By Mark James.
Most of us probably remember John Berger as the host of Ways of Seeing, a four-part 1972 television series that he created for BBC where Berger educated the nation about looking at art, effectively demonstrating that one can discuss the so called ‘Old Masters’ in ways that are both eloquent and understandable. Here, one would encounter the novelist, art critic, art historian, painter and poet John Berger – someone who comes close to what some might call a ‘renaissance man’ –, elaborating on renaissance art just to explain later on, how the same motifs appear in contemporary advertisement and how pictures can manipulate or influence our behavior in the world. And now it is Berger himself, a self-proclaimed Humanist Marxist that was so invested in teaching his viewers how to ‘see’ art, who becomes the object of our gaze in the affectionate and artfully produced documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.
In the mid-1970s Berger and his late wife Beverly moved from London to the French town of Quincy to study farming and to understand, as the documentary puts it, “the lived experience of peasants.” It was there present day among the farmers of the Savoy Alps where his friend Tilda Swinton – accompanied by the directors Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz and Colin MacCabe – visited Berger in order to produce four conceptually different short films about certain aspects of his life. Compiled as one feature-length documentary, the title “Seasons in Quincy” already points towards its organizing principle: Each short film is dedicated to one season; starting in winter, when Swinton and Berger are snowed up in the French alps and begin remembering their fathers, and ending in autumn while focusing on Berger teaching a new generation, namely Swinton’s own kids.
Swinton along with MacCabe, who directs the documentary’s initial short film, first showed up at Berger’s home in the midst of a snowstorm. “We got in two hours before they closed the roads,” as Swinton remembers. Snowed in, the episode begins in Berger’s kitchen and shows him peeling apples with his friend Tilda Swinton. The scene almost resembles a still life or Dutch genre painting until it is set in motion when he hesitantly and with gentle intonation starts elaborating on rare memories of his father, a soldier who fought in WW II. In one intimate scene he even remembers the way his father used to cut apples: first in half, then in quarters and then peeling them. The bond between Swinton and Berger, both the children of soldiers who share the same birthday (although 34 years apart), becomes beautifully evident when Swinton reenacts this specific cutting-pattern, which Berger recalls. But this scene also does something else; it vividly illustrates Berger’s exceptional talent: the precise looking as well as describing. As he demonstrated in his essays and series, the way that we see art depends both on factors like lightning and the visible image detail but also on personal aspects like our own biography. All of this forms Berger’s understanding of art and the world.
Christopher Roth captures this approach in his short film “Spring” while not showing Berger at all. Instead, he focuses on all the aspects of what Berger sees in Quincy during this season: How the snow-covered hills transform into rich green fields and how farmers subsequently release their animals back to those lawns. And then a cut; Donkeys, oxen, horses and pigs stare directly into the camera, one after the other. “But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar,” writes Berger in “Why Look at Animals”, “man becomes aware of himself returning the look.” Besides Roth’s attempt to examine Berger’s writing on man’s relation to nature and animals in this episode, “Spring” also awkwardly touches on the death of Berger’s wife Beverly Bancroft, who died in 2013 after the filming of the first short. Like her husband Berger she remains absent in the second short film and only appears in the periphery of the first short.
In focusing on a wide-ranging discussion about political resistance between Berger, Roth, MacCabe and the writers Ben Lerner and Akshi Singh the third short shifts the viewers attention to Berger’s political activism. Although his understanding of power relation also influenced his understanding of art history and criticism, “A Song for Politics” remembers his more direct forms of political engagement, most of which still remain virulent in our day and age. When he, for example, received the Booker Prize in 1972 for his experimental book “G.” Berger donated half of the money to the Black Panther Party. The film’s final segment titled “Harvest”, directed by Swinton, focuses on Berger’s private life and his family and friends. Berger’s son and Swinton’s children join their parents for a visually rich journey to Quincy starting in the Scottish highlands. “Harvest” places Berger and Swinton’s kids in conversation, educating them about the simple pleasures of life like riding a motorcycle or eating raspberries. “John said that he would love us to come and see him,” explains MacCabe, “but that the last thing he wanted to do was to talk about his life.” And thus “Four Seasons in Quincy” isn’t interested in chronicling Berger’s career and achievements; important events in his life are mentioned in passing, but not brought to the foreground.
Using collages of images, dialogs, voice-overs and archival material, those four short films look at Berger exactly the way he approaches subjects in his essays, novels and criticisms: always new; always different. The documentary insightfully captures Berger’s understanding of art, but never fully articulates it, and thus we, as viewers are encouraged to contemplate on our own; about his theory, his political activism and his humanism. Consequently, “Four Seasons in Quincy” not only takes its object seriously, but also its subject: the viewer. And this, too, is the main aspect of Berger’s philosophy.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger shows at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco October 20-23, 2016 and will be released on DVD in December.