A SKETCHY INK DRAWING of “Tilda” stands out among other portraits of friends in Bento’s Sketchbook (2011), a Spinoza-inspired tome by the charismatic English critic and artist John Berger. Legend has it that the excommunicated philosopher—and late-in-life optical-lens grinder Baruch, aka Bento—carried sketchbooks with him in Holland, though they were never found after his death. Neither was his Treatise on the Rainbow. (Supposedly he burned it.)
There’s no mystery about this Tilda, however; the drawing is certainly of the spry actress Swinton, a longtime pal of Berger’s, who tenderly reveals their friendship in The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), a film she directed with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, and Bartek Dziadosz. Produced by the Derek Jarman Lab in London and the University of Pittsburgh, with an emotive score by Simon Fisher Turner, the four-part film is a cozy affair for viewing in the theater, but it could just as effectively be projected on four screens in a museum or gallery.
In the first chapter, Swinton travels during a snowstorm to Berger’s home in Quincy, a village in the Alpine Haute-Savoie. “I wanted a glimpse of his gimlet eye and a blast of his company,” she says. That was six years ago, and the long production of the film mirrors the pacing—nothing is hurried here. They’ve been friends for over twenty years. They also share a birthday: November 5. Of their star-aligned amity, Berger ponders: “It’s as though in another life we met or did something. We are aware of it in some department, which isn’t memory although it’s quite close to memory...maybe we made an appointment to see each other again in this life—ok, fifth of November?”
“Like we got off at the same station,” Swinton replies.
In one long scene at his kitchen table, the two swap tales about their taciturn military fathers, how public traumas beget private traumas. Swinton peels countless apples for a dessert while Berger sketches. The documentary, if you can call it that, continues in this meandering way; it is less a biopic than, appropriately, a sketch, full of ambiance and unfolding over a leisurely ninety minutes that finally drops you off in a downy cloud of unknowing, as Swinton’s teenage daughter joins Berger to go zipping off on his motorcycle.
Berger, nearly ninety years old, and his late wife, Beverly, moved from London to Quincy in the mid-1970s to study farming and live as peasants—experiences he’s written about in books such as Pig Earth (1979). The Seasons in Quincy portrays their dropping out as alluring and a little stylized—not unlike the way Bruegel painted peasant life 450 years ago in his watershed cycle of the months for a wealthy patron in Antwerp. Though we never see Berger getting his hands dirty, he does philosophize on a pile of hay. Mike Dibb shot that footage in the early ’80s, and it’s included among other flashbacks and voice-overs in the second segment, which was made after Beverly passed away. (Berger is understandably absent.) Against scenes of verdant farms in Quincy, this episode hazily ruminates on Berger’s writings about self-consciousness and different kinds of animals, drawing a parallel to Derrida’s ideas about the same—notably, his embarrassment about being naked in front of his cat.
In the third act, Ben Lerner, Akshi Singh, MacCabe, and Roth sit with Berger for a wide-ranging discussion about resistance. (Berger’s first major book was Permanent Red ; his Marxist positions haven’t changed much.) Finally, in the last portrait, we’re back to Quincy and the hay—Swinton’s son is jumping in it and is later joined by his sister and Berger’s son Yves to pick raspberries from the backyard and eat them with cream in honor of Beverly. The stark contrasts between these two parts suitably reflect the seasons: The subdued conversation is shown in stripped down black-and-white, while the scenes in Quincy are warm, vibrant, and Jarmanesque, sharing the familial tenor of the first segment. After winter comes spring.
It’s apt that in the second segment the filmmakers include an excerpt from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s 2002 documentary about Derrida. I was reminded of that film’s failure to capture biographical details and how this withholding is constitutive to its success. It’s not that the deconstructionist impedes (OK, he does a little), but rather that the film is a lesson in coming to terms with such a daunting, nearly impossible task. If The Seasons in Quincy fails to give us Berger the myth, which we want, then through subtle details—his gestures, his glances, and even his phrasings—you can glean something here about Berger the man, things you never knew about the depths of his intelligence. It’s more than any orthodox documentary could convey.