11 Things I Love About John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

John Berger died recently, and in the publicity wake of his passing I discovered that his Ways of Seeing was not just a fantastic book I had to buy for a course many years ago, but was originally a BBC series. A tragically short series, that is – there are only four episodes. I’ve just finished watching them on the youtube and enjoyed them immensely, both for the intellectual content but also for…

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1. The title font

Immeasurable 70s warm fuzzies flow from this font, the Alvin Toffler Future Shock font of adorably self-conscious computer era mod, technology awe and scifi anxiety. Clockwork orange! Fahrenheit 451! Day of the Triffids! Bell-bottoms!

2. The zoom out from John Berger on the video screen

Oh the abrupt zoom! When the zoom lens was still fresh out of the wrapping and it was so fun to use it boldly. Whenever a zoom like this occurs in a film, be it Planet of the Apes or BBC doc, it simply screams out this-is-a-camera-at-work-here, always-remember-you-are-watching-a-film! So meta!

I don’t want to seem like I’m mocking here; I actually love the joy of gadgetry use in moments like this.

3. John Berger on the video screen

Similarly, the fact that he is shown on the screen is fantastic. Do you remember Rick Moranis’s character Jerry Todd on SCTV? The video guy (pronounced ‘vuh-deo’)? His show (like so many local access cable network shows) opened with a proud shot of the equipment used to make the show. (happy sigh)

4. The shirt!

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5. The No Frills studio setting

It’s pretty startling these days to watch something so devoid of gloss, but of course that’s the point. And – in absolute television heresy – by refusing to tart up the set, or even light Berger in a flattering way, the show’s makers help the viewer to focus on what Berger is actually saying. (OMG!)

6. The dead air moments

In show one, when he talks about the silence and stillness of paintings, the soundtrack goes silent. Actually silent. If you are lucky enough to watch this in a quiet place, like I did, this is like taking your brain to a spa. And by not cluttering up the soundtrack, I found I was able to meditate on the visual montages more easily.

7. The thoughtful montages

You don’t have to explain every iota out of a concept in your narration. Show, juxtapose… place your images in sequence like items on a tabletop, and let the viewer move gently along with their own observations and connections. Give the luxurious gift of time to your ideas.

8. The Gormless Advertisements

Long ago and far away, eh?

9. The Earnestness

I am reminded how earnest educational, serious programming like this used to be. Heart on sleeve, unwavering eye contact earnest. Open to being mocked for it, I guess, or not caring. Now it seems like shows want/need to be ahead of the joke, jumping to the parodies of itself before anyone else can do it. The desired tone now is quick, hip, edgy, sarcastic. In the babel of a billion voices, only the snarky can be heard.

10. The Ideas

Oh yeah. All kidding aside, while I love the nostalgia factor – and I am old enough to have clear remembrances of the 1970s – I am also blown away by the concepts and the clarity with which they are presented. It is a rare thing for a television program to stand solely on the legs of its ideas, minus the bells and whistles. There is also an old-fashioned comfort here with intellectualism. It has become suspect and elitist to use big words and convoluted sentence structure… especially in the pursuit of profound thought. In Europe being an intellectual is actually a career option, it seems. You do hear upon the death of certain writers that they were intellectuals, but I don’t hear that much in North America. It would probably be seen as an insult, or a euphemism for someone who was unemployable. Or even worse, someone who had finagled his way into receiving an outrageous salary for doing nothing.

11. John Berger Himself

I admit I don’t know much about John Berger, but I do intend to read more of his work. The one factoid I can throw you is this: Upon winning the Man-Booker Prize, the unrepentant Marxist Berger gave half of his prize money to the Black Panthers.

See for yourself…

Treat yourself to these four brief zen experiences on youtube, the first is below.

FURTHER READING: An interesting essay on the legacy of Ways of Seeing¬†is right here… https://arthistory.knoji.com/ways-of-seeing-john-bergers-marxist-arts-documentary/

P.S. Sorry for the click-bait style headline. I feel bad about it, but it also feels just self-referential and postmodern enough to be appropriate. Maybe?

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