Ways of Seeing John Berger, in Two Recent Documentaries

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“It’s in hell where solidarity is important, not in heaven.”

–  John Berger, Seasons in Quincy

Media veracity, it seems clear, has dissolved into a billow of dazzling information. Words like “cynicism,” “confusion,” and “ambivalence” don’t do justice to the psychological state that has followed. Ours is a collective psychosis. This diagnosis is confirmed each time we respond to news of barbarism by scrolling on in search of information more palatable for dinner conversation. It is, after all, easier to discuss Hilary Clinton’s emails than the sacrificing of African American lives to profiteering prisons, or the endless killing wrought by foreign interventions.

In 1972, the critic John Berger and four colleagues saw this engineered stupefaction of the populace evolving out of old visual formats like oil painting, and into television and marketing. Commodity advertising was transfixing the working class, as luxurious paintings commissioned by the patrician elite had done for centuries before. This process came with many other social effects, namely the abasement of women and people of color, and the blinkering of citizens to the colonial exploitation intrinsic to capitalism. Berger’s response to this indoctrination was to produce a book and a BBC television program explaining these critiques in accessible language. Both were titled Ways of Seeing, and have become examples of intersectional critique, decades before the term became vogue.

This year, in celebration of Berger’s ninetieth birthday, two new documentaries about his life and work were released: John Berger or The Art of Seeing by Cordelia Dvorak; and Seasons in Quincy, a film comprised of four vignettes, produced by Tilda SwintonColin MacCabeChristopher Roth, and Bartek Dziadosz. Although Ways of Seeing is often attributed to Berger alone, its ethos of solidarity resonates in his voluminous output, in essay, fiction, and poetry. Likewise, these new films offer poignant depictions of the relationships that have kept his work free of intellectual vanity, and allied with lived experience.

Both films face a difficult problem: how to portray a thinker whose most influential work was a critique of portrayal. Dvorak’s approach steals us into the intimate relationships that Berger cultivated through decades in the rural French town of Quincy, where he moved in the mid-1970s to write his fictional trilogy Into Their Labours. One moment stands out: shortly after the death of Berger’s wife, Beverly Buchanan, and his subsequent relocation to Paris, an elderly man is scything his yard in Quincy. He takes a break and speaks directly to the camera: “”We miss you John. When will you come to Quincy for a visit? Just for a day.”

It’s easy to see why. Berger seems a loving sage who bellows laughter, playfully gesticulates, and winks into the camera. At ninety, he has not yet given up his motorcycle (swooping his worn hands through the air, Berger pantomimes the meditative effect of riding for his interviewer). This perpetual state of imagining has informed his life as a father; his son Yves is a painter, who still lives in Quincy, and in one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Berger’s daughter Katja – also a writer – sits with her father at an outdoor table to re-enact a game from her childhood. One after another, they take turns selecting postcards of historical paintings. In turn, each asks the other a question inspired by the image, triggering flights of improvised conversation and storytelling.

It’s this spontaneity of imagination that characterized Berger’s many collaborations. After being diagnosed with glaucoma, he invited the Turkish illustrator Selcuk Demirel to help him make a book titled Cataract (2011). Dvorak’s film cuts between shots of Demirel’s crisp marker drawings, and Berger writing with a fountain pen in his sunny studio. Describing the experience of seeing again after cataract removal, Berger cognates: “the surface of everything you’re looking at … is covered with a dew of light.” As interviewer and director, Dvorak is ingenious in showing us how Berger’s relationship to vision is a melancholic romance between biology, sentiment, and politics. Close shots of Berger sketching form a repeated motif, in both films. With pencil, ink, and pastel, he describes flowers and human faces. In his writing, Berger describes how pencil and paper capture relationships – perceptual and social – in their unfolding.

In fleshing out Berger’s politics, The Art of Looking falls short. Repeatedly, the film flirts with his relationship to social struggle without following its ramifications into the present. We are shown an illuminating interview, for instance, with Jean Mohr, Berger’s collaborator on an image-and-text essay about migrant labor, A Seventh Man (1975). This is the single work that Berger hopes will last into the future, feeling that it may forge solidarity between working people – but viewers are left to wonder about the wider environmental and economic circumstances that condition the life of his own peasant compatriots.

Seasons in Quincy, from Swinton, McCabe, Roth, and Dziadosz, is a gutsier film than Dvorak’s The Art of Seeing, for its willingness to reckon with Berger’s own critiques of the documentary form, even as its unorthodox approach is sometimes awkward and stilted. Over and again, it shape-shifts between conventional interviews and destabilizing montage methods, borrowing from Ways of Seeing and A Seventh Man. But the film’s greatest strength is its willingness to move with contingency. For instance, when the directors of Seasons in Quincy arrive at Berger’s home, looking to make a film about politics, they instead find an empty house. Berger has left for Paris, following Buchanan’s death. So, the filmmakers stick around.

As the camera tarries on photographs of Berger and Buchanan sensitively pinned to the home’s interior walls, we see a fresh hollow in the world of a writer who so eloquently described the power of snapshot photography to fasten fleeting life. On the verge of voyeurism, Seasons in Quincy cuts away from this intimate place to an open meadow, where a cow patiently waits. From here, there unfolds a meditation on Berger’s writing about animals, and “how we see and fail to see them.” When the camera lingers on the face of a sow, Berger speaks, in absentia, to describe how a pig’s death feels “like a basin emptying.” His voice resounds with a conflicted humanism. Passages like this have the unwieldy gravitas of the age-old struggle between life and mortality. But the film is kept nimble through other weird, experimental gambits; an unidentified person wearing an orangutan mask, for instance, later reads from Berger’s Why Look at Animals (2009), echoing that book’s memorable cover.

Berger has long shared a friendship with the actress Tilda Swinton, and she is a substantive presence in Seasons in Quincy, drifting between narrator and muse. The two share an affinity for the surreptitious language of revolution, as when Swinton describes how their shared birthdays form a “bedrock to complicity.” This catching turn of phrase echoes Berger’s own impression – in Dvorak’s film – that his best friends have always been “conspirators.” In one extended scene, Swinton and Berger sit at a kitchen table. He draws, and she peels apples while coaxing yarns from his memory.

There is something unsettling about the positions Berger and Swinton occupy around this table. He is the purring male elder, she the domestic confidante. Despite the fact that Swinton leads the conversation, this re-inscription of gender roles sits uncomfortably with Berger’s unguarded feminism in Ways of Seeing. The second episode of that program was devoted to the way that oil painting and advertising have long inculcated us with arbitrary and unattainable standards of beauty. Perhaps most importantly, Berger used the episode to provide a lesson in how to shut up and listen: nearly half the program was devoted to a group of women describing their experiences in the space between media and self-image.

Seasons in Quincy offers incisive glimpses into the resilience of Berger’s political ethos. At one point, he joins the film’s directors Roth and MacCabe, along with writers Ben Lerner and Aksi Singh, to discuss political cynicism, and the spectacle-peddling media. This is the only scene where Berger’s moral outrage is allowed to seethe. Raising hands to his forehead, he strains for an adequate reflection. Politicians “are contestable” he offers, “and not to contest them is deeply shameful.”

Having won the Man Booker Prize in 1972, Berger staked his position as a “radical writer” by donating half of his winnings to the Black Panther party, in support of their resistance of the Booker family’s brutal exploits in the Caribbean. Disappointingly, both films content themselves with cursory mentions of Berger’s support for black and anti-colonial struggles, a line of inquiry that could have amplified the resonance of each film.

***

As I was preparing to write this piece, a fascist television celebrity was elected president of the United States – another testament to the continued importance of Ways of Seeing‘s central critique: every image serves the echelon that produces it. This critique may seem obvious, now – like a quaint observation from early media theory. But Berger’s work has never been concerned with the cycling fashions of academia. His ethos has not been to reinvent critical thinking, but to twine it with the world.

1 Comment

  • “In 1972, the critic John Berger and four colleagues saw this engineered stupefaction of the populace evolving out of old visual formats like oil painting” Here Berger is echoing Walter Benjamin’s thoughts in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Walter Benjamin has been praised as an early Marshal McLuhan, a social scientist able to discern objectively the cultural effects of media. Yet on reading the text we find a political message that strays from the truth and then ignores it. Where we thought “Mechanical Reproduction” was pure research similar to today’s academic scholarship, it is in fact a calculated political tool. A historian will remind us that Marxists saw truth and accuracy as useful when convenient; we cannot read Benjamin innocently, the work has political priorities. Benjamin writes that authorship, creativity, and aesthetics are outmoded Fascist concepts, and the only worthwhile art is political propaganda made by the working class. Benjamin is himself writing propaganda without concern for accuracy, no reality checks. His point is based on flawed assumptions, with fact and fiction twisted to fit political theory; the reductions, contradictions, and leaps of faith are obvious. Where ever Berger follows Benjamin, he is wrong. What is amazing is that Benjamin’s writing is available online and no one dares remark of the flaws and fallacies. “the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power…the art of a classless society… brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery”. Wrong yet Berger does not object because it is the Marxist line. That no one else among our brilliant academics has pointed this out shows the dangers, in our time, of shaking the tree, of disturbing the status quo. Below the original translation of “Mechanical Reproduction”.

    https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

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