The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
The legacy of a storyteller
by Ellen Wang 20th April 2020
In March 2020, right before its temporary closure due to London’s lockdown, the British Film Institute (BFI) held its Tilda Swinton film season after Swinton was awarded a BFI Fellowship, the highest accolade by the Institute to individuals in ‘recognition of their contribution to film or television culture.’ Out of the thirteen feature films and five short films shown, from Swinton’s early collaboration with Derek Jarman Caravaggio (1986) to Snowpiercer (2013) directed by the recent Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho, one documentary series, co-produced by Swinton and the Derek Jarman Lab, stood out to me. This series is The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), a project composed of four short essay films on the writer, art critic, and storyteller, John Berger. The films show a less recognized side of Swinton as a filmmaker, a producer, and a friend of an exemplary intellect.
Illustration by Ellen Wang
As the last documentation shot before Berger’s death, The Seasons in Quincy become a precious record of his later life. Made up of four short essay films in different styles, linked through the four seasons of Quincy, the small town where Berger lived for more than thirty years, the biography shows Berger as a sharp commentator on politics on the one hand, and a storyteller of timeless creations on the other. The quartet opens with Ways of Listening, filmed in 2010 on a visit to Berger’s home in rural France in the village of Quincy. A conversation between Swinton and Berger, two long-time friends born in the same city on the same date twenty years apart, naturally unfolds over the kitchen when Swinton peels apples and listens to Berger. Through Berger’s poems and drawings, the two share memories about their fathers and history. The second portrait, Spring, directed by Christopher Roth, explores ideas from Berger’s 2009 book Why Look at Animals? Through the local farming culture, Berger talks about the boundaries between humans and animals as beings, as the nature of what he calls ‘the loneliness of man as a species.’ Bartek Dziadosz and Colin MacCabe from the Derek Jarman Lab take over the third portrait, A Song of Politics, which takes the unusual format of a black-and-white staged discussion between Berger and four younger left-wing thinkers. Montaged with Berger’s TV show clips in the ‘60s and ‘70s and songs by labourers from the revolutionary past, the conversation explores Berger’s opinions on contemporary politics. In Harvest, the final part, Swinton herself takes her children on a journey from Berger’s Paris apartment to a farm in Quincy where Berger’s son Yves lives, paints and works. Echoing Ways of Listening, the film completes the seasons with an optimistic tone from the perspective of a new generation. As someone who has had a distinguishable career in acting, Swinton’s involvement in the making of Ways of Listening and Harvest shines through. Swinton is known for her unconventional career and performance in a broad range of types of films. From collaborations with other filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Bong Joon-ho to features in mainstream Hollywood and Marvel movies, Swinton, in the words of BFI Chair Josh Berger, ‘inhabits the characters she portrays in the most compelling way.’ Thus, it is refreshing to see Swinton as herself in front of the camera, revealing her affection and respect for a friend and mentor. When asked about the development of her interest in directing (having said that ‘I’m never that interested in being a proper actor’), Swinton says that she has always been interested in documentary and essay films in particular. Co-writing the first portrait and directing the fourth, Swinton’s camera language recalls a sense of immediacy and spontaneity seen in the films of Jarman, her long-time collaborator and close friend.
Illustration by Ellen Wang
Made in the hands of four directors, the four portraits in The Seasons in Quincy are non-linear, each showing a rather distinctive style. This ‘inter-relational portrait’ feels more like a series of encounters in which one gets to meet and explore Berger’s ideas through fragments of his late personal life.
Man is always between two times: the brief time of his mortal body… and the big story time that his mind invents, constructs. But the same mind can also deconstruct, and undo the time, and this happens when he remembers, when he foresees, when he listens to music, when he dreams, and when he tells stories: Once… upon a time.
Although Berger might be known mostly through his book Ways of Seeing and the 1972 BBC television series under the same title, the ‘radical democratic humanist’ in his later years is better understood through his last publication Bento’s Sketchbook (2011). ‘Bento’ refers to the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, also known as Bento de Spinoza. Inspired by the acquisition of a long-lost sketchbook of Spinoza’s drawings, Berger imagines the philosopher’s vision through the process of drawing, politics, and storytelling. When talking about Bento’s Sketchbook, Swinton mentioned Spinoza as a ‘lens grinder, philosopher, and fellow radical humanist,’ and saw the book as ‘so personal, completely, roundly about John and the way his mind works that it contributes him to anyone who reads it.’ It is not a coincidence that here ‘lens grinder’ comes before ‘philosopher’ as Spinoza’s profession -- Berger must have sympathised with identification when he wrote:
Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens, This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and timeless. We storytellers ... are grinders of these lenses.
At the beginning of Harvest, Berger sits with Swinton’s children and slowly starts to reflect on the many aspects of time passing：
Just as with the Internet, people live in an endlessly extensive present moment with collections of the present absolutely unimaginable a little while ago. An enormous extension … of the instant, but it’s as if were geographic and spatial. In the country, and in a village like Quincy, that extension is vertical and it’s to do with time.
‘Time’ has been the leitmotiv and a continuous concern in Berger’s writings. In the final chapter of the film, he examines how time is relative and feels different for each person, each place, and each moment in history. For Berger, the questions regarding time and those about storytelling go hand-in-hand: ‘When once the story has begun, we listeners find ourselves in an eternal present. The time in the story goes beyond, far beyond the time of the telling.’ Under the current situations, when most of us in quarantine are forced to temporarily put off future plans and face the here and now, Berger’s words may help us comprehend the ways we perceive and process time. Three years after his passing, John Berger, as a lens grinder, a storyteller, an honourable thinker of our time, continues to suspend us in time with his stories. The Seasons in Quincy, as an essential document of a man with a great mind and a sensible soul, carries on his stories about and lessons on being human.