Documentary Review: ‘Look & See: A Portrait Of Wendell Berry’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

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.

Fittingly divided into “chapters”, Look & See begins by establishing the romantic ideal of life on an American farm. Mary Berry (daughter of Wendell and his wife, Tanya) describes how, as children, she and her brother were urged by their father to “look and see” nature all around them in rural Kentucky. It’s a vision that seems tailor-made to appeal to city dwellers who might not even visit the local park all too often. The subsequent chapters present a darker tale: the replacement of workers with expensive, efficient machines; the displacement of family farms by massive commercial operations; and the never-ending cycle of debt that small farms have to take on and hopefully pay off with each harvest. One farmer notes that without insurance, his farm would be forced to fold after only two consecutive bad years. It’s a bleak contrast to the pastoral ideal promoted by so many in their position, and it can be difficult to imagine how those levels of stress and bliss manage to commingle.

The farmers featured in Look & See are all laudable, hardworking people whose passion for the land is quite clear. Their stories, told very thinly despite featuring only a handful of families, would have made for a much more interesting narrative compared to the musings of Mr. Berry. The assertion that these are people deserving of admiration and respect is one of the film’s few successes. Unfortunately the aforementioned musings start to wear thin as the movie unfolds. Small family farms simply cannot produce enough food to affordably and consistently meet modern demands year after year. What begins as a winsome reflection on yesteryear gradually devolves into complaints against progress and technology, cynicism wrapped up in the trappings of sagacity.

Look & See also suffers from a too-common problem of documentaries that so helpfully point out what’s wrong with our world today—it fails to offer any suggestions, solutions, or visions of a better future. One or all of these might hide within the pages of Mr. Berry’s writings, but they haven’t made it onto the screen. While there are undeniably problems to be solved and refinements to be made within the agricultural industry, one will have to look elsewhere in order to find any discussion of those issues.

Producer credits include Robert Redford, Nick Offerman, and Terrence Malick, names which should have lent heft to a film about a man and subject deserving of more attention than is likely given to them by the general public. And for all its shortcomings, Look & See is a very pleasant movie to simply sit back and watch. The 75-minute runtime is packed with shots of idyllic rural America in all four seasons and each chapter heading is accompanied by intricate engravings by artist Wesley W. Bates. Yet as Mr. Berry wisely intones during one of his voiceovers: “The limit of a camera is it’s always looking through a frame.” Almost from the start, Look & See was peering out through the wrong one.

Opening at the IFC Center on June 30.

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