A Man For All Seasons

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger

John Berger is protean, although the seas in which he has been involved are the watchable and readable and not the watery kind. He has been, at various times throughout a richly productive 60-year-long career, a filmmaker, screenwriter, art critic, essayist, novelist, playwright, poet, actor and drawer. The Seasons in Quincy is a 90-minute-long documentary that sets out to reveal the essence of his complicated being through four simple portraits, each one corresponding to a season. The year begins in winter (“Ways of Listening”) and proceeds in predictable fashion through spring (“Spring”), summer (“A Song for Politics”) and fall (“Harvest”).

But there is nothing predictable about the way in which the directors approach their subject. Berger has consistently said that regardless of the genre in which he was working, he has only been a storyteller, and the four directors take their cue from that pronouncement. Each of the seasons is a portrait and each of the portraits is a story.

The story central to “Ways of Listening” (the title changes sense in playing off Berger’s famous BBC television series and accompanying book from 1972 called Ways of Seeing) is in two parts, both of which concern war and fathers. Berger’s fellow storyteller in this portrait is Tilda Swinton, a close friend with whom he shares a birthdate and place, November 5 in London, but 34 years apart. It is what Swinton, who narrates the film, describes as “the practical fantasy of twinship.” Berger was born in 1926 and his father served as an officer for four years in the trenches during WWI; Swinton’s father lost a leg in the Second World War. But neither of them spoke about their wartime experience, a reticence their children, writer and actor, talk about as Swinton cores apples for a crisp that will be eaten at the end of the portrait, and the recipe for which will be provided as the credits appear. The winter portrait is a bit self-consciously cozy in its domesticity and stagy in its presentation. Both Berger and Swinton talk as if they were slowly reciting a script, and every so often Berger’s eye glances towards the camera and then quickly away, as if he suddenly realizes that the illusion being played out is two friends having a casually intimate conversation and that he has broken the conceit. The portrait also includes a segment from a 1989 film adaptation of one of his stories called Play Me Something, in which Swinton plays a hairdresser and Berger a mysterious stranger who tells a story of a Venetian love affair. “Ways of Listening” also includes her reading Berger’s “Self-Portrait, 1914–18,” a poem about the experience of living as the inheritor of his father’s wartime experience. It is a fine poem, but it’s curious to watch Berger’s reaction. He is obliged to be an actor in his own life, and what results is a sense of uncomfortableness, for both poet and viewer.

The second portrait, simply called “Spring,” was supposed to be about politics and uprisings, “the Prague Spring, the Arab Spring and the perpetual false spring of capitalism. Spring is utopia and politics is spring,” as the director and writer Christopher Roth puts it. But the illness and death of Beverly Bancroft, Berger’s wife of 40 years, changes everything. “A private winter had established itself in the household,” the narrator says, which necessitates the film crew finding a new venue and subject. Ingeniously, the story they choose to tell is the ongoing relationship between animals and man, a subject that has been central to Berger’s writing. Because they don’t have access to him, they build the portrait out of fragments from earlier films, books and paintings. We get excerpts from films Berger made in the 1980s, like Parting Shots from Animals and Once Upon A Time, and a reading from Pig Earth, where the slaughter of a pig is described with the concluding line, “his death was like a basin emptying.” There are criticisms of Martin Heidegger’s “dogmatic anthropocentrism” and images of George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket and Eadweard Muybridge’s Galloping Horse. There is even an interview with Jacques Derrida in which he talks about his surprised embarrassment at being caught naked before his cat. It leads to a cameo appearance in which one of the film crew plays body double to Derrida by standing naked in front of an expansive window. “The animal looks at us and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins here,” she says and a slightly mischievous smile breaks at the corner of her mouth.

Perhaps, and it carries on throughout “Spring.” In one of the most profound observations in the portrait, we hear Berger reading from Why Look at Animals under shots from Zoo Berlin and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. “With their parallel lives, animals offer men a companionship different from any other human exchange,” he says. “Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”

The third portrait takes the form of a panel on politics, videotaped in Mieussy in the French Alps. It is the story of the song of words and ideas, and along with Berger and the literary critic and director Colin MacCabe, includes three very smart young writers, Christopher Roth, the poet and activist Akshi Singh, and the American novelist and poet, Ben Lerner. As unpromising as a group of talking heads might sound, the ideas and critiques generated by the writers are provocative and intelligent. MacCabe pulls the colour from the shoot so that it resembles the golden age of British television in the early ’60s, when arts programs like Monitor (to which Berger was a contributor) would draw three or four million viewers. During this portrait, Berger addresses one of the essential qualities of the storyteller. “Unlike what most people think, storytelling does not begin with inventing, it begins with listening,” he says. “Stories come to you all the time if you listen.” Perhaps the most eloquent passage in the entire conversation comes when Ben Lerner summarizes the two things that make Berger’s writing indispensable. It is too long to quote here, but in part he says that Berger’s openness to describing the hell that surrounds us without losing an appreciation of the sensual world is a model for morally rigorous writing. “There’s a commitment to memory and having a relationship to the dead,” Lerner says, “that never degenerates into the seductions of nostalgia.” Berger’s simple response is to clasp his hands together in tribute to the tributary. It is an eloquent gesture.

The final portrait is called “Harvest” and Tilda Swinton reappears, this time with her two teenage children, Xavier and Honor. They travel from Scotland to Quincy, where they meet with Berger’s son, Yves, who lives as a farmer and painter in the village. His paintings make a discreet appearance in two of the portraits. “Harvest” opens with Berger talking about the vertical extension of time that he experiences in Quincy and how children are part of that vertical continuity. It is also an occasion to remark that this view of time is “where the dead enter.”

Berger’s ghost story, as he tells it, is a benign one. He has described the storyteller as “Death’s secretary” but he is also memory’s annunciator. Berger will ask the Swinton children to pick raspberries from the canes Beverly planted years ago and tended, find an image of her, and go to a place in the garden and eat them, “because your pleasure will give her pleasure.” The ritual he asks for, and the one they enact with Yves in Quincy, recognizes “the present company of the dead” and is evidence of his conviction that “living with the dead makes us human.”

Near the end of the portrait, Berger says that one of the advantages of living in the country is that you never feel shut in. His measure is both spatial and temporal. “Because you’re open, every season has its particularities, some of which you like. In other words, a season isn’t something that befalls you; it is something that you inhabit.” At their best, each of these portraits is an inhabitation as particular as the way Berger describes the seasons. And as he remarks, there is some of it to like, and some of it to like less.

Early in the first portrait, Swinton mentions Bento’s Sketchbook, Berger’s book on drawing published in 2011. She recommends it because its fully personal nature “contributes him to anyone who reads it.” Which leads me to ask how much this four-part portrait contributes to our understanding of John Berger; put simply the question is, What do we learn from watching him in these varied portraits?

I have been reading and watching Berger since the mid-’70s and my admiration remains undiminished. I have also interviewed him at length, which conversation was published in this magazine in 1995. I still regard it favourably because of its candour and uncompromising honesty. At its most engaging, Berger’s need to speak to the heart of what it is to be human and to address the political and economic forces that resist any movement in that direction, is irrepressible. There are numerous videos available online in which we can see evidence of his speaking to that aspiration.

But these are occasions when Berger is being asked to perform as a public intellectual, and in The Seasons in Quincy the promise seems to be that when we see him in the Haute-Savoie, where he moved 40 years ago to live with and understand peasants, we will be given a more private view of the man. Not less committed but more nuanced in its expression. To some extent, that is what we get, but whether it makes us admire him more is not entirely clear. In advance of his 90th year, he has assumed a slightly avuncular tone. We see that trait in the two Swinton portraits, with Tilda separately and together with her children. There is a kind of well-shot, home movie quality about these portraits, too prescient by half and precious in quarters. There is a surplus of emphatic hand gestures, raised eyebrows and meaningful looks. Too much can be made of too little and these two portraits skirt the less-is-less aesthetic.

Watching the documentary made me go back to a fascinating 1983 conversation between Berger and Susan Sontag called To Tell A Story. It’s an inquiry into the lost art of storytelling and over the hour they talk, vast differences emerge in the approaches these two formidable intellectuals take to the question of how to tell a story and what a story is. Very near the end of the program, Berger admits that “I’m not very verbal.” It may sound heretical to say so, but he is right. What he more accurately could have said is that before they take verbal form, he wants his thinking to be thought through. On the evidence of many of his available spoken interviews, the difficulty of that process is visibly observable. Rarely does an interview go by where he doesn’t lower his head, put both hands into his hair and hold himself in that position until he can begin to respond to what he is being asked. It reads like a combination of frustration and angst. (Sometimes, in his defense, his gesture is a response to a stupid question). But what is clear is that, as he says, he is not comfortable in the verbal world. Sontag is right in responding that because it can be reconsidered, writing is better than talk. There are occasions when a written paragraph can be worth a thousand spoken words. ❚

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Volume 35, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #139, published August 2016.

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