An extraordinary individual

Colin MacCabe remembers John Berger.

by Anne-Katrin Titze and Colin MacCabe

Tilda Swinton with John Berger in The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger
Tilda Swinton with John Berger in The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger

Colin MacCabe is the co-director of The Derek Jarman Lab-produced documentary The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger with Tilda Swinton, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz. When I spoke with Colin last year at Film Forum my first question to him was concerning John's health. I first met John Berger in 1991 in Munich at a workshop he was giving at the Kammerspiele theater. We had a conversation about rhubarb and I asked him to sign his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos. The book had been a gift from a friend in Paris who inscribed it to me with the words "My heart as long as forever."

Colin MacCabe on John Berger:
Colin MacCabe on John Berger: "He was the best and most reliable of friends ..." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Although I opened the book to another page for Berger to sign, he started leafing through it, maybe looking if I had marked any passages, and found the inscription. He looked right at me sternly, then smiled and, without missing a beat, wrote "from me too." And because forever does not end with death, I shall treasure John Berger's heart in all the wondrous places it is bound to show itself.

In the film Tilda Swinton reads Berger's poem Self-portrait 1914-18. "I was born of the look of the dead - Swaddled in mustard gas - And fed in a dugout." We are never born the year of our birth. Berger and Swinton know the importance of trying to "identify stories good for the reader's health."

John Berger died in Paris on January 2, 2017, at the age of 90.

Colin MacCabe sent this tribute in honour of his friend:

"John Berger was an extraordinary individual, extraordinary in the range of his creation and his criticism. But also extraordinary as a presence. He had the least sense of hierarchy of anyone I have ever known. And he was uniquely interested in the present moment. So whoever he was with, young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown, man or woman had his complete attention. This was in its way unnerving: you had to think about what you were saying because you were being listened to with a quite unusual concentration. And you had to listen with real intensity because what was being said was being said for you and it felt, for you alone. But if it was unnerving it was also immensely invigorating. You became more intelligent and more consequent, more insightful and more amusing. And what John said stayed with you and you felt transformed by it.

John Berger capturing Tilda Swinton
John Berger capturing Tilda Swinton

"This may all sound quite pious. John could well have been an actor and there was something of the ham in his performances. He was also a seducer and you were seduced. But neither of these facts detract from the wonderful pleasure of his company, indeed they were an essential part of it.

"He was the best and most reliable of friends - always willing to lend a hand, to encourage, to enthuse, and, very important, to criticise when it was necessary. His range was extraordinary, major art critic, great novelist, gifted filmmaker. He even, with his close friend Jean Mohr, invented a genre: the committed use of photography and prose to render invisible elements of the social visible. They started with A Fortunate Man in 1967 but developed further with A Seventh Man (1975) which John thought his best book. It is 40 years since A Seventh Man was composed but the analysis of the crucial role of migrant labour in contemporary capitalism could have been written tomorrow.

"It is foolish to predict reputation into the future but I hope that people go on reading and watching John because he joined the demand for social justice to the recognition of the centrality of desire and the importance of form. His death brought to me three quotes which touch on each of these emphases." - Colin MacCabe

"John could well have been an actor and there was something of the ham in his performances."

To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal. - The Museum Of Desire (2001), published at latimes.com, p.1

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing. - Keeping A Rendezvous, published in Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje eds. The Brick Reader Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991, p. 330.

What makes photography a strange invention - with unforeseeable consequences - is that its primary raw materials are light and time. - Another Way Of Telling New York: Pantheon, 1982, p. 85.

Colin MacCabe is the author of Perpetual Carnival - Essays On Film And Literature (Oxford University Press 2017) and is the co-producer of Paul Carlin's The Spectre Of Hope. The documentary features John Berger and photographer Sebastião Salgado in conversation.

The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger will be screened at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 24.

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