Colin MacCabe, Bartek Dziadosz, Christopher Roth, and Tilda Swinton, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. John Berger.

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.

Colin MacCabe, Bartek Dziadosz, Christopher Roth, and Tilda Swinton, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. John Berger and Tilda Swinton.

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 [1960]; 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.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger plays August 31 through September 13 at Film Forum in New York.

José Luis Guerín, The Academy of Muses, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Emanuela Forgetta.

THE CATALAN FILMMAKER José Luis Guerín has been making movies for more than thirty years now, in the process never achieving more than niche notoriety. In part this may be attributed to the elusiveness of his work, which has moved freely between documentary and fiction, the literary and the cinematic, hard narrative and heady philosophy, a series of switchbacks that have made it difficult to scent his trail or predict where he might pop up next. This low profile suits Guerín’s films, which, though often urban in setting, are struck through by deep reserves of solitude—he is particularly taken with lonely perambulations and the strange tremors of life that can be found enduring inside empty rooms. Several of his movies are practically one-man-band productions, along the lines of Chantal Akerman’s diary films or recent Alain Cavalier, with Guerín himself providing the camerawork and the dialogue. These are small, private productions, meant to be shared with an intimate audience.

In the US Guerín is best known for In the City of Sylvia (2007), a cinematic ode to flâneurism indebted to Baudelaire and Bresson, in which a young man wanders through Strasbourg, France, looking for a woman whom he briefly encountered some years ago, being distracted from his quest—and at the same time returned to it—by the city’s many beguiling women. The inspirational quality of the fairer sex is also at the heart of Guerín’s latest feature, The Academy of Muses, a rambunctiously talky documentary-fiction hybrid which takes as its leaping-off point a lecture class that middle-aged Italian philology professor Raffaele Pinto is teaching to a largely female student body on the art of playing the muse, his discourse revolving around some of Guerín’s favorite topics: Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura.

The Academy of Muses, which was a standout at last year’s Festival del film Locarno and appeared earlier this year at Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real festival, is receiving a weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives, to be preceded by a retrospective of Guerín’s filmography—a happy opportunity for viewers to catch up with this entirely sui generis talent. In taking Guerín’s body of work as a whole, the sensibility that emerges is definitely Romantic. In Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007), a kind of essay-film blueprint for the fiction feature made entirely of still images and on-screen text, Guerín recalls first being drawn to Strasbourg in 1982 on a pilgrimage to find traces of Goethe and his Young Werther—and then his subsequent returns, looking for an elusive “Sylvia” whom he had met for a few moments some twenty years earlier. The tenacity of a lingering image is one of Guerín’s chief preoccupations, and with the Sylvia films he seems to evoke Bernstein in Citizen Kane (1941), ruminating on the girl with the white dress and parasol on the Jersey ferry. (“I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I hadn’t thought of that girl.”) He also occasionally risks recalling the beauty-obsessed playboy journalist played by Pep Munné in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (1994), for he is unabashedly devoted to the depiction and dissection of desire, operating from a distinctly heterosexual male point-of-view—though much of the pleasure in Academy is watching the various women doing sapper work beneath Pinto’s fortified, learned self-confidence. Guerín’s interest lies more with anticipation than fulfillment, and he is fascinated by the possibility offered by the come-hither enigmatic stranger or the incipient gesture—tellingly, his fourth feature, documenting the drastic transformation of Barcelona’s El Chine neighborhood, is titled Work in Progress (2001).

José Luis Guerín, In the City of Sylvia, 2007, 16 mm, color, sound, 84 minutes.

The earliest of Guerín’s features to play Anthology, his 1990 Innisfree finds most of his pet themes firmly in place. Here the “lingering images” in question are the creations of John Ford, specifically the sights of his The Quiet Man. In 1952, Ford and his crew descended on a village in County Mayo to re-create an Ireland of 1927, and of Irish-American Ford’s sentimental imagination. Some forty years later Guerín visits the locations that made up Ford’s “Innisfree” and finds that the fiction of The Quiet Man has been added to the overall repository of collective folk memory. Rather than disproving Hollywood mythologizing, Guerín finds something more provocative—that Ford’s ideal of Innisfree has served in a way to reveal a community to itself, even to cement the sense of community.

Time and again through Innisfree we are reminded that most of the talent behind The Quiet Man are long dead and gone—and death likewise haunts Guerín’s next feature, Train of Shadows (1997). The purported basis of the film is the unearthing of several reels of home-movie footage from 1930 attributed to one Gérard Fleury, a Parisian lawyer vacationing with his family at Le Thuit, Normandy, said to have died under mysterious circumstances shortly after. Much of the footage is overgrown by a thick patina of age and distress, and after playing it through, the film investigates the empty rooms of the Fleury estate in the present, the still-life compositions also heavily textured, given a surprising dynamism through Guerín’s layering of shadowplay and use of mirrors. In Academy, shot in cafés, offices, and cars, Guerín also shows this propensity for building dense images, setting up shots through reflective glass and overlaying images like a no-budget von Sternberg—he has the peculiar gift of being able to photograph a puddle showing a bit of the sky and in doing so suggest an aperture leading into another dimension.

As Train of Shadows returns to review Fleury’s films, the movie’s anonymous author begins to fixate on an image of a young woman, trying to tease out the silent conspiracy that seems to exist between her and the photographer. Fleury himself, largely unseen behind the camera until a late, lushly colored coup de cinéma reenactment that integrates him into the reimagined action, is Train of Shadows’s structuring absence—a key motif for Guerín. Sylvia is everywhere present and nowhere to be found in the city and in the two films that bear her namesake, while Guerín’s short Two Letters to Ana (2011) meditates on, among other items, the paintings of the Greek Zeuxis, which survive only in descriptions left by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. Finally, the subject of Guerín’s medium-length digital-video documentary Memories of a Morning is never seen, only spoken of by various interviewees—he being a fifty-year-old violinist neighbor in Barcelona who jumped to his death from his apartment one day, leaving behind no family and a translation of Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve. (Describing the book’s curious combination of “narrative and essay,” Guerín might be defining his own practice.)

Catastrophe strikes, and then life goes on, the same but irrevocably altered. At the conclusion of Memories of a Morning, Guerín seems to locate the dead man’s tune picked up by other musician neighbors, much as the face of Sylvia is reflected in the features of a hundred other women, as Ford’s Innisfree lives on in the shared unconscious of an entire village, or as, unbeknownst to the modern Barcelonans of Work in Progress, they have been living on top of the corpses of Roman Empire subjects, excavated resting peacefully beneath the city’s paving stones. “When the figure disappears,” as Guerín has it in Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, “the surroundings appear”—but are the departed ever actually gone? Hard as it is to pin down Guerín’s eclectic output, it might be that the best we can do to draw his films together is to call him an exemplary teller of modern ghost stories, locating the residue of what has passed through on that which remains.

Nick Pinkerton

“The Films of José Luis Guerín” plays August 24 through September 1, while the US theatrical premiere of Guerín’s The Academy of Muses runs September 2 through 13, both at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Our Frank


Laura Israel, Don’t Blink—Robert Frank, 2016, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes. Robert Frank.

LAURA ISRAEL’S PORTRAIT OF ROBERT FRANK is a remarkable reflection of the immediate connection of outer and inner vision that defines the lens-based art of its subject. If you want lists of Frank’s works and achievements, consult the Robert Frank Collection pages at the National Gallery of Art or the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Or for a laugh, you might search out the 1984 Arte documentary, which Israel uses for a few seconds here and there as a foil, to show that Frank doesn’t suffer foolish questions gladly. And that he once possessed, and probably still does, a nice tweed jacket. As he acknowledges in Don’t Blink—Robert Frank, “I’m kind of a collector. I hardly throw anything away.”

Israel, a filmmaker and editor, had been Frank’s moving-image editor and archivist for more than twenty years when a colleague suggested that she make a film about her boss. She thought no, then yes. She asked Frank, who said no, and then yes. Even after she began shooting, she suspected that he believed she was making a ten-minute video. But Frank got into it and, as the movie makes exuberantly clear, became more collaborator than subject. Don’t Blink is a freeform retrospective, in which the now ninety-two-year-old photographer and moviemaker contributes nonstop loop-de-loops of show-and-tell through nearly seventy years of living and making art in North America.

Fast-paced and elliptical, the film is an editing tour de force. Israel and her editor Alex Bingham drop a couple of anchors so that we have some sense of where we are as we follow Frank, who prefers not to know exactly where he’s going. “I love mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes they work out.” There are two main locations: Frank’s cluttered Bleecker Street studio (the film is the best argument against minimalist living) and the more airy house in Mabou, Nova Scotia, where he and his wife, sculptor and painter June Leaf, have lived part-time since the 1970s. The harsh, often snow-covered landscape reminded Frank, he said, of his native Switzerland. Leaf’s comment about their first Mabou winter: “I wouldn’t say it was hard. It was impossible.”

Robert Frank, Life Dances On, 1980, black-and-white and color, sound, 30 minutes.

The other anchor is The Americans (1958), the book of eighty-three photographs that Frank, a European in search of the real America, shot on various road trips across and all around the United States between 1955 and 1957. Don’t Blink opens with a chockablock montage of images from the artist’s films and photographs and a clip of Frank shooting a movie and joking with bystanders who haven’t a clue who the grubby guy with the camera could be, before settling into the Bleecker Street studio where he is examining contact sheets of images from his most celebrated and influential work. Israel and Frank thread The Americans through the nearly sixty years of Frank’s life and art that the film covers in hop, skips, and jumps. When it first appeared, the book was reviled by critics who resented that a foreigner—specifically, a Swiss Jew—had seen through the smiling, airbrushed mask of the Eisenhower ’50s. Recently, a single image from the series sold for $550,000.

Sid Kaplan, the photographer’s longtime darkroom man, explains that Frank wanted the photographs in The Americans to have a similar look to the Fox Movietone News films that he saw in theaters when he arrived in New York just after World War II. At which point, Israel intercuts several images from The Americans with bits of those News films, and even if we know the photographs well, we may see them in a slightly different way—as documentary rather than as art photography. It’s a tiny moment in a film that’s filled with hundreds of just such revealing connections. Asked what makes a good photograph, Frank, whose dry humor is on display throughout, replies, “Sharp, number one. Make sure they see the eyes, hopefully the nose, smiling, say cheese. The main thing: Get it over quick. Get people when they’re not aware of the camera. Usually the first picture is the best.”

Jack Kerouac, whose introduction to The Americans nudged a series of still photographs into the shape of a road movie, is also the narrator of Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), a slightly fictionalized Beat Generation home movie which has Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso hanging out in a Tenth Street loft that is home to a railroad engineer (Larry Rivers), his painter wife (Delphine Seyrig), and their son (Pablo Frank). “The Beat writers were very important in my development, they showed you could create your own rules,” says Frank. One of the rules was to ignore the differentiation of documentary and fiction, leading to the Pirandelloesque Me and My Brother (1969), in which an answer to the question of what happens between a camera and its subject comes from Julius Orlovsky, for many years a catatonic schizophrenic. Frank, who had an amazing rapport with Julius, asks what he thinks about being in a movie. Julius paces around as he speaks, and although you have to fill in a keyword or two, his meaning is clear: “The camera is a reflection of disapproval or disgust… or unexplainability to disclose any real truth.”

Robert Frank, Me and My Brother, 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 91 minutes. Peter Orlovsky.

In Don’t Blink, Frank is almost never without a still camera in his hand, most of them of the small, easy-to-use variety. There’s a lovely sequence in which he and the cinematographer Ed Lachman take Polaroids of each other. (Don’t Blink was shot by Lisa Rinzler with additional camerawork by Lachman.) But looking at a sequence from the twisty self-portrait About Me: A Musical (1971) that Israel projected on the wall of his studio, he is struck by how alive it is. “They come back, they move and talk.…It brings back the real scene. A photograph is just a memory. Put it back in the drawer.” These days, he shoots video. It’s cheaper and more immediate than film. “I think I should shoot ten minutes of video a day. With people in it,” he tells Israel when they are hanging out in Mabou.

The New York bohemia that Frank captured—“people who lived on the edge”—is mostly gone, as are his children, Andrea and Pablo, who died much too young. Frank coped with terrible loss by working—making movies and shooting photographs that he wrote on and scratched over because single beautiful images were not enough to express grief and anger and a whole mess of emotions and ideas. “An important part of a photographer’s work is to choose the pictures. Make big prints, put them on the wall.” In the Bleecker Street studio, all the images of a lifetime seem to be just an arm’s-length away—the ones already chosen and those yet to be. Don’t Blink captures “the real scene” that Frank inhabits and continues to transform with his art.

“The Films of Robert Frank,” a series of eight Thursday-evening programs at BAMcinématek (August 4 through September 22) includes some twenty-five moving-image works of varying lengths and genres. The series as a whole cannot be summarized, nor can the individual films except to say that they share the characteristic of having been made by someone who stubbornly insists on walking out on a high wire without a net. If you’ve not seen Pull My Daisy, it is the classic. But do not miss Conversations in Vermont (1969), Life Dances On (1980), and True Story (2008)—all of them naked in their confusion and anguish about fathering. Best of all is the seemingly casual Paper Route (2002), as close to a perfect movie as you’ll ever see. The last Thursday (September 22) is listed as TBA, which is usually a signal that Mick Jagger has granted permission to show Cocksucker Blues (1972), Frank’s documentary about the Exile on Main St tour. Take a chance and buy a ticket in advance. It is the most thrilling movie about performer-as-magician ever made.

Amy Taubin

Don’t Blink—Robert Frank runs through Tuesday, August 9 at New York’s Film Forum. “The Films of Robert Frank” plays every Thursday evening August 4 through September 22 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.