clock menu more-arrow no yes

John Berger changed how people saw art and culture. This 2016 movie shows how.

The Seasons in Quincy, made by Tilda Swinton, shows the critic’s influence far beyond Ways of Seeing, on everything from politics to animal rights.

John Berger and Tilda Swinton converse.
John Berger and Tilda Swinton, two peas in a very particular pod.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for January 7 through 13 is The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

John Berger — the legendary and controversial art critic, writer, and artist — died on January 2 at the age of 90. He was a prolific critic, influenced by Marxism and a deep, even radical sense of humanism, and has been a staple in art and cultural studies classrooms on several continents since the 1970s. As his obituary in the New York Times put it, “Mr. Berger’s methods, influenced by the ideas of Walter Benjamin, tended to attract either ardent admiration or seething criticism, with little in between.”

Most Americans and Brits know Berger best as the author of Ways of Seeing, the book based on his four-part BBC TV series, which first aired in 1972 and upended the traditional ways people were taught to look at Western art. Dressed in a floral-striped button-down shirt and a floppy haircut, with his singular accent, he reoriented viewers to looking at works of art while paying attention to the ways they are created and displayed within a particular culture — everything from the museum context to the male gaze. It, by all accounts, blew people’s minds. (You can, and should, watch all four parts on YouTube.)

John Berger in the 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing
John Berger in the 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing.

Berger was a painter, a philosopher, a writer of fiction and poetry, and a bit of a lovable gadfly who thought in broad strokes about everything and gathered a lot of admirers. One of those admirers was Tilda Swinton, who in 1989 worked with Berger on a film adaptation of one of his stories, called Play Me Something.

Despite their difference in age and occupation, the two became fast friends, and years later Swinton decided to create a sort of homage to her friend, who was getting quite old and had moved out to the countryside. The result was The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, which is part portrait of Berger and part interpretation of his legacy by a number his admirers, who talk about his relationship to family and home, politics, animals, and the place where he lives. The film premiered in August 2016.

It’s not an entirely satisfactory composite portrait; the sections aren’t made by the same filmmakers, and some of them feel experimental enough that the style seems to overshadow the man. Viewers who are wholly unfamiliar with Berger might find the film frustrating.

On the other hand, maybe not. Berger’s ideas about things like capitalism and animal rights, no matter what the viewer thinks of them, are stated so cogently and with so many years of refinement and care that they inspire reflection, and in some cases ring startlingly true. In the film’s first few moments, Berger declares that the focus of leaders “today” is on “deal-making,” which is startling to hear in the impending Trump era. Later he posits that given the struggle to communicate truth in a doublespeaking world, “Maybe we live in a time when the truth is most easily told in song.”

John Berger
Berger in 1999, while living in Paris.
Photo by Eamonn McCabe/Getty Images

Most notably, though, The Seasons in Quincy (named for the village in which Berger was living) is full of the beautiful, simple world in which Berger developed his ideas late in life. It acts as a kind of tone poem, or maybe a song itself: a series of brush strokes that aren’t a strong introduction to Berger’s ideas so much as the man himself. His acuity of mind and interest in everything — and belief that everything is connected, and that how we treat one another and the world we’re in really matters — is on full display, and it feels like a breath of fresh, bracing air.

The sort of Renaissance man and public intellectual Berger represented is hard to come by these days, but The Seasons in Quincy — and interaction with Berger — is a bit of a spark of inspiration. He was always calling people to actually look around and see their world, knowing that seeing is the first step toward everything: empathy, justice, historical awareness, resistance. His voice will be missed, but we’re lucky that it will echo for a long while still.

Watch the trailer for The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger:

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.