Ways of Bergering

The John Berger experience differs for everyone, but bends always toward epiphany. Take the moment you discover that it’s Berger with a soft g, which to an American ear might not have been obvious without hearing it spoken. This is a minor revelation, but an important one, if only for reminding you that a thing right in front of you all this time might have a sensory quality apart from those you’ve taken for granted. You feel some embarrassment about your ignorance, but also the habit-forming frisson of enlightenment. That’s Berger for you.

Another thing about sound, about hearing things pronounced: The man’s voice is as striking as his ever-ardent-seeming face. He has a faint lisp, a peculiar and lapidary way of rounding his r’s. The actor Ruth Wilson has this too, and it only adds to her formidable allure. With Berger, it’s seductive and disarming. In general, he seems more interesting and more fun to hang out with than any octogenarian aesthete and Marxist intellectual has any reasonable right to be.

This impression is confirmed by The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, a convivial check-in with the urbane Englishman, deeply learned in matters of aesthetics and political history, who decades ago relocated to a working farm in the French Alps. You’ll be happy to know the author of Why Look at Animals? has been living simply, and well, among fellow ruminants. At just about ninety, Berger remains a man as physically and emotionally responsive to the shameful enormity of late capitalism as he is to the beauty of cowbells jangling in the distance, or the flavor of raspberries shared in commemoration of his late wife.

Less any kind of official documentary than a cleverly homespun movie mosaic, The Seasons in Quincy is a joint effort from several directors, most notably the top-notch Godard biographer Colin MacCabe, and the glorious art-eminence Tilda Swinton. The portraits are glancing—and, like Berger’s books, sometimes amazingly unalike—but the best glances linger meaningfully and go a long way. This is the sort of film in which suddenly there’s an attractive nude woman addressing the camera directly, in a mix of challenge and flirtation, followed straightaway by footage of Jacques Derrida. Elsewhere, cozily populated with Swintons and Bergers of various generations, it’s the sort of film in which Tilda hangs out in the kitchen peeling apples, and chatting about her dad, and being just so present. Berger’s home is a rustic rural idyll of sensual weather and intellectual companionship—very much the stuff of undergraduate fantasies, but also apparently and unpretentiously real.

His influential book Ways of Seeing became a great binge-able 1972 BBC TV series, memorably opening on Berger alone in a museum, pulling a box cutter from his pocket and dissecting a painting on the wall. (Probably safe to assume a Buñuel homage there; asked once if he’s typically more influenced by writing or by painting, Berger winningly answered that he’s most influenced by cinema.) It was also in 1972 that Berger gave half his Man Booker Prize money, for the novel G., to the Black Panthers. This is a man, you could always sense, with stories.

Here he is trying to figure out what to say about the world today.

He came of age in the aftermath of World War II, during the nascent nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War. To Berger, at the time, the practice of painting seemed politically insufficient. “But to write, urgently, in the press, anywhere, everywhere, seemed so necessary,” he later recalled. And yet, consider this, from a group confab in The Seasons in Quincy: “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.”

Ways of Adequacy to the Task of Describing would be an unwieldy title for a new Berger venture, but an apt summary of his life’s work. Of course he has a new way in mind, which is also an old way, and which you’ll have to see The Seasons in Quincy to discover; ultimately this too is a minor revelation, but the real epiphany is in how Berger presents it: Reaching into his pocket again, he withdraws a once-unseen flask, and gamely passes it around. That’s Berger for you.