Spir­i­tual ‘Look’ at ac­tivist poet

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - — Robert Abele

“Look & See: A Por­trait of Wen­dell Berry” is a movie with an odd ti­tle, since dur­ing its al­most 90 min­utes, we never ac­tu­ally see the ven­er­a­ble Kentucky-born poet-ac­tivist ex­cept in archival pho­to­graphs. Though he vo­cally par­tic­i­pated, he clearly re­fused to be filmed, even for di­rec­tor Laura Dunn, whose ad­mi­ra­tion for Berry goes back to her use of his poetry in her stel­lar 2007 en­vi­ron­men­tal doc­u­men­tary “The Un­fore­seen.”

In his phys­i­cal place are wist­ful ru­ral vis­tas, close­ups of ar­ti­sans at work and in­ter­views with farm­ers. In lieu of a lit­eral ful­fill­ment of the ti­tle’s prom­ise, Dunn gives us a spir­i­tual one, an ag­gres­sively po­etic el­egy to the pre-in­dus­tri­al­ized agrar­ian work/life ethic Berry made his most deeply felt cause. Somber doc­u­men­taries about the plight of those who’ve gone from mod­estly work­ing the land to in­cur­ring debt to feed a mech­a­nized in­dus­try are nu­mer­ous, and Dunn’s ver­sion of this story isn’t new, but it has the added res­o­nance of Berry’s af­fa­ble drawl nar­rat­ing choice verses or an­swer­ing Dunn’s ques­tions over lov­ingly edited footage of his home and neigh­bor­ing farmlands. (It’s Kentucky, so to­bacco is a big part of the rep­re­sented crops memo­ri­al­ized here, which may be off­putting to some.) If you can get past the over­wrought, ill­con­ceived “Koy­aanisqatsi” es­que se­quence set to Berry’s poem “A Tim­bered Choir” that opens “Look & See” and ac­cept that the man him­self is more the­matic pres­ence than ex­plored per­son, Dunn’s hearth-and-soil ro­man­ti­cism has its share of beau­ti­ful melan­choly, like an at­ten­tively cu­rated scrap­book.

“Look & See: A Por­trait of Wen­dell Berry.” Not rated. Run­ning time: 1 hour, 22 min­utes. Play­ing: Laemmle’s Mon­ica Film Cen­ter.

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