Over the past sixty years, the great John Berger — art critic, essayist, screenwriter, novelist, poet, and artist — has made immeasurable contributions to our understanding of
culture and politics, never more potently than in Ways of Seeing, an unapologetically Marxist interpretation of art history and aesthetics. Originally a four-part series that aired on the BBC in 1972 and was hosted
by a longhaired Berger (who looked like a scholarly Bee Gee), Ways of Seeing was also the name given to a series of essays published that same year expanding on the ideas the affable cicerone had laid out on TV. One of Berger’s abiding concerns in
the book is to uncover the ways that art
historians and connoisseurs have sought to “mystify rather than clarify.” Unfortunately, a similar kind of obfuscation marks The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, a warm and heartfelt but too often desultory and disorganized tribute to the down-to-earth intellectual.
Though the four film “essays” that make up The Seasons in Quincy are each directed by a different person and feature a variety
of interlocutors, the most prominent figure is Tilda Swinton, a friend of Berger’s: She appears in the segments that bookend the project, and her offscreen narration is heard, if only fleetingly, in the middle sections. In “Ways of Listening,” the documentary’s opening chapter, the actress arrives in wintry Quincy, the Alpine village (population: 100) where Berger has lived for four decades, to visit with the man with whom she feels “an indissoluble bond of kinship.” (Berger and Swinton both acted in the 1989 film Play Me Something, based on one of the writer’s short stories.) Born on the same day (November 5) in London — Berger in 1926 and Swinton in 1960 — the two obliquely resemble each other with their snowy manes; both are also the children of soldiers.
That biographical detail is dilated upon at Berger’s kitchen table while Swinton peels and cores apples for a crumble. He proves just as lively a raconteur in this homey setting as he was on his landmark BBC series; Berger’s recollections are made all the more charming by his Elmer Fudd–like way with the letter R (breakfast becomes bweakfast). Working a paring knife, Swinton raptly absorbs her chum’s tales and interjects, a bit too theatrically, with queries, before sharing stories of her brigadier-general father. Their intimacy begins to feel excessively stage-managed, however, a few moments later, when the two sit side by side at the same table: Swinton seems overcome with emotion while reading a passage by Berger — an incident thuddingly scored by lugubrious strings and further heightened by frequent cuts to black.
These affectations also blight another, earlier salute to one of Swinton’s friends: Isaac Julien’s Derek (2008), a slender hagiography of Derek Jarman (1942–94), the queer-cinema firebrand who made several films with the actress. Much of Derek
features Swinton solemnly wandering
the streets of London and reading, in voiceover, segments of “Letter to an
Angel.” Her paean to the filmmaker, published in the Guardian in 2002, is filled with such sentiments as “but our souls droop without the bittersweet touch of something we might recognize” — words that are moving on the page but sound overblown via the actress’s delivery.
When Swinton describes her stay with Berger as “a check-in, a catch-up, a chin-wag,” the syllables made unnecessarily orotund, I flinched a little, as I did more than once while watching Derek nearly a decade ago. The Seasons in Quincy, like Derek, was produced by Swinton and Colin MacCabe; the latter is the director of the “Ways of Listening” installment, which, despite its occasional aimlessness and blithe disregard for identifying people onscreen — who is the bespectacled woman who
appears intermittently? — turns out to be the most coherent section of The Seasons
in Quincy. (MacCabe also chairs the Derek Jarman Lab, a London-based media hub under whose aegis Quincy was made.)
In the second chapter, “Spring,” helmed by Christopher Roth, we do learn the identity of the anonymous woman: She is Beverly, Berger’s second wife, and quite recently deceased. But who imparts this information via voiceover? I think it’s Ben Lerner, the author of 10:04 who appears in Quincy‘s third part, “A Song for Politics,” directed by Bartek Dziadosz;
he quickly distinguishes himself as the sharpest of four panelists (who also include MacCabe) assembled for a drifting, haphazard discussion of late capitalism and neoliberalism with Berger. “Spring” disorients with several other unidentified narrators, both onscreen and off-, before focusing, however briefly, on another of Berger’s canonical works, his 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?”
A passage from that treatise (not read in Quincy) could apply to many of the structural problems in the documentary: “At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunised to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.” By the time of Quincy‘s final section, the Swinton-directed “Harvest,” the sage himself is in danger of becoming upstaged by his ostensible acolytes. The actress, seen at one point in this segment smiling for the camera while holding a copy of L’Humanité — to prove that her leftist bona fides are as unimpeachable as Berger’s, I guess — cedes the spotlight here to her teenage twins, Honor and Xavier. The kids, exceedingly polite, bring a gift to Berger’s son Yves, who, like his young visitors, is also good company, and who has some illuminating observations about Dad. But his remarks come too late in a project that, in its strange way of genuflecting, ends up losing sight of the man it hopes to praise.
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
Directed by Bartek Dziadosz, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, and Tilda Swinton
Film Forum, August 31–September 13