Movie Un-Review | Wendell Berry, the Not-Quite Rock Star Seer
To see, or not to see the new Wendell Berry documentary, that is the question
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 –
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"? The best explanation I can give comes courtesy of a woman I've recently read about, Laura Dunn. As Dunn put it in a recent interview,
[Berry] said to me once "I am nothing but for the people on the land, the people who are my neighbours and my family and my place." He is his place. He doesn't like the idolatry of famous figures. It's not about the person, it's about the community and the membership.
On top of that, Dunn is quite possibly more familiar than anyone else with Berry's reluctance to having certain titles placed upon him, seeing how she's the director of the Wendell Berry documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, screening tonight at the Sundance Film Festival and which was recently screening under the title The Seer. For as Dunn also put it,
[Berry] did not like "The Seer." He felt it intimated him as a kind of profit [sic], and he didn't want that kind of attention. He wanted it to be more about the place and the community, so we changed the name out of respect for him.
Appropriately enough, you won't be finding any "Rock Star Seers" in Look & See. Otherwise, although the new title initially seemed a bit strange to me, it all made sense once I read a quote by Mary Berry, Wendell's daughter, about something she was taught as a child while out on walks with her parents.
We were told to look and see. What is that tree? What is this grass? That field was plowed incorrectly. Why is that? What should have been done? That man is a great farmer. See what he does? That is beautiful. Look and see that it's beautiful. And that's ugly – that's a scar. Look and see that.
Although Wendell Berry is without a doubt the author whose writings have been the most instrumental in guiding me away from an industrial mind-set and into an agrarian one, one does get the impression that Look & See is a rather well-made film. So far it's won the grand jury prize for best documentary at the Nashville Film Festival, its director of photography (Lee Daniel) won an award at its SXSW world premiere for its cinematography, and nearly all the reviews I've read are along the lines of "Dunn does a tremendous job assembling a creative, visually appealing film."
Somewhat ironically, while Berry takes issue with being called a "rock star", and having returned to Kentucky upon having abandoned his promising New York City literary career and the "prestige and urban splendor" that that would have bestowed (as another review of Look & See put it), it's been pointed out that "the film boasts an all-star cast of producers". As another then described it,
Berry, who lives life without a television or a computer, is about as un-Hollywood as he can be. Yet, the executive producers for Dunn’s labor of love were heavyweights Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, with names like Nick Offerman, Zach Galifianakis, Megan Mullally, and Robert Smigel also appearing in the credits.
On top of that, it was even then stated that "There is a good chance that [Look & See] will get a nomination come Oscar time just as Food, Inc. did a few years back", which we'll actually find out in just four days' time when the nominations are announced.
So while the film itself seems to be of an excellent (Hollywood?) standard, its subject is no less so (minus the Hollywood). As was stated in a review of Look & See, "[Berry] is the kind of writer who can change what you eat for breakfast, and maybe even the work you go to afterward." I don't disagree with that one bit, although for me it wasn't Berry who changed what I eat for breakfast, but rather Michael Pollan. (After reading Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma nine years ago I decided to quit eating corn, including all of its bastardized manifestations which appear on virtually every product's ingredient list at the supermarket – but I'll probably be writing about that in late-March.)
Similarly, another review of Look & See stated that "Berry is a rare-breed; a person who actually practices what he preaches." That was one of the first things that stood out to me when I initially began reading Berry (and which I've specifically written on before), which didn't so much change anything I was doing but rather strengthened my resolve for what I had done. That is, reading Berry affirmed the decision I'd finally made a year or two earlier to give up the life and career of a filmmaker and to also stop watching film and television altogether. And that, I'll point out, is why I have not watched, and will not be watching, Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.
Like Berry's late friend Gene Logsdon (who I recently quoted as being wary of the "real epidemic on our hands... Televisionitis"), Berry also isn't much of a fan of film and television. As Dunn pointed out, "Film is not his medium, and he doesn't have a great deal of respect for it." (Touché!) Or as Berry expounded in his book The Gift of Good Land,
TV and other media have learned to suggest with increasing subtlety and callousness – especially, and most wickedly, to children – that it is better to consume than to produce, to buy than to grow or to make, to "go out" than to stay home. If you have a TV, your children will be subjected almost from the cradle to an overwhelming insinuation that all worth experiencing is somewhere else and that all worth having must be bought. The purpose is blatantly to supplant the joy and beauty of health with cosmetics, clothes, cars, and ready-made desserts.
We can get rid of the television set. As soon as we see that the TV cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household, we can unplug it. What a grand and neglected privilege it is to be shed of glibness, the gleeful idiocy, the idiotic gravity, the unctuous or lubricious greed of those public faces and voices!
As if that weren't enough,
And we can try to make our homes centers of attention and interest. Getting rid of the TV, we understand, is not just a practical act, but also a symbolical one: we thus turn our back on the invitation to consume; we shut out the racket of consumption. The ensuing silence is an invitation to our homes, to our own places and lives, to come into being. And we begin to recognize a truth disguised or denied by TV and all that it speaks and stands for: no life and no place is destitute; all have possibilities of productivity and pleasure, rest and work, solitude and conviviality that belong particularly to themselves. These possibilities exist everywhere, in the country or in the city, it makes no difference. All that is necessary is the time and the inner quietness to look for them, the sense to recognize them, and the grace to welcome them.
Being somebody who "practices what he preaches", it should come as little surprise then that although Berry agreed to participate with the making of Look & See, he did so with the condition that he wouldn't appear on camera. That comes as little surprise to me, considering that Berry lives without a television or computer, and as I recall reading, has never sent out an email in his entire life. Likewise, when Nick Offerman wrote to Berry in 1995 asking if he could adapt his story "Fidelity" into a film, he was summarily turned down.
Continuing along these lines, and as other reviews of Look & See have stated,
Berry, an old-fashioned man to his core, believes that experiencing the world through computer or movie screens diminishes literacy and deadens the imagination.
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.
However, not all reviewers of Look & See see eye-to-eye with Berry's way of thinking (and doing). For as one review put it,
The film 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 razor blades 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.
Now, I don't make a habit out of coming to the defence of filmmakers, but it just so happens that not only am I someone familiar with "the benefits of advancing technologies in contemporary editing booths", but I also happen to be someone who quite intimately "recalls the old method of film-splicing with razor blades and tape", thanks to the fact that I was schooled in both methods while I attended the film studies program at Ryerson University in Toronto. Being quite familiar with both methods, I should for starters point out that I don't ascribe to the romantic notion that actual film stock is more "pure" than the digital video of today, but nor do I subscribe to the equally foolish notion that filmmakers of today (except for those with deep pockets) actually have much of a choice between the two. The only reason I was able to work with "the old method" was because my university happened to be the only educational institution in all of North America that had its own on-premises processing facilities for black and white 16mm film, providing my fellow students and I with an unheard-of kind of access and an uncanny way to learn our – my now abandoned – craft.
Furthermore, it should be stated that the limitations that working with 16mm film imposed upon me (as opposed to what I've often heard referred to as the "limitless possibilities" of digital video) forced me to think in a way that "infinite possibilities" never could, and resulted in me wracking my mind to figure out how I could manipulate the medium in order to pull off some rather eye-popping, nifty little tricks. Moreover, the best videos I ever made were the ones where I placed limits on myself and shot as if I were using 16mm film, and as should go without saying, upon taking the initial tour of Ryerson's Image Arts building as a high school student we were specifically told that the latest equipment and biggest budget does not inherently make for a good film.
Likewise, the main body of my favourite filmmaker (back in the days when I bothered with film) was made between 1920 and 1928, and there's absolutely no way a filmmaker today could make a film anywhere near as good as he did, partially because he grew up acting in Vaudeville with his family, but more precisely because he was forced to work under the confines of actual film that forced him to butt up against and play around with the very limits placed upon him. In other words, there's a huge difference between trying to figure out what you can make 16mm film stock do – or rather, what it will allow you to do – and the "freedom" of getting to let your imagination "run wild" with 1920 x 1200 pixels.
The same goes with farming. A 1,000 acre farm with "the tremendous benefits of new farming techniques, not to mention technology all around" can never be as good towards the land, as productive by the acre, or as beautiful as a 10 acre farm can be. This is precisely because said technologies deaden the imagination and allow the farm to expand beyond the practical scales of a single human mind (or two), and without any limitations (so to speak) the farmer is without the context of boundaries that would enable him and/or her to enliven their mind and elicit the proper response to their place that would then result in their ability to put together a healthy, productive, and beautiful farm.
While this seems to be lost on the latter-most reviewer (a champion of industrial farming), these facts aren't lost on all industrial farmers. As another review of Look & See describes a group of industrial farmers interviewed in the film by Dunn, "They're not dumb nor are they evil; they understand exactly how the system works, but they don't know how to beat it."
Just like black and white 16mm film versus digital video, the costs of entry and maintenance of good, small farming are now so high due to a system rigged towards the high-finance practice of getting bigger and bigger (with external inputs) that the opportunities for such ways of farming are presently extremely hard to come by. (Although now that the Limits to Growth are being met the ruse is starting to look flimsier and flimsier.)
Moreover, I don't think that any kind of "irony was lost on Dunn". Granted, I specifically decided against starting work on a Wendell Berry documentary ten years or so ago, as well as on a film critical about the film medium – which seemed rather navel-gazing, incestuous and not very much along the lines of "practicing what I preach", and so was the last idea I had before I quit once and for all. Regardless, not only did Dunn choose to make a film about what I think is the single most important person who has never had a film made about them (number two would be a film about Nikolai Vavilov in English, Lawrence of Arabia styles), but she also had the most admirable motivation – to "honor his work and his spirit and draw more attention to his work."
But along with Look & See being about Berry, Look & See was more so about what Berry stands for. As one review put it, while quoting Dunn,
This, if any, is the transformative message that Dunn brings to her film. It's a piece that she hopes might urge watchers "to turn away from the film, and turn into their own lives... to turn the television off and go outside."
To me, that's the big question when it comes to film. Is such a thing possible, or does making a film – even one about Berry – not have a net effect of legitimizing film even more, spurring the making and watching of even more films (eco-type films in this case), rather than inspiring viewers and filmmakers themselves to "turn the television [and camera] off and go outside"? I obviously lean towards the highly sceptical side, which I've written a bit about already.
Nonetheless, Dunn states that
I'm this giant arrow using the medium that so many people immerse themselves in now and saying "is there a way within that medium to point people away from the medium?" That's part of the experiment. I don’t know yet if it worked.
That's a big ask of course, and while I'm wary of such a possibility (when I returned from my one-year New Zealand WWOOF trip and on my birthday surprised my family by having them sit down and watch the peak oil documentary The End of Suburbia, my cousin told me that it was the first time her child was watching television – whoops), I do wish Dunn the best with her experiment. For as she continues,
If you see the film, will it make people want to turn away from the screen and toward a book of Wendell Berry's or to the natural world? That's what Wendell would want and he was my standard.
With that in mind, while there's no doubt that the film will be watched by many people in the coming weeks and months (and possibly years), I do wonder if people already familiar with Berry's work have any legitimate need to watch the film. As yet another review stated, "People who like Berry will find their understanding of his work deepened, and those who don't will be intrigued." But how "deep" must one get into Berry's work before one turns away from the screen(s)? And is it really necessary to achieve this "deepness" from a screen rather than from a book?
For those new to Berry I can only hope that Look & See does in fact "intrigue" them and inspire them to read some of his books – and to even turn away from the screen(s), as far-fetched as I think that might be. But for those already familiar with Berry's work, and aware of Dunn's partial intention conveyed in these latter quotes of hers, well, why watch the film if part of the purpose is to instil the idea to not watch film and television?
Regardless, while I may one day listen to the "film", and like I said, here's to wishing the best for Dunn and her experiment of Look & See, the possible poison pill for the film and television industries.
Note: Although I was given permission to use and manipulate the Seer movie poster by Two Birds Film, and although I was given permission by Look & See's PR agency to use the photos of Berry, neither of them were in any way cognizant of what I was intending to write and so are not to be held responsible for anything herein, nor are they to be confused with having endorsed any of it in any way. "Cough."