The Seasons in Quincy

In an early scene of The Seasons in Quincy, Tilda Swinton recalls seeing her friend and mentor John Berger after five years apart: “He looked at me for at least two minutes before speaking and then told me that my face had grown into itself. This attention to the material, empirical evidence of life lived seems so completely typical of him, lens polisher that he is. Let's look at the facts before we do anything else. Let’s look for our focus. And for our connection.”

It is this singular sensibility of Berger that forms the crux of this multi-part, five-years-in-the-making portrait of one of the most revered and recognised public intellectuals of the 20th century. Consisting of four impressionistic short films – one directed by Swinton, another by Colin MacCabe, and the other two by Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz – The Season in Quincy is neither a thorough biography of Berger nor a primer on his key ideas. Instead, the filmmakers and others indebted to Berger’s work take turns to visit him in his home in the tiny Alpine peasant village of Quincy. In their encounters, we get a sense of the inimitable precision and generosity with which Berger thought and lived, a capacity vast enough that is best understood – or can only be understood – through such partial flashes of brilliance.

Above all, the film approaches Berger on his own terms, taking up his own methodology as a means of disclosing it to the audience. As Swinton goes on to explain in the collection’s first chapter, Berger preferred to be identified not as a thinker or a writer, but as a storyteller. The four films that comprise the collection are diffuse in their focus, moving through Berger’s defining relationships, his enraptured interest in the mysterious lives of animals and the impasse of contemporary politics, but what unites them is an occupation with the stakes of storytelling and its centrality to what has made Berger such a magnetic figure.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin – one of Berger’s key influences – posited that the art of storytelling was among the worst casualties of modernity. “Experience that is passed from one mouth to the next is the source from which all storytellers have drawn,” he wrote, “And of all who have written down their stories, the greatest are those whose writing differs the least from the speech of the many anonymous storytellers.” For Benjamin, what distinguished the work of the storyteller  from the work of novelists, reporters or news anchors, was that while the latter deals with closed-units of information, the former deals with the inherently relational and ever-evolving realm of experience. If information is a resource to be extracted from the world, stories are what instead circulate within it. A bound novel sets up a firm boundary between itself and the surroundings in which it is written, read and relayed. The oral storyteller knows no such distinction. “He is left the freedom to interpret the situation as he understands it,” Benjamin writes, “and the story thus acquires a breadth that information lacks.”

It is this definition that we ought to keep in mind when Berger insists on the title of storyteller. This identifier makes itself known in Berger’s work through his preference for subtle concepts that that reorganise our intuitions over grand theories that explain them away. As we encounter him here, it’s present in the careful attention and enthusiasm that precedes any observation or anecdote offered to his companions. It’s present too in the gentle reverence of the filmmakers that allows the stories that cluster around Berger’s life and work to emerge with candid ease. It’s not for nothing that the title of the collection centres a relationship to place as fundamental to who Berger was. As anyone who watched Ways of Seeing in their art school undergrad days can attest, Berger’s approach to pedagogy was fueled by curiosity rather than didacticism, but if there is one lesson Quincy offers in outright terms it is this: the best ideas emerge not from thinking about the world, but thinking in collaboration with its many storied-strata.

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