Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger

Great Britian  (90 mi)  2016  d:  Tilda Swinton   co-directors:  Colin MacCabe, Bartek Dziadosz, and Christopher Ross                     Official Site

It seems now that I was so near to that war.
I was born eight years after it ended
When the General Strike had been defeated.

Yet I was born by Very Light and shrapnel
On duck boards
Among limbs without bodies.

I was born of the look of the dead
Swaddled in mustard gas
And fed in a dugout.

I was the groundless hope of survival
With mud between finger and thumb
Born near Abbeville.

I lived the first year of my life
Between the leaves of a pocket bible
Stuffed in a khaki haversack.

I lived the second year of my life
With three photos of a woman
Kept in a standard issue army paybook.

In the third year of my life
At 11am on November 11th 1918
I became all that was conceivable.

Before I could see
Before I could cry out
Before I could go hungry

I was the world fit for heroes to live in.

Self-Portrait, 1914-18, by John Berger, 1970, read out loud in the film by Tilda Swinton, Self-portrait 1914-18

Tilda Swinton’s intelligence and artistic sensibility comes center stage in this film, an unorthodox and thoroughly unconventional documentary examining in four segments (representing the four seasons) by four different directors the extraordinary life of John Berger, now almost 90, a revolutionary Marxist writer and British artist who is perhaps best known in his role as an art critic.  Much like Americans grew up watching and listening to New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein on television in the late 50’s in a series of children’s programs describing the joys of music, Leonard Bernstein: Young People's Concerts | What Does Music .. YouTube (14:59), John Berger’s four-part 1972 BBC series “Ways of Seeing” changed the way many in Britain viewed art and culture, John Berger / Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (1972) - YouTube (30:04), with Berger breaking down barriers and making art seem less coldly imposing and elite, while making it more understandable and accessible in an everyday real world where it’s simply a part of our lives.  Both projects happened during television’s infancy at a time when there were just a handful of stations, yet because there were so few other similarly challenging programs, these programs tend to be fondly remembered today with reverence, as if they helped shape who we are today.  In a strange way, Swinton again uses Berger in a primer course for adults in helping to explore our own humanity by sharing personal moments with him.  It’s a fascinating humanistic gesture born out of twenty years of friendship with the man, both born on identical days more than thirty years apart, November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, each one children of soldiers that fought in world wars but never uttered a word about their experiences with their children, now parents of their own, where both maintain a fiercely individualistic relationship with art.  In the opening segment filmed a week before Christmas in 2010 entitled “Ways of Seeing,” Swinton visits Berger in his remote winter home in Quincy, a small mountainous village in the Rhône-Alpes region in France near the Swiss border where he’s been running a farm since the early 70’s with his American wife Beverly.  In the 70’s, Berger collaborated with Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner as the screenwriter on several films, including LA SALAMANDRE (1971), THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD (1974), and JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000 (1976).  

We see both as old friends, having known each other since the 80’s when Swinton began her acting career working in Derek Jarman films, both working on a radical fringe, viewing one another as common allies in a free-spirited quest for independence, free of all political boundaries, both preferring the feel of natural soil beneath their feet, with Swinton living in the semi-wilderness Highland region in the north of Scotland, where she doesn’t even own a television, but instead takes pride in cooking with the vegetables that she grows, using eggs from her own prized hens.  In fact, she offers eggs as a personal gift, swearing they are the best tasting anywhere in the world.  Though she was born in London, with a family that can trace their lineage back to the 9th century, she identifies more with the Scots, claiming they are intrinsically wired for the hills and the sea.  Like so many others in her generation, she was influenced by Berger’s “Ways of Listening,” viewing him affectionately as an old teacher or professor, someone who profoundly inspires others not only to view art differently, but discover their own innate humanism.  When she so eloquently reads his Self-Portrait poem, she not only identifies with a military father (Berger’s father served as an officer in the trenches for four years in WWI while Swinton’s father is a decorated general who lost a leg in WWII) and this spirit of a renewed and rescued generation that was historically fought for in both world wars, but transforms the viewers in the process, as it’s a chilling, yet intensely personalized experience.  As they view drawings and paintings, they also listen intently and converse while Swinton slices and cuts apples in a similar manner to one of Berger’s childhood recollections, with both continuing to reflect a sense of challenge in the world around them.  In the next segment “Spring,” the only one where Berger is not present, the cows are released from their winter barns to roam the hillsides, which feels like such a natural part of farming life and the changing seasons, yet we also discover Berger’s wife Beverly has passed away, where we sense her absence even before we hear about it, with the entire segment becoming a poetic meditation on awareness and death.  It was Berger’s earlier book, A Seventh Man: Migrant Farmers in Europe (1975) that led to an interest in the places migrant workers were leaving behind, which were isolated rural communities.  Instead of going to college, Berger decided to live with a few of these lone, individual peasant farmers, seeking guidance as if they were scholars or monks, where instead of investigative books and study, these men spent long hours in the fields all day performing back-breaking work, so Berger worked side-by-side with them, learning the tools of the trade of men living in harmony with nature, which eventually led him to a humble village life in Quincy. 

But it was never that at all.  It was more to do with finishing A Seventh Man, and suddenly realising I didn’t know enough about the people I was writing about, about the actual experience of what you might call poor village life.  In fact, the kind of conditions of which I was ignorant were the kind of conditions the majority of the people were living in.  Still are, in fact.  And those conditions have worsened considerably.  Reading does not really help you understand those conditions, or find out how these people live.  One has to experience it first hand.

In the third segment “A Song for Politics,” director Colin MacCabe, a British film producer and literary critic who now edits the academic journal Critical Quarterly, convenes a leftist roundtable discussion that includes Berger, MacCabe, American poet Ben Lerner, Indian poet and social activist Akshi Singh, and German filmmaker Christopher Roth, shot in black & white, where what we see might be conjured up from the past, yet Berger offers his own assessment, “If one imagines trying to describe some of the things happening in the world today, now, it seems to me that, mostly, prose is inadequate, because the vocabulary of prose has become so discredited.  It is inadequate for describing what people are living across the world today.”  Instead, he suggests what’s missing are revolutionary songs, pulling out a flask before passing it around, where one imagines he could easily summon up various stages of his youth in protest, where instead we see images of resistance from Bella Ciao! - YouTube (3:16) and The Communist Internationale (Original, with English Lyrics) - Yo (1:56).  It should not be forgotten that Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” was considered controversial at the time, once flamboyantly described as “Mao’s Little Red Book for a generation of art students.”  Berger also suggests solidarity is not needed in heaven, but only in hell, a thought that gives the panel pause.  Like his friend and collaborator, photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, who depicts in photographs the most calamitous human conditions, as seen in Wim Wenders’ 2015 Top Ten List #4 The Salt of the Earth, Berger chronicles the lives of those who would otherwise go unnoticed throughout history.  As Ben Lerner conveys at one point, “While there is an unwavering commitment to a recognition of the hell that surrounds us…there is also openness, and attention to the sensual world that doesn’t go away…there is a total commitment to being alive, to the possibilities of the moment.”  Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his experimental novel G, but then outraged established circles when he gave half the prize money to the London Black Panthers, using his acceptance speech to berate one of the award sponsors, Booker McConnell, blaming his family’s 130 year history of sugar cane production in the Caribbean as one of the major factors for the region remaining mired in poverty, John Berger on the Booker Prize (1972) - YouTube (1:16), claiming “The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation.”  The final episode, “Harvest,” bookends the first, as Swinton returns to Quincy with her twin children, Xavier and Honor, as they pay a visit to John’s son Yves, who lives and works on the farm, yet also paints.  Like a reflection of the opening segment, this segment mirrors the first, yet is seen largely through the optimistic eyes of the children.  Collecting raspberries from nearby vines, in a moment of grace they pay tribute to Berger’s wife Beverly by eating them with an accompanying photo of her nearby, where the living instinctively commune with the dead, though perhaps the most dramatic moment comes when Berger teaches Swinton’s obviously thrilled teenage daughter the joy of riding a motorbike.  With a modernized, new age soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner interspersed throughout, the film is a contemplative, visually rich mosaic of a beautiful mind, an intellectual that never went to college, a Marxist that believes in God, and a novelist that became an iconic television star whose radical views on art culturally transported a nation.    

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