Culture

The Return of Radical Chic

John Berger and Tilda Swinton in The Seasons in Quincy (Icarus Films)
Oh, those lovely, arty, artisanal-food-loving bourgeois in The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger

Forty years ago this month, the New York Film Festival premiered Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. It was Swiss director Alain Tanner’s bemused look at counterculture habits following Europe’s attempt at revolution in May 1968. Tanner’s script was a collaboration with British art critic and self-proclaimed “revolutionary writer” John Berger. Their central character, Max (Jean-Luc Bideau), felt chagrin at the hoped-for social changes that never occurred after May ’68, and Jonah portrayed Max’s rescue from nihilism by the companionship of seven mostly unpolitical eccentrics: a whale-loving artist, his pragmatic farmer-wife, a thieving supermarket cashier, a Marx-besotted schoolteacher, a Tantric sex cultist, a socialist agitator and his wife, and a pregnancy-loving masseuse. The socialist’s wife gives birth to the eponymous Jonah, whose last-minute appearance (born “out of the whale of history”) ended the fractious political comedy on a benevolent, seemingly prophetic note.

That post-revolutionary future is on ironic display in the deceptively placid new documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (currently playing at New York’s Film Forum). Berger (pronounced ber-jer) is now a grandee, an expatriate privileged landowner in Haute Savoie, Switzerland. It’s odd that The Seasons in Quincy never once mentions Jonah, which was the best of the three politically conscious and sexually attentive Tanner-Berger projects (following La Salamandre and The Middle of the World). It’s as if the makers of Seasons in Quincy were avoiding the important query that Jonah posed about the West’s political prospects.

In ’76, no one knew what little Jonah’s future would be. That the once-celebrated film is rarely revived by gatekeeping film curators suggests that their embarrassment is even greater than Max’s chagrin. (Jonah won the Best Screenplay prize from the National Society of Film Critics when critics used to consider themselves sophisticated; but that so-called sophistication, then as now, is merely complicity with liberal sentiment.) Those New York Film Festival audiences who 40 years ago were charmed about Jonah’s prospects might not feel so admiring of today’s Occupiers, anarchists, and Black Lives Matter kids who have replaced Jonah’s prophecy with a not-so-pleasing reality — an incoherent approach to revolution that is so self-involved, it lacks the humanist embrace that Jonah espoused.

Tanner and Berger chose Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the source for their dream that people might escape the drudgery of their inherited social structure. By contrast, The Seasons in Quincy (ironically pronounced can-see) limits itself to Berger’s personal escape. His private family life is glossed, emphasizing his literary and intellectual influence. This laudatory memoir shows Berger and Tilda Swinton — actress, art icon, and his platonic soulmate — holding forth about their “revolutionary” elitism (while peeling apples and reminiscing about their fathers). They embody Max’s chagrin but without his worry — both were born on Guy Fawkes Day. (Guy Fawkes, leader of the Gunpowder Plot, attempted to assassinate King James and blow up the House of Lords in 1605. Moustachioed masks representing Fawkes are favored by the generation of anarchists who go by the name Anonymous.) When Swinton calls Berger a “lens polisher,” her reference to him as a visionary recalls the Bergerian history-lesson scene in Jonah. In this scene, schoolteacher Marco (Jacques Denis) lectures a classroom of teenagers: “A new kind of violence. Weapons had killed in the past but now the verdict of history killed. The winners’ history. With this new violence came a new fear for the winners. Fear of the past . . . Time became a road with no bends.”

The verdict of history as seen in The Seasons in Quincy casts doubt on the lens polisher’s intellectual bequest. This hagiographic film is like one of those TV magazine shows about the upper classes: It revives radical chic for Millennial viewers, shows off Berger and Swinton’s style, taste, and progressive political options. Ah, the joys of bourgeois radicals who, with their progeny (Berger and Swinton’s advantaged children), enjoy art, food, housing, leisure. When these haughty Euros bash America’s Tea Party, patronize workers, or confess distrust of the Internet, it shames the Utopian openness that Jonah promised. The kind of daily life that Berger and Swinton enjoy in Quincy is exactly what most liberal spokespeople desire, advocate, and secure for themselves while advising “revolution” for the less fortunate. It demonstrates all too well the self-satisfaction that today’s “radical” generation takes for granted as their social entitlement.

Ah, the joys of bourgeois radicals who, with their progeny (Berger and Swinton’s advantaged children), enjoy art, food, housing, leisure.

This is not the promise one saw in Jonah. Between the lines of the film’s liberal sentiments (using perspectives that originated with Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir), it is still defensible for its essential humanism. Many details resonate: The farmer’s wife sleeping with immigrants predicts Europe’s colonialist payback; a banker’s visit to appropriate the farm recalls the great sell-out-your-dignity scene in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Tanner and Berger’s leftist biases are obvious, but these characters’ dilemmas are conveyed with an affecting concern. The most shocking foreshadow occurs when Marco muses about his students as folks grown old: “I hope you’re all in one piece in 2000.”

The specters of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter suggest that history may have outguessed Tanner and Berger. Today’s political crisis is not so simple as rampant capitalism, but the entire mode of thinking in which the idea of power has been redefined by the class-motivated, academic elite. Max predicts that “there will be war and there will be fascism,” yet Tanner and Berger never dreamed that we would face a fascism of the Left, a.k.a. political correctness.

So it is necessary to assess The Seasons in Quincy through the lens of Jonah to better understand the real results of Berger’s influence. When Berger converses with filmmaker Colin McCabe and three younger “thinkers,” he is briefly startled at the others’ self-absorption. It becomes clear that they mirror his own pontificating habits, but inelegantly. His generation laid the groundwork for today’s “revolutionaries” who misinterpret Rousseau’s utopian concepts; what they promote as “justice” and “diversity” is a moral betrayal of ’60s idealism. In Jonah, Big Max poses for a children’s-mural portrait of his comrades, and he’s drawn in crucifix as a martyr of the movement. Later, we see little Jonah scrawling graffiti over this mural.

#related#As the Jonah generation, today’s activists — including those journalists who have given up the appearance of impartiality for the narcissism of self-interested partisanship — seem to have stopped thinking in that always-questioning way of the characters in Jonah, to whom we could relate because they were continuously searching for something better. Despite the Jonah generation’s constant allusions to ’60s protests and civil-rights era activism, whatever virtues the counterculture offered are nowhere to be seen now.

Tanner and Berger’s post-’68 strivers touchingly feared the worst, so Jonah gave voice to the moral concerns of both the Left and the Right. It is the only movie to ask “Did May ’68 disappoint you?” The humane disagreement and righteous discourse preserved in Jonah Who Will Be 25 is steadily evaporating from today’s popular culture (proved by The Seasons in Quincy’s self-satisfaction). That last expectant shot of Jonah no longer looks like a prophecy but a haunting question.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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