The Seasons in Quincy
At nearly 90 years of age, John Berger is still capable of occasionally dropping what he would no doubt tolerantly hear others refer to as truth bombs. In the midst of a roundtable discussion forming part of the anthology The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, a debate about solidarity stops dead as Berger casually states that “solidarity is only important in hell – in heaven, it is unnecessary”. The shock of this insight is as powerful for the audience as for the discussants, with seemingly endless seconds passing before they are able to marshal their thoughts and continue speaking.
Alas, moments of such directness are too rare in this quartet of films loosely structured around the seasons of the year. These begin with Colin MacCabe’s wintry Ways of Listening, which depicts a series of conversations between Berger and Tilda Swinton, who also narrates. Christopher Roth’s Spring focuses on Berger’s writings on animals, and consists largely of archival footage of the writer, as planned filming was overtaken by the death of Berger’s wife, Beverly Bancroft. Bartek Dziadosz and MacCabe’s A Song for Politics takes the form of the aforementioned roundtable discussion, whilst Tilda Swinton’s Harvest (notably her solo directorial debut) is a lyrical montage of the rural French autumn, interspersed with footage of her two children interacting with Berger.
Despite being produced by a unified team, the four films could not feel more different from each other. Where Spring and A Song for Politics wear their Godardian and Brechtian influences on their respective sleeves, Harvest displays the hallmarks of Swinton’s two great collaborators, Derek Jarman and Mark Cousins. Yet, for all their stylistic incongruities, the films are united in approach, with their emphasis always on Berger the thinker and radical humanist, rather than Berger the public figure. Literary landmarks and key dates are brushed aside, with the only reference to his Booker win being a clip from the interview in which he announced that he would donate half its prize money to the Black Panther Party.
The effect of all this is to gain profound respect for Berger’s thoughts and deeds, especially when the filmmakers simply sit back and let him do his thing. But with these moments always the exceptions rather than the rule, The Seasons in Quincy is destined to be a documentary that never quite rises to the consummate artistry of its subject.
Marc David Jacobs
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger does not have a UK release date yet.
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