December 22, 2016 / Perspective
Zach Czaia examines Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me from the perspective of a Catholic high school English teacher.
August 31, 2017
Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell (Henry County, KY: Two Birds Film, 2016).
We spend most of our time looking. We look at Google maps to find our way. We look on Wikipedia to find answers to every query. We look at websites and ads and articles to learn information or make purchases. We look at pornographic images to be titillated. We look at lists and videos and Instagram posts to be distracted. We look and look and look some more. But we rarely see.
Sometimes we look at a beautiful thing and come close to seeing it, but instead we grab our phone to take a picture of it so that the beautiful thing can become useful to us as an item to post on social media. Just as we are about to recognize the truth of the thing and bask in its beauty, our instinct toward utility kicks in, and we start writing the Instagram caption in our mind. This gorgeous view will surely garner fifty-plus likes! #nofilter.
I’m guilty of this. In recent weeks I’ve been in some beautiful places: the Pacific Crest Trail at the Sonora Pass in Northern California, partially snow-covered and just on the cusp of a wildflower explosion; the hills of San Francisco, at the hour when the marine layer rolls in from the Pacific like a freight train of fog; Crater Lake in Oregon, its bright blue water all the more vivid because of the snowy volcanic slopes encircling it in white. In each case I admit to spending more time framing the view with my phone than with my eyes. Rather than simply standing before it, taking it in, seeing it for what it is, I think of what others might think of the fact that I’ve seen this thing.
To look at something is to take only the first step, to note the colors and shapes of a thing, like a camera digitizes and stores them. We often stop there. But to look and see is to recognize. To know. To learn. To encounter. To believe. To be immersed within.
Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry is a film about the poetics of seeing, as three of the words in its title imply (look, see, portrait). Directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell, whose previous film collaboration was, curiously enough, The Unforeseen, and executive-produced by Terrence Malick, the film is ostensibly about the Kentucky farmer/novelist/poet/Christian whose agrarian/artistic existence (“A life of working the land and writing”) is the fantasy of many a modern hipster.
But Look and See is not about Berry as much as it is about what Berry can teach us about seeing. To underscore this point, Berry himself is noticeably unseen in the film, though he is heard throughout. Much of the film consists of voiceovers from Berry, often reciting his own poetry as we see images of trees, dirt, streams, skies, all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lee Daniel, who previously shot films like Boyhood and Before Sunset.
A motif and guiding frame of the film is the forty-pane window that Berry sits before as he writes. From his desk, he looks out through this window and sees tobacco fields and the Kentucky River. He describes the window as “a graph” that structures our seeing but nevertheless cannot contain the wild, organic, and unstructured life on the other side of the glass. “The window has forty / panes, forty clarities,” we hear Berry read, from his “Window Poems,” describing how the “black grid” frames the wilds of nature beyond: trees, rivers, slopes, clouds.
To learn to see, we must learn to love windows as Berry loves his, to love them for their “clarities” in spite of their smudges and dust. To see well is to position ourselves before windows but to also recognize their limits. Any given window can only frame part of reality, just as any given photograph or film shot can only glimpse a fraction of what is seeable. A window helps us see because it fosters curiosity. Its limits and boundaries beckon us to explore beyond, to imagine where the river bends next and from where the wind blows.
“The limits of a camera is that it’s always looking through a frame,” says Berry in the film. “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.” The best art is always the kind that embraces these limits. A great painter knows that her canvas, however small or large, is never meant to be the whole story. A great photographer is inspired as much by what is hinted at beyond the frame as by what is captured within it. A great filmmaker understands that less is often more: a well-placed three-second shot of an injured dog can say more about suffering than a three-minute scene of dialogue.
Indeed, the art of seeing better is not necessarily seeing more. Often the opposite is true. The small, the subtle, the quietly observed thing often reveals the most profound truth. To paraphrase William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” we can see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, if only we have eyes to see.
As a film, Look and See occasionally tries to say too much, wading into the politics and economics of farming, turning its gaze away from gratitude and beauty and toward justice and the ugliness of big industry and “technologists” who forsake “the old values.” But in its best moments, the film is a sublime meditation on simplicity, with long takes of nature and quiet observations of beauty. A pair of deer prance through the field during a delicate snowfall on a Kentucky farm. There is no voiceover in this scene. No commentary. No objective. There doesn’t need to be.
Too often we rush to find meaning, to offer commentary, to discern a cause, to make it all useful. We are conditioned to look for something to get out of a looked at thing, but this posture only inhibits our seeing. Much of what we read on the Internet today, whether it be a film review or a political hot take, is hastily written, consumed, and forgotten. It is a cheaply wrought glance that barely touches the surface of things that beckon to be seen and more deeply probed. Whatever truths might exist within a seen thing are lost in the relentless onward march of productive looking. We look and search and look and click and forget what we looked at and clicked on an hour earlier.
We are drowning in the whirlpool of a too-fast world, with every pressure presenting itself to us, all the time. We are overwhelmed with the problems that pepper our feeds and populate our screens. Ubiquitous media confront us constantly with the ruptures, dissatisfactions, and injustices of the world. To quote Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now,” “Every inch of space in your head / is filled up with the things that you read.”1 We thus feel either total apathy or total urgency, driven to escape into privatized pleasure or to involve ourselves in every public issue. But in both cases, we neglect what is to be appreciated, tended, and healed in our own homes.
“This is an age of divorce,” says Berry in the film. “Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them back together. Two things. Not all things. That’s the way the work has to go.” Berry shows us that wisdom is starting small, having faith in and affection for “the great coherence that we miss and would like to have again.” And so we look at the broken world, and we repair what is in our grasp to repair. We create and re-create. “If it’s a stool or a film or a poem or an essay or a novel or a musical composition, it’s all about that,” says Berry in the film. “Finding how it fits together and fitting it together.”
But human ambition is rarely satisfied with such simple tasks. We are driven by the siren song of an ever-elusive “objective,” which Berry explores in the poem that opens the film. Everyone now finds themselves in pursuit of the “objective,” writes Berry, “which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress.”2 The objective, Berry suggests in the poem, drives people to be in constant motion but disconnected from place. They know neither where they are going nor where they are from. This bleak picture of a placeless world, where people are wandering in search of an unknown “objective,” is for Berry the natural result of a world where we have stopped seeing. We have “many eyes” but no sight—no sense of contentment in the here; only insatiable movement toward an unknown there.
Conditioned by consumerism, we assume that more money will help us get there, and so everything orients around making more money and spending it in the right way. But the “money economy” is not the only economy, Berry insists: “The world is in fact full of free things that are delightful. Flowers. The world is also full of people who would rather pay for something to kill the dandelions than to appreciate the dandelions. Well, I’m a dandelion man myself.”
Do we appreciate the dandelions in our lives? Do we take time to look and see and know the dandelions, to understand their context and what they have to say? For Christians, do we take seriously the words of Psalm 19—“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (19:1 ESV)—and, if so, do we have the patience to discern their declarations and perceive their proclamations?
To begin to see again, start with the dandelions in your front yard. Stay with the place where you are. The here. We will never know the world in any real sense if we don’t first know the specific place we call home. To see well what’s right in front of us is, paradoxically, to see everything else better too. Our primary context may not be the most beautiful, but it is the most fertile ground for the growth of imagination and the training of sight.
“To live in a place and have your vision confined by it would be a mistake,” says Berry in the film. “But to live in a place and try to understand it as a standpoint from which to see, and to see from there as far as you can, is a proper challenge, I think.”
In my backyard is a hammock, the place I go to think and pray and see from my little standpoint in Santa Ana, California. The hammock is shaded in the mornings, before the cool Pacific air gives way to the Sonoran heat invading from the east. I was just there before I started writing this review, on a Saturday in early July.
The hammock is my version of Berry’s window. From it, I see our avocado tree, its small growing orbs dangling precariously from the branches that infuse them with life. I see the palm trees, those hearty tropical towers that dance and sway to the sunset song. I see an array of succulents, happy and growing during the hot, rainless months. And I see the sky above, proclaiming God’s handiwork: faint whispers of white against the loud bellows of blue.
These are the choral voices of my backyard, singing in four-part harmony a song I could never find on Spotify. They are my dandelions. What are yours?
Brett McCracken is a writer and film critic in Southern California. He earned an MA in cinema and media studies from UCLA and has authored three books, including Gray Matters, Hipster Christianity, and Uncomfortable. Follow his work at brettmccracken.com.