By Tyler Patterson
“If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen.” says the writer and artist John Berger in one of the many luminous moments of The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, an invaluable document of Berger’s life and work co-directed by Tilda Swinton. Berger, who passed away on the second day of this year at the age of ninety, did so much to both enlarge and give nuance to our understanding of art, culture, and politics that it is nearly impossible to overstate the scope of his influence. That he and Swinton forged a decades-long friendship and gave us this film, thanks to Swinton’s commitment to film projects that transcend and often redefine boundaries, is yet another gift, one which offers critical insights about the peculiar historical moment in which we find ourselves, from their already generous careers.
So much of the pleasure of watching The Seasons in Quincy comes less from the quality of the filmmaking itself, which is at times somewhat unfortunately disjointed and heavy-handed, and more from the experience of being in the company of Berger’s warmth and intellect. Even in his late eighties, when the film was being made, Berger’s critiques and observations are as lucid and incisive as they were when earlier in his career, a career which, interestingly enough, started out on television. As the literary critic and film producer Colin MacCabe points out at the beginning of the third portrait in the film, “A Song for Politics,”, an arts program on public access television (then the only television) in London in the sixties could find three or four million eager viewers without having to compete in an oversaturated market for their attention. Binge-watching might have not been a thing, but that didn’t mean that early television watchers weren’t hungry for content. And content did Berger produce. The Seasons in Quincy makes effective use of archival footage from the programs Berger hosted, in which he raises probing questions at the intersection of art, culture, and politics. The carefully-curated clips recycled in The Seasons in Quincy are every bit as thought-provoking as they must have been when they first appeared on television thirty to forty years ago. What, for example, makes something modern? Why do we accept this as the sole criterion on which a work of art is judged with really knowing what it means? For those of us who have been ardent fans of Berger’s work ever since the day our liberal arts college drawing teacher had us read Ways of Seeing, it is nothing short of a joy to watch Berger soar down the road in a drop-top convertible glancing over his shoulder at the camera to state “One of the features of our time is that people worship ideas, and objects, but ideas particularly, quite arbitrarily without understanding their meaning.” The intellectual joy is redoubled when one recognizes, not without an accompanying psychic ache, how relevant Berger’s observation remains.
But this kind of joy and, even more so, hope, are two key elements of The Seasons in Quincy and Berger’s work in general. As the poet Ben Lerner points out in “A Song for Politics”, though it deals with suffering, Berger’s work never loses touch with “an openness and attention to the sensual world”. One of Berger’s last collections of essays, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, includes an essay in which Berger examines one of the most hopeless situations in the world, the state of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and therein creates grounds for hope. This variety of hope has to do with uncertainty, possibility, and openness of the future despite the fixity of the past.
This theme of Berger’s work, and its associated act of looking ahead, are presented lucidly in the final portrait of the film, “Harvest”. In this portrait, Swinton’s twin children, whose birth she mentions in the opening of the first portrait, “Ways of Listening”, travel to the small village of Quincy in Alpine France, where Berger moved in 1973 and raised a family. They go there at Berger’s request, to gather raspberries from the bushes that Berger’s late wife Beverly planted and eat them in front of pictures of her because their pleasure will give her pleasure. They also spend time with John’s son Yves. Yves reminisces with them about growing up in Quincy. When he was a child the horizon seemed to him to be the limit of the world. In one particularly moving moment, he muses on how the trees who grow around Quincy are the source of the wood for his family’s barn and how the piles of hay that have been stored in the barn year after year have made the beams as soft as skin. It is a gorgeous sequence in which the camera tracks through the old barn, floating over golden mountains of hay while spring light leaks in through the cracks. The image and voiceover magically conspire to evoke the interconnectedness of all things. The poignancy of this moment is all the more powerful in the intergenerational context of the meeting between Swinton and Berger’s children, offering a sense of the generative, subtle recursions in life.
If there is any criticism to be made of the film, it is that it relies too heavily on the richness of Berger’s mind and the warmth of his friendship with Swinton and others. At times, it veers off on perplexing detours. After Berger memorably states that “it’s in hell that solidarity is important, not in heaven” during a conversation with other artists and writers, the film cuts to a series of shots of what looks like a flea market in Quincy. The workers depicted are anonymous. It is almost as though the filmmaker is paying lip service to the process Berger used to write A Seventh Man, for which he lived among and interviewed migrant workers in order to tell their stories more fully.