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“The limits of a camera is that it’s always looking through a frame,” the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry says in Look & See, a documentary about the man in which the man imposes his own limits on the camera, refusing to let himself be photographed. He continues, his voice a rumpled American marvel: “There’s certain things that you can’t show that living eyes can see. To determine where to set that lens, where it’s going to look from, requires imagination.” Laura Dunn, the film’s director, accepts this as a challenge. Look & See will, like Berry’s vigorous agrarian verse, look and see, through the rousing Kentucky farm and landscape studies of director of photography Lee Daniel, and through James Baker Hall’s still photographs of the writer and his family in years past.
Berry’s point stands, though. He speaks with warm disdain about “where to set the lens,” and Dunn, who edited the film, soon cuts to an arresting shot of tree branches in a forest. Then, as if to illustrate the best the lens can do to put us there, the camera pans, revealing more branches, not especially distinct from the others, the image an impression of trees rather than an immersion in them. Our eyes graze the forest rather than see it. But read Berry on the page, and you do see: the Kentucky farm country that has often been his subject and inspiration, the fate of the small farm in the age of Wal-Mart, what is there before our eyes and what we’re losing.
Dunn’s film, produced by (among others) Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, brushes against the sublime when Berry’s words are paired with glimpses of his world. Dunn shows us the window at the heart of his “Window Poems,” and we hear some stanza; a climactic segment featuring a reading from his what-we’re-losing masterwork, The Unsettling of America, is touched with glory. Berry participates in interviews even as he doesn’t appear on-screen, and his offhand talk echoes the stolid clarity of his poems. He says, “The world is also full of people who’d rather pay for something to kill dandelions than appreciate dandelions.”
But much of Look & See is given to workaday interviews with farmers and family members about how things have changed, and with passages fetishizing typewriters, typesetting, woodcut design, and paper itself. It’s as if the movie itself knows we’d be better off with a book. And I must confess to howling at the introduction, a quick-cutting suite that, in illustrating Berry’s poem “A Timbered Choir,” aims for Koyaanisqatsi, with its gush of sped-up city photography, but achieves something more like an abrasive Shutterstock slideshow. It cuts against the brain’s ability to hear and comprehend Berry’s words, denying elements as crucial as looking and seeing. When he penned the lines lamenting an age in which “Every place had been displaced, every love unloved, every vow unsworn,” I doubt the poet imagined footage of a wedding ring being slipped off the finger of a bride, or jubilant crowds waving cell phones at concerts.
Here, as Berry warns, the imagination is limited by the camera. In a world in which I couldn’t buy Berry’s New Collected Poems, I might make an effort to see this again someday, with my eyes shut.
Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry
Directed by Laura Dunn
Two Birds Films
Opens June 30, IFC Center