John Berger was both a complicated man and a simple man. He embraced the philosophy of a simple life, but contributed complex ideas to the world of art. During his life Berger studied and embraced peasantry, realising that it contained the value of an uncomplicated existence and provided focus and enlightenment on the things that truly matter. This unvarnished wisdom is one of the bright sparks in The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger; as the seasons, agricultural life and nourishment from the land provoke deeper and more authentic questions about life, politics and art. Tilda Swinton along with Christopher Roth, Colin McCabe, Bartek Dziadosz et. al. intimately capture the late moments of Berger’s outstanding life and career, showing that his lucid mind, poetic and dynamic in its reasoning and conversation, is as profound as ever. 

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The changing seasons in the town of Quincy provide a temporal device which the film follows and at first seems formulaic but has deeper meaning than conventional narrative structure. This is not a documentary that relies on individual segments to act cohesively in order to form a common theme, nor a film that requires support from conventional narrative. The film itself feels like an abstract painting (one that surely Berger himself would have celebrated), revealing artifice constantly; the strokes of the filmmakers and contributors seem at once unplanned and spontaneous and yet complementary to the film as a whole, as they shift forwards and backwards in time - from static talking heads to erratic handheld camera, an embrace of multiple visual capacities develops a dreamlike aesthetic that matches Berger’s own diverse artistic output (essay, novel, poetry, sketching, painting) throughout the years.

Intellectual conversation is the lifeblood of the film. Through these moments Berger’s thoughts are exposed and he provokes those around him. Often the individuals he talks with are caught off guard by the profundity of his statements. Importantly, these conversations are allowed to evolve naturally, showing deep and authentic insight as they become more personal and revealing. One such topic is intergenerational knowledge and the passing of experience to future generations. It’s an issue that was obviously important to Berger throughout his life, and its presence in the film is symbolic of Berger’s death, and the intergenerational knowledge that he himself has passed on. 

Within the film’s most poetic moments, thought-provoking metaphors are used to elaborate on Berger’s ideas. The agricultural way of life (a major motive in Berger’s sociological writing) proves to be the most powerful of these devices. During Spring, birth within the calm sanctuary of the manger is explored when the audience is confronted with one of the darker moments of the film, the death of his wife beloved wife Beverley. The result is a life-affirming juxtaposition, in that through one's legacy memories survive beyond physical death. The process of handing on stories and knowledge is an eternal intergenerational cycle, and a theme highlighted eloquently by Berger in a discussion about how the herd of cattle always outlasts the herdsman, despite their shorter lifespan. 

Berger’s well-known television series and book Ways Of Seeing is an examination of how art exists outside of observable reality. In digging deeper into these works, broader questions arise surrounding authenticity as well as economical and political circumstances surrounding the production, acquisition and display of artwork. This enquiry required a platform for exploration and the space to search, analyze and share insight. Within The Seasons in Quincy Berger is once again afforded the capacity to analyse and explore and to share his wonderful intellect. It exists as an accessible insight and an impression of the life of a cherished icon for future generations.

[Sean Parnell]


The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger is playing now on our screens. Book tickets here.