How John Berger gave us new ways of seeing Hollywood cinema

The late writer and critic rarely dealt directly with film, but his theories about oil painting can help us rebuff a conservative tendency to attribute Hollywood artists’ successes to the studio system itself.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates the voyeur in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

To begin with a confession: prior to his death on 2 January, I was only vaguely familiar with the work of John Berger. Those heartfelt tributes which followed his passing encouraged me to take a closer look, and Ways of Seeing, the book published to accompany Berger’s 1972 television series, seemed an obvious starting point. This explicitly Marxist overview of art history has been an enormous influence on art critics and theorists. Yet, although Ways of Seeing only mentions cinema in passing, via a quotation from Dziga Vertov (the TV series adds a Humphrey Jennings reference), I was struck by how pertinent Berger’s claims were to cinematic culture.

The key section here is Chapter Five, which focuses on oil painting. Central to Berger’s argument is his insistence that aesthetic concerns are inextricable from financial ones, the contents of paintings being largely determined by the requirements of those wealthy individuals who were in a position to commission and collect them.

Berger’s notion of a painting as a possession which in turn illustrated possessions – and whose ownership was itself an indicator of status – would have had little relevance to film in 1972, but takes on a curious resonance for an era in which LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray have successively been promoted as the ‘best’ home-viewing option. Berger’s remarks on the oil painting’s “special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts” suggest how easily textures can become fetishes, and one might wonder whether those in a position to play Ultra HD Blu-ray discs are really enjoying a ‘superior’ perspective, or if the primary function of their televisual setup is to confirm (in Berger’s words) “the owner’s wealth and habitual style of living”.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Berger quoted Vertov's 'I am an eye. A mechanical eye …' in Ways of Seeing

But where cinema is concerned, the most relevant paragraph can be found on page 109 of the Penguin edition:

“The essential character of oil painting has been obscured by an almost universal misreading of the relationship between its ‘tradition’ and its ‘masters’. Certain exceptional artists in exceptionable circumstances broke free of the norms of the tradition and produced work that was diametrically opposed to its values; yet these artists are proclaimed as the tradition’s supreme representatives: a claim which is made easier by the fact that after their death, the tradition closed around their work, incorporating minor technical innovations, and continuing as though nothing of principle had been disturbed.”

Studio man? Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane (1941)

One could hardly ask for a better description of the ways in which contemporary accounts of cinema history (and, through a process of homage, American cinema itself) position classical Hollywood. Auteurs who superficially appear to have worked in harmony with the system – Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli – are seen as exemplifying the system as a whole. They may, according to this hypothesis, represent Hollywood at its best, but their efforts differ from those of H. Bruce Humberstone or Roy Del Ruth in degree rather than kind. Indeed, it is far from unusual for directors who were in conflict with the powers that be – Nicholas Ray, Erich Von Stroheim, Orson Welles – to be acclaimed as representatives of the very institution which thwarted them, their films recalled as model examples of studio craftsmanship rather than projects undertaken in the teeth of virulent opposition. Clinton Heylin may have called his book on Welles Despite the System, but several studies of this director might accurately have been entitled Despite the Genius.

It is important to stress that Berger is not succumbing to the Romantic myth of the self-sustaining rebel artist whose work is produced in a vacuum. In Ways of Seeing, he describes a late self-portrait by Rembrandt as a painting whose creator “has turned the tradition against itself. He has wrested its language away from it… All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him… has found the means to express just that, using a medium which had been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.” The suggestion is that the greatest artists will be those who are fundamentally opposed to the dominant trends of their culture, trends embodied in the very language of the forms in which they work.

One might more precisely define how such opposition is expressed by referring to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In his article The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema (Film Quarterly, Fall 1978), Daniel Dayan discusses the ideological underpinnings of one aspect of that cinematic language – continuity editing – Hitchcock was using. According to Dayan, our naive relationship with the image is disrupted when we discover the existence of the frame and realise that “the camera is hiding things”. The filmmaker restores our original relationship by cutting to a shot of somebody looking (ostensibly at the contents of the previous shot). Shot number two thus exists to ‘suture’ the hole created by shot number one, allowing the spectator to “resume his previous relationship with the film” and perceive the text as unauthored, its ideological operations seemingly natural occurrences.

Psycho (1960)

The function Dayan attributes to continuity editing is inherently conservative, dedicated to reassurance rather than disturbance. But consider, in the light of this theory, the scene in Psycho which shows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) removing her clothes before taking a shower.

The shots of Marion stripping are clearly addressed to a male viewer defined as an inveterate voyeur. Yet rather than attempting to restore our innocent relationship with the image, to assure us that the “visual pleasure” (to use Laura Mulvey’s term) we are experiencing can be enjoyed unproblematically, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between shots of Marion, whom we have previously been encouraged to look with rather than at, in various stages of undress, and shots of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), an individual whose social relations have already been characterised as deeply problematic, spying on her through a hole in the wall.

Continuity editing may be intended to imbricate the individual viewer with the wider culture, but Hitchcock here manipulates it in an unsettling manner, suggesting that our desire to look (specifically at visual representations of women), and to take possession of something by looking, is neurotic. Which is to say that he uses tools developed to reinforce the ideological interests of the ruling class (which the art of any period tends to serve) as weapons aimed at undermining those interests.

As Berger was at pains to remind us, discourses that conflate our culture’s harshest critics with its most devoted servants – the ‘Genius of the System’ argument – are unambiguously reactionary, and should be vigorously opposed.

Further reading

Image lib: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

Forty years ago John Berger’s BBC2 series challenged us to be wiser consumers of fine art. As BFI Southbank marks the anniversary, Jonathan Conlin asks if the series speaks to us today.

By Jonathan Conlin

Image lib: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing