey as bemoaning the scarcity of blacksmiths in this day and age, or this: “You can’t love traditional values and love contemporary agriculture at the same time,” Berry says. Seriously?

Read it all at Acton Commentary.

Freed-Market Anarchist Considers Wendell Berry

For many years, I have encountered repeated references to Wendell Berry, the venerable farmer-sage of Kentucky: novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher and environmental activist. And I lazily assumed his writings to be in the category of things that are Good For You, but probably dull, like stodgy health food. But then I came across The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of Berry’s essays on what he calls “agrarianism”, and I found his writing electrifying. Berry has a well-thought-out, far-reaching, passionately articulated analysis of what is wrong with the prevailing political/economic/social system in America, which extends with minimal adjustments to much of the rest of the world. It’s different from the sort of political analysis typically seen at – not incompatible with it, but, I would say, complementary to it. I think it’s therefore fruitful to examine Berry’s political/economic/social philosophy from a freed-market anarchist (FMA) perspective, noting the substantial points of agreement, but also the areas where Berry’s agrarianism perhaps contributes something missing from FMA discourse, and vice-versa.

The Art of the Commonplace consists of essays dating from 1969 to 2002, on a range of topics including racial justice, sexual politics, the arts, religion, as well as Berry’s more central concerns: farming, land use, environmentalism, and economics. But despite the fact that many of the writings date from thirty-some years ago, all of them remain surprisingly timely. Running through them all is a single unifying premise: no society can remain healthy if it fails to care for the soil and water from which its food comes. And Berry presents compelling arguments that many superficially unrelated social ills can be traced to this central sin (yes, that’s Berry’s term for it). The problem lies in a constellation of attitudes, practices and technologies that Berry labels “industrialism”.

Read the complete article by Robert Kirchner at Center for a Stateless Society.

More on "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

The film isn’t preachy, it’s showing you that there are people willing to do what is manageable, and what is best for the land and their families.  They describe the desire for farming coming from the passion of successive generations.  There are a lot of threats to this way of life, some unavoidable without a change in our culture.  But if anyone can persuade us, Wendell Berry might be the one.   THE SEER is a thoughtful documentary, told with the same directness as Berry’s writing, with enough hope that you want to see and know and be more.

Read it all at The Matinee.

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

Austin-based Cinematographer Lee Daniel – perhaps best known for his collaborations with director Richard Linklater on films like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Boyhood – just won a Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography at the 2016 SXSW Festival for his work on The Seer, and it is well deserved. A movie about the destruction of America’s fading heartland and traditional farming practices, The Seer owes much of its raw power to Daniel’s stunning shots of Kentucky’s rural landscapes and portraits of its worn-out denizens. Co-directors Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell (director and producer on The Unforeseen, which Daniel also shot) do a fine job assembling footage for this elegiac cri de cœur, but the movie really belongs to Daniel’s images.

Read it all at Hammer to Nail.

An Italian Reader Responds to Wendell Berry's "Jayber Crow"

Jayber Crow non è uno di quei libri che solitamente mi piacciono e mi conquistano. Eppure, in un certo senso, lo ha fatto. Bello lungo, con una trama apparentemente banale, con pagine apparentemente noiose e altre, invece, intensissime. È un libro che nonostante la pacatezza del narratore e protagonista, racconta con chiarezza cosa succede quando il progresso si scontra col passato; la natura, che coi suoi tempi, regna sovrana; la fede e il rapporto con Dio e di come cambia nel corso di una vita; le dinamiche dei rapporti umani, nel bene e nel male. È un libro che mi ha fatto anche un po’ incazzare (spiego dopo perché), ma allo stesso tempo mi ha fatto venire voglia di andare in un bosco, sdraiarmi lì e non fare niente tranne che stare ferma e immobile per qualche tempo a cercare di trovare quel legame con la terra che non ho mai avuto. Sensazioni contraddittorie, lo so, ma d’altronde 500 pagine non possono essere statiche.

Read more HERE.

And a sometimes charming, raggedy translation via Google:

Jayber Crow is not one of those books that I like and usually win me. Yet, in a sense, it did. Nice along with a seemingly banal plot, with seemingly boring pages and others, however, very intense. It is a book that despite the calmness of the narrator and protagonist, tells clearly what happens when progress collides with the past; nature, which, with its times, reigns supreme;faith and relationship with God and how it changes during the course of a lifetime; the dynamics of human relationships, for better or for worse. It is a book that made me a little 'pissed off (I explain later why), but at the same time has made me want to go to a forest, lie there and do nothing except stand still and motionless for some time trying to find that bond with the land that I never had. contradictory feelings, I know, but then 500 pages can not be static.

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

There’s more to the scope of Dunn’s film than just a willingness to talk to more conventional farmers, however. The entire film is deeply concerned with the life of Henry County. Dunn and her cinematographer Lee Daniel were in the area for all four seasons and so we see the same places throughout the year and walk the same trails in fall, winter, spring, and summer. So the fact of the land, the trees, the river, the wildlife, and so on is never far from your mind as you watch the movie.

We also see children from the community, hear Dunn interview some migrant workers who now do much of the manual labor on the farms themselves, and, through the interviews with older residents, hear about some of the departed citizens of Henry County who did their part to sustain the place and it’s unique way of life.

The primary wood carving used in the film’s promotional images also gestures toward the expansiveness of Dunn’s vision of the place. It also sums up Berry marvelously—we see Berry’s back to us and, through him, we see the land. This is one of the chief strengths of the film. When you first hear that Berry doesn’t actually appear in the film at all, it’d be easy to wonder what the film is about if the subject is never filmed, but in this case the result is likely more faithful to who Berry is than a conventional biopic could ever be.

Read the whole review by Jake Meador at Christ the Morning Star.

Wendell Berry Film Reviewed Again

A poet and novelist whose passionate defense of traditional agriculture has made him more an environmental icon than a literary one, Wendell Berry may not have had the prophetic abilities implied by the title of Laura Dunn's The Seer— but he has certainly been clear-eyed about dangers to the heartland as they arise, and eloquently insistent on sounding the alarm. Sticking mostly to one corner of the turf Berry has staked out, this unusual and quite beautiful doc seeks to connect with him by getting to know the land and those who work it near the author's Kentucky home. Lee Daniel's fine photography helps make this deserving of big-screen attention, while support from eco-minded celebs — Robert Redford and Terrence Malick exec-produced; Nick Offerman offered hand-crafted furniture to Kickstarter donors — should attract enough attention to help it get beyond the fest circuit.

Read more at The Hollywood Reporter.

More on Laura Dunn's "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

One of the key moments in Dunn’s film is when she shares a quote from an NPR interview with Berry from 1998. He had built a 40-pane window in his Kentucky farmhouse, and he always wrote by the light of that window. “When I set out, the idea of that 40-pane window was always important thematically,” Dunn said. “It was really provocative to me. He talks about looking through a frame, holding up an artifact through which you can see. There’s a beautiful contrast he draws between the frame of the window as a manmade construct, and the natural world that doesn’t behave how you’d expect it to.” This became Dunn’s inspiration for The Seer—it never shows footage of Berry himself, but rather gives us a view into his glass: letting us see what “the seer” himself sees. The closest we get to an actual glimpse of Berry is seeing him type with his old typewriter.

Part of the reason for this decision not to show Berry is, as I suspected, due to the fact that he himself did not want to be filmed. Berry’s work is very cognizant of the damages that machines—be they automobile and tractor, or television and computer—have had on human relationships. While this may not be the reason he asked not to be filmed, it fits his personality and body of work to hide his face from the camera.

Dunn could have laced together bits of footage of Berry to remedy this dilemma. But she didn’t. “This was the ultimate challenge: but for me, it was the ultimate opportunity, too,” she said. “He is such a distinct voice. To make a film, but not film him—it reflected something essential about him.” So she embraced Berry’s own reticence of the camera, and decided to paint this unique picture of his world and the people he loves.

Read the whole piece by Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative.

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

What makes this documentary beautiful is not only its sympathetic portrayal of its subjects, but also its deliberate and careful camera angels. The camera takes us through these rural places slowly, often from a child’s perspective. Laura and her husband have six young boys, and she has clearly learned to see the world through their eyes. We look directly into the face of a piglet or a lamb from its own level. We see the hands of farm workers and gardeners and craftsmen and artists. Such sympathetic viewpoints embody Wendell Berry’s own efforts to see the world humbly.

The care with which The Seer is put together may be seen most clearly in a sequence where Dunn is talking with Berry about our cultural and agricultural fragmentation. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” with its haunting line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” epitomizes this condition for Laura. As she admits to Berry, “That theme, unfortunately, seems to define the world that I’ve come of age in. And so there’s this need to try to find a way to piece things back together.” Berry concurs, telling her that we live in an age of divorce where “things that belong together have been taken apart.” The proper response to such disintegration is the work of humble, faithful care. As Berry tells her, “You take two things that ought to be together, and you put them back together. Two things, not all things.”

Read the whole piece by Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.