When it comes to John Berger, I seem to have inadvertently become The Geek Show’s go to guy. I previously reviewed Taskafa, Stories of the Street, a 2013 documentary film from Andrea Luka Zimmerman which used Berger as a narrator, reading excerpts from his own novel King. But I have to make a rather embarrassing confession: before that film, I don’t think I even knew who John Berger was and even now, I still know very little of the work of the Booker prize winning novelist, poet, theorist, art critic and painter who sadly died in January this year at the age of ninety. But now after watching The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, an unconventional four part portrait from Birbeck College’s Derek Jarman Lab, I really do want to know more.
The film is made up of four personal portraits of the man, directed by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz. Filmed just a few years before his death, each capture a man of remarkable intelligence, insight and charisma at his home in the village of Quincy (pronounced Kau-see) in rural France where he lived for more than half a century.
MacCabe’s portrait kickstarts the film. Entitled Ways of Listening (a play on Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the acclaimed 1972 text and TV series that uniquely explored how we look at art, and the only thing I actually knew Berger from) and affords the viewer an opportunity to eavesdrop on a series of enlightening, thought provoking conversations between Berger and Tilda Swinton, snugly holed up in Berger’s farmhouse kitchen against the snowcapped French countryside beyond. Swinton explains the connection they have always felt they shared, having been born in London, to soldier fathers, on November 5th in the years 1926 and 1960 respectively. More, they feel that their connection traverses their timelines. “Maybe we made an appointment to see each other in this life,“ Berger offers. “5th November. But it wasn’t the same year. Doesn’t matter” whilst Swinton suggests “Like we got off at the same station”, much to his approval. The pair are so comfortable with one another, peeling apples for a pie (which Swinton delivers the recipe for over the closing credits) and discussing their fathers and the way each man was changed and shaped by their experiences of war, that MacCabe’s offering is a very peaceful, elegiac start to the overall film.
The second portrait is from Christopher Roth. Entitled Spring, it’s a very different piece to the one that preceded it.; an experimental, collage style visual/aural essay. It wasn’t meant to be. Initially Roth arrived in Quincy with a desire to talk politics with Berger, to dissect and discuss the various ‘springs’ that seemed to give the world hope for change. However his arrival coincided with the death of Berger’s wife and constant companion of over forty years, Beverley Bancroft, and Berger understandably removed himself from the proceedings. The quirky piece that follows devotes its attention to Berger’s fascination with animals, the food chain and rural life in general.
Having been abandoned by Roth, politics finally finds its way into the film with a piece co-directed by Bartek Dziadosz and MacCabe. A Song for Politics is more than just a study of Berger as a political animal though. Staged as a round table discussion hosted by MacCabe and harking back to a time when Berger became a recognisable arts correspondent on TV which, as a medium of just two channels, could attract healthy viewing figures of 3 or 4 million people all eager to learn from arts and current affairs discussed on the gogglebox. Artificially shot in monochrome to suggest this by gone time, the subject at hand is the current political climate of post-capitalism and uncertainty and how best a storyteller – as Berger always referred to himself as – may convey a hopeful, political alternative message to society. Assembled for this chat are Akshi Singh, an Indian poet and activist, Ben Lerner, an American novelist and poet, and Christopher Roth and it is here that we perhaps first truly *see* Berger. He is a man both energised by ideas and intelligent discourse, and eager to learn from the perspectives and experiences of others even at his advanced age. Indeed, the years fall away from him during this segment as he paints illustrative pictures with his ever-moving hands, speaks economically yet eloquently on the notion that heaven and hell have been supplanted by capitalism and communism (it is only in hell, he posits, where solidarity still means something) and passes his hipflask round the table. Watching him here I was suddenly struck by the amusing idea that he suddenly appeared a curious hybrid between Samuel Beckett and Trevor Peacock in The Vicar of Dibley; the former because of his craggy, well lined features and thick snow-white hair, and the latter because of his soft ‘r’s’, the glee he clearly possesses from social communication, and the fact that this artificial round table talk seems to be taking place in a room not unlike a village hall!
The film comes full circle with the finale portrait, Harvest directed by Tilda Swinton, the star of the first portrait. Like Ways of Listening, Swinton’s effort behind the camera returns to intimacy and a home movie style. The film was made during another of Swinton’s visit to Quincy, the surrounding countryside now free of snow and at last kissed by the glorious sunlight. She is accompanied by her two teenage children and the special connectivity that Swinton feels with Berger is seemingly passed down here as her son and daughter forge a bond with Berger’s own grown-up son and his family, who introduce them to the land, the seasons, and the way of life in Quincy; touring Berger’s studio, making candles and mastering the cup game. It certainly looks like a lovely, memorable holiday and is topped off with the aged Berger taking Swinton’s 16-year-old daughter for a ride on his motorbike, much to her mother’s beaming delight, with a promise to teach her how to ride it herself the following year – I hope that the fates ensured that promise came true.
Overall, when you consider that four filmmakers were each committed to offering a personal perspective and insight into Berger, it might have been too much to ask that The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger would hang together successfully. It is understandably uneven, but I think that’s intentional in a way; Berger means different things to each of them and his work is too broad, too discursive and all encompassing on a variety of subjects to be properly cohesive. What does come across throughout each portrait however is the life of a man who lived simply, taking nourishment from the world around him and what it had to offer.