Marxist cultural commentator John Berger captured in four films

August 26, 2017
John Berger defiantly stood by the rebellious movements of the 1960s and never recanted that stand

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
By Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe & Christopher Roth
Taskovski Films, 2016

This quartet of films portrays British Marxist cultural commentator John Berger over a period of five years.

Berger was a well-known figure on 1960s British TV, explaining and democratising art theory. He rocketed to international fame with his early 1970s book Ways of Seeing. Combining it with an accompanying TV series, he articulated a dialectical and demystifying approach to art.

“The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognised for exactly what it is,” he wrote. “History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past.

“The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss.

“Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action.”

Berger defiantly stood by the rebellious movements of the 1960s and never recanted that stand.

In 1975, Berger published a book about migrant workers in which he tried to articulate their experience, A Seventh Man.  He said that peasants who migrated to Europe and factory life were going through alienating dislocations in one lifetime that had taken generations to digest in the Industrial Revolution.

The conversations with the migrant workers led him to contemplate what life could be like in the remaining outposts of peasant communities. That question led him to move to the village of Quincy in the French mountains, where he lived until his death in January this year.

This episodic film, reflecting the seasons of village and family life, was made by Berger’s long-time friend, British actress Tilda Swinton. It gives a rich insight into Berger’s intellect, his erudition and commitment to human liberation.

Berger was a great intellectual, but lacked arrogance. What emerges is compassion matched with penetrating insight into social oppression and the lives of the labouring masses — everything that is required of a revolutionary.

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