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.
The revamped version made its debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The most notable change is the addition of an epilogue, wherein Berry reads his poem “A Vision” over a slow moving collage of woodcut-style graphics. This sequence bookends a powerful opening, in which Berry muses about the flawed “objective” of modern life, with words written after a Sabbath walk some twenty years ago. Even if you never see the film in full, these few minutes—wisely released as the trailer—are well worth your time. But some of you will have a chance to see the film. Its theatrical run includes a week in New York (June 30 to July 6), another in Austin (August 18 to 24), and a host of one-offs around the country.
The film delves deep into the vision of a man whose work, as his daughter Mary notes, has been “to introduce culture into the discussion of agriculture,” amid an agribusiness assault on that way of life. There are more facets to Berry’s thought, but those who come hoping to see a discussion of issues other than farming will be disappointed.
Perhaps the narrow focus is for the best. Recent years have been difficult ones for Berry lovers on the right. We have watched in dismay as “The Country of Marriage” poet offered an angry and disjointed defense of homosexual nuptials, one that seemed to contradict his earlier work. Similarly, near the start of this century, Berry had challenged the left with his essay “The Failure of War,” offering stirring words about the humanity of an unborn “baby”—whom he called “an innocent fellow human,” not “an enemy-in-the-womb.” But today Berry can react with indignation to the idea of publicly protesting these fellow humans’ slaughter. Berry will occasionally march for mountains, but not for the millions killed under Roe.
Wendell Berry’s work reminds us that one need not be right about everything to be right about some things. Berry is certainly right about the need to approach rural life as something more than a pox to be cured or a prison to be escaped. On this topic, he has been justly unsettling his readers for decades through thousands of pages of poetry, fiction, and prose. In our image-dominated world, too few have found Berry in print—making Dunn and Sewell’s look into Henry County, Kentucky and its reluctant sage indeed worth seeing.
John Murdock is something of a globetrotting localist who has spent time on Wendell Berry’s front porch and now teaches at the Handong International Law School in South Korea.