As befits a movie executive-produced by Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry is a lyrical ode. An ode to what, you might ask, since Wendell Berry is never seen, even though his voice is heard reading aloud and in response to questions. The documentary portrait the Austin filmmakers provide of Berry – the Kentucky-based poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and activist – is fragmented and diffuse. A rounded education in all things Wendell Berry you will not get. However, the viewer will come away with an appreciation of Berry’s rural philosophy and a greater knowledge of the realities faced by Henry County, Ky., farmers in their battle to save their family farms from being overtaken by the relentless maw of modern agribusiness.
In addition to the audible words of Wendell Berry, there is also a recurring image of words being spit out, letter by letter, on a typewriter that has a failing ribbon, which obscures portions of every character. It seems meant as a tribute to an older, handmade way of doing things, whether the task is writing or farming. The film’s opening Koyaanisqatsi-like time-lapse imagery also emphasizes a sense of life speeding along at an unnatural pace. These early images contrast uneasily with cinematographer Lee Daniel’s otherwise lyrically shot rural images. At least half of the film is devoted to testimonies of farmers in Henry County, where Berry’s farm is located, regarding their failing struggles to stay afloat. One of them mentions Berry’s writings on agriculture as revelatory, but for the most part these are personally moving stories that would seem more fitting for a Farm Aid documentary than a film about a writer. And amid all the hand-wringing about disappearing ways of life, no attention is given to the fact that the crop grown by most of these farmers is tobacco, a product whose diminishing demand is hailed in most other quarters.
Ultimately, Look & See seems to have many objectives, yet accomplishes none of them satisfactorily. Clearly, the filmmakers want us to pay attention, but to exactly where we should direct our gaze they are less precise. Still, their lyrical tone prevails.
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