Critic, poet, playwright, and artist John Berger prefers to call himself a “storyteller,” and The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger offers a quadrilogy of poetic sounds and images that each tell a different tale about Berger, the “radical humanist” who left urban London for the rural French Alpine village of Quincy in 1973 and never looked back.
Seasons is as much about the place Berger calls home as it is about the man himself. Berger’s bramble of tangled gray hair and the slow, natural grace of his gait down a gravel lane sometimes blur the separation between author and landscape. This documentary shares its sensual confusion of place and person with The Seer, an excellent portrait of Kentucky poet, philosopher, and farmer Wendell Berry that screened at the Nashville Film Festival back in April. The structure of the Seasons’ anthology also recalls experimental artist documentaries, such as Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and Paul Schrader’s biopic of the great Japanese poet, playwright, actor, director, and novelist, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters.
The first portrait, “Ways of Listening,” is directed by Colin MacCabe and written by Tilda Swinton, and it features the actress and Berger in his studio looking at paintings, outdoors using shovels and a wheelbarrow to rescue his car from a snow drift, and in the kitchen preparing food, eating and talking at the table. The pair have a lot in common: Berger’s dad was a veteran of World War I, Swinton’s of World War II. They share a November 5th birthday, and they both agree that their decades-long friendship was arranged by themselves in a previous life. They share a great chat about history, silence, fathers, war and apples – it’s imaginatively shot, and the lo-fi images recall Derek Jarman. In fact, the Derek Jarman Lab partnered with Swinton in the making of the film.
The second portrait, “Spring,” unspools in the wake of the death of Berger’s wife Beverly. Conversely, it’s a chapter concerned with immortality – the kind that animals achieve through the perpetuation of a species. Berger reads from his own anthology About Looking in the narration: “Lion was lion. Cow was cow.” Director Christopher Roth’s crew also narrates these scenes, quoting Berger’s animal writings in voiceover or reading from Berger’s creature-centric works while addressing the camera directly. Add in a few comments about the political potential inherent in the spring season – the Prague Spring, the Arab Spring – and add some bold white titles and French pop music, and this chapter is a refreshingly irreverent Godardian exploration of what we might learn about time and consciousness through the eyes of the animals that we have both subjugated and worshipped.
The political threads continue into the film’s third portrait. “Song for Politics” finds Colin MacCabe in front of the camera moderating a discussion with Berger, Roth, and writers Ben Lerner and Akshi Singh. This portrait, directed by Bartek Dziadoz, ranges from MacCabe’s recollection of seeing Berger on 1960s BBC art programs as a boy to a discussion of politics and history. The discussion is shot in black-and-white, but it’s regularly (and thankfully) interrupted by loud colorful footage of farmers shearing sheep or cleaning out stables, and old television footage of Berger. The interruption is welcomed because the pretentious, bloodless intellectualizing makes this chapter the film’s weakest link – it is the cinematic analog to a new record by an older musical artist that is weighed down with “special guests” who inevitably ruin the proceedings. This imaginative editing is wasted on an almost unlistenable discussion that would have worked wonderfully if MacCabe had simply interviewed the film’s subject without the inexplicable additions.
Luckily, order is restored to the man and the land in the film’s fourth segment, “Harvest,” directed by Swinton herself. This portrait finds Berger’s son and Swinton’s teenage children joining the pair on a trip from the Scottish Highlands back to Berger’s home in Quincy.
Like Berger’s work, this is a film about looking at and listening to art, history, land, animals – at one another and to one another. According to Berger, “Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.” Seasons reminds us that we’re all orphans in this life, but it also invites us to the table to share a conversation, an apple, and to see the depths of our own experiences reflected in Berger’s life and the work he’s wrought from it.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.