From society to the group

The utopian interest in community was a shift for both Berger and Tanner. Their prior works had explored the question of the individual-in-society more than the group. But here again, the meaning of that transposition was complex. On the one hand it emphasized the power of communion at a time of disintegration. On the other hand, it contracted the scale of utopian longings from total social transformation to the texture of the everyday and the community. The film’s ambivalence on this point signaled a watershed moment on the left: while many former activists drew inspiration from its vision of hope in the dark, other hardliners criticized Jonah as indulgent.

The division was exacerbated by the film’s popularity. Released in 1976, it had a surprisingly long and successful run throughout Europe and North America. It demonstrably had tapped into a cultural mood. The renowned critic for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, as well as the iconic French critic, Serge Daney, both praised the film’s vigor and freedom. A young David Denby, who later succeeded Kael at the New Yorker, called Tanner, once thought of as a lesser Godard, “the Renoir of the 70s.”[5] [open notes in new window]

Jonah turned the residual melancholy and regret of a generation into a powerful sense of affirmation and resolve. One of the last shots of the film follows Matthieu, the father of Jonah, singing on his motorbike. The song is an elegiac ballad he has made up about his friends. On the voice-over we hear him talk softly to his future child. “I’ll try to keep your hopes together,” he says, “so they don’t disappear.”

Perhaps the most telling proof of what the film meant to its audience was the number of future parents, including the filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Fernando Trueba, who named their children, born in the late 70s, Jonah. For an aging generation needing badly to recuperate some sense of hope, the film provided that in a very profound, personal way to many people.

The Jump Cut debate

But Jonah was also a comedy made at a time when the left wasn’t supposed to be smiling. It became at once a touchstone of post-68 consolation and a target for attack. While articles in the mainstream press fawned over Tanner’s “Merry Marxist Guerillas,” a 1977 issue of this journal published a debate under the tagline “Tanner’s Jonah: Subversive Charm or Reactionary Nostalgia.

Robert Stam defended the film in what remains one of the best analyses of Tanner’s aesthetics. He called Jonah “a dialectical music of ideas” and compared it to Vigo’s Zero de conduite, as well as to Godard and Brecht. His basic point was that Tanner politicized the natural desires of a mainstream audience. The film was not, Stam argued, like many other leftist films: a bitter pill, however sugarcoated, appealing to the viewer’s intellect and guilt. Instead, Jonah celebrated fun, play, warmth, community, freedom—all impulses that, among other things, bring people to the movies. The film meant to free those impulses from the oppressive contortions of market-based social manipulation, and reveal their revolutionary potential. Stam wrote,

Jonah was not made for leftists, it was made for a mass audience. It tries to appeal to what is revolutionary in most people: in all those, at least, who have no direct stake in oppression.”[6]

In one of the most iconic scenes from Jonah, Marco illustrates different conceptions of historical time by using a sausage. The set piece exemplifies the film’s unique, and at times contradictory, mixture of playfulness and didacticism: a mixture inherent to the Berger-Tanner collaboration. Marco makes the kids laugh, but he also teaches them a lesson. 

A rebuttal essay, co-authored by Linda Green, John Hess and Robin Lakes, lambasted the film under the acerbic title, “Subversive Charm Indeed.” They saw the film as politically retrograde, accused it of dismissing Marx in favor of Rousseau, and said it offered up the assurance that it was "all right to drop out and put your hope in your children.”[7] The authors understood the reasons for the film’s appeal, but compared the nature of that appeal to an opiate. “It’s damned hard to feel very good about anything when decaying capitalism seems so very bent on destroying as much human life as possible,” they wrote. And so the film’s optimism, they argued, masked an insidious bargain: it flattered the self-satisfaction of a disillusioned liberal audience through the smug, if discrete, disavowal of class politics.

“Basically we think Jonah is a light-weight, slightly progressive, warm and charming film in which petty bourgeois actors and actresses pretend to be workers and peasants but fail because neither they nor Tanner knows much about the daily lives of Swiss workers.”

Young women forced to work menial jobs is a recurring leitmotif in Tanner’s cinema. But his cinema is far from social realism. The films emphasize the boredom, more than the brutality, of modern work ...
... But this, Tanner suggests, is a brutalism of the spirit. Only daydreams leaven the minutes and hours, which have been flattened and homogenized.

A second, and in my view fairer, criticism they leveled against the film pertained to what they saw as its “blatant, inexcusable sexism.” The female characters, they argued, “have no interests beyond their own reproductive organs,” and were constructed based on conservative notions of womanhood. There are many conspicuous examples in the film to support this: Marguerite’s liaisons with migrant workers; Mathilde’s obsession with fertility; Madeleine’s pursuit of tantric adventures. “Tanner can claim any excuse he wants,” they wrote, “but he has made a movie that shows complete ignorance of women’s struggles over the last 10 to 15 years.” Stam also expressed dismay at the film’s blind spot in this regard, and there is no doubt that the film’s sexual politics have aged badly. (As I will return to shortly, this was perhaps the criticism Tanner took most to heart.)

A salient criticism of Jonah pertains to its conservative portrayals of womanhood. Men do the thinking while women do the feeling, desiring and reproducing.

Locating the film’s politics

In interviews, Tanner took an agnostic stance in relation to the film’s politics. "There is no real message here,” he said.

“I'm not trying to tell people what to do or think. I'm not a priest or a politician. Jonah is just about what happened to people after 1968. There are some hopes in the film, because the characters are not just sitting back and wanting to belong to the silent majority. They want to move forward, in some small way. They all have some kind of movement, whether it be about kids, or salads, or what to do with one's body, or the problems of work. These characters are all minor prophets and they're headed toward the year 2000."[8]

The language Tanner used to explicate, and justify, the film emerged from the philosophical blueprint he had worked on with Berger. In his highly theoretical and speculative notes for Jonah, Berger called it, “A comedy, sometimes in color and sometimes in black-and-white, about preparing to leave the 20th century.” His analysis of Jonah’s “eight ancestors” demonstrates a lucid awareness of their flaws and contradictions. They are meant to be emblems of personal, post-Utopian possibility, but they are not paragons of the left.

"In the whale, which is history, there are 8 characters like 8 Jonahs. All of them are ridiculous. We must never forget this. They are ridiculous, sometimes stupid, sometimes blind, often dishonest and petty in their obsessions. We must allow that aspect of them which is immediately dismissible by the bourgeois to be fully presented. Yet it is in their ridiculousness that their little prophesies lie. And their prophesies save them from some of the self-destructions and murderous guilt of the society to which they belong. Yet they are not comrades together. They are too individualistic. They bicker and disagree. All that they recognize that they have in common is a certain aberrance."[9]

What is ironic is that the very same characteristics Berger anticipates as being “immediately dismissible” by the bourgeois (e.g. that a boss would object to) were the same which unsettled the critics to the film’s left. They are too indulgent! Too irresponsible! To use Berger’s own phrase, they are ridiculous!

This is a contradiction the film turns over again and again. Consider the following exchange between Max, Marco and Matthieu, while they chop vegetables for dinner.

Max: “Because it’s a time of disillusion you go back. Everyone is looking for an escape: the body, nature, sex, onions, lotus flowers. Small consolations in a world which is said to be unchangeable.” 
Marco: “You don't allow for little pleasures?”
Max: “Little pleasures? Everything's little. Little gimmicks. Little tricks.” 
Marco: “We have to sacrifice for the future. Shit! It's the old trick of revolutions. It's what capitalism has always preached. It's you who is living in the past. You want a new 1905, or 1917, or 1968.”

Shortly after Matthieu, who has been listening while kneading dough, pipes up:

“You make me sick with all your talking. It's so simple. We work to earn a living. With our work, they make a profit. And with the energy left over we try to fight the system.”

Jonah thus leaves the intellectual aporia of commitment unresolved even while it sides with humble optimism, and the consolations of play, on the level of emotion and tone. A joke or a song is as much the terminus of contradiction as any intellectual synthesis.

The effect can be heartening or off-putting depending on the temperament of the viewer. For the hardliners who believed political cinema meant a realist depiction of the working class or a theorization of revolutionary activity, the effect betrayed naiveté and privilege. For others, it was a healthy sign of youth: the refusal to capitulate to an over-intellectualized bitterness. In a review in Film Quarterly, the social critic Todd Gitlin eulogized precisely this aspect of the work.

“The open secret of the films that Alain Tanner and John Berger have made is that the characters are innocent: without either sin or guile. Their innocence, and the nothing-up-the-sleeves style that attends it, might explain the singular appeal of these films. Although the main characters definitely have histories, they are not encased in them. They tilt toward the future… Unlike other survivors of political failure—Yves Montand’s exiled Spanish revolutionary in Resnais’s La Guerre est finie, for example—they are not toughly stoical, nor are they fixed in their ways: indeed, they hardly have ways to be set in. They are always underway…

Therefore these films are challenging to an intelligent and literate audience in the way few contemporary films even try to be. They pose the issue: suppose you really decided to live decently, and deliberately, and with a radical freedom, after 68, after Vietnam, after Nixon—then what?”[10]

The point is that Jonah left this question unresolved, and suggested possible avenues (“the body, nature, sex, onions, lotus flowers”) that appeared dubious, if not downright offensive, to labor activists who had spent years, sometimes decades, in the trenches of political struggle.

The question of work and play was likely the greatest flashpoint of tension between the worldviews of Berger and Tanner. It is a question—about discipline and fun—that can split the personalities of the left, and remains a dilemma for progressive educational philosophies.

Personal vs. political solutions

What Jonah revealed, then, was an historical moment when the boundaries between the political and the personal were in flux. As the traditional class (and party) politics of the left were giving way to a new politics of the body, the land, cultural and sexual identity, lifestyle and the everyday, it was no longer so easy to apply a Manichean moral dualism to political intentions. The hard and fast distinctions between bourgeois culture and progressive culture—at least in the first world—were becoming porous and disorienting. As Madeleine tells Max: “You complicate things, dividing everything in two: the good, the bad, the useful and harmful. You think like a court of law, always judges and lawyers.”

Jonah sits, historically, on the fulcrum of political epochs. It crystallized the internal contradictions of the left at a moment when the present day fault-lines were being drawn. And while the macrobiotic, tend-your-own-garden side of the film drew predictable scorn from hard liners, it did touch a prophetic nerve. If hopes for a global Marxist revolution now appear a distant curio of the time, the nascent lifestyle politics of Jonah have only grown in their ubiquity. “So vegetables are politics now!” Max exclaims. How prescient he was! And while the obscene economic inequality of the present stands as proof of the boomer generation’s failure, the broadening of identity and lifestyle politics can be seen to be its greatest accomplishment.

Of course, the doubt–self-liberation or self-indulgence?–runs through to the present. It would be easy, for example, to deride the feel-good idealism of Jonah as an ideological precursor of the contemporary “Bobo” class, with its yoga retreats, progressive pre-schools and farm-to-table restaurants. But we must also remember that at the time the film was made, the impulses toward well-being, community and self-fulfillment had not yet been so thoroughly branded. To use the logic of Stam’s defense, the market-driven processes of commodification, status creation and social oppression had yet to so thoroughly contort and betray those desires.

Whatever its internal contradictions surrounding work and fun, the film does present an essentially anti-capitalist, or at least anti-mercantilist, worldview. Any line that speaks of the logic of the market, of financial speculation, or of game-theoretic rational-choice justifications for dubious behavior, is given to ugly, besuited fat cats. If anything, the film is simplistic in this regard, not ambivalent. The collectively-made and freely-shared are moral virtues. The rationally strategic is bad. No one is trying to impress anyone else, or have an “impact.” In this it is light-years away from the media-savvy, social entrepreneurs of the present.

But a more complex point returns us to the deeper question at the heart of the Berger-Tanner collaboration: the relation between personal experience and political action. Are Jonah’s little pleasures liberatory in a way that extends beyond the self? Can they be politicized and put in the service of a larger struggle? Are they opiates for a disillusioned political class or gateway drugs to further political and moral action?

Berger and Tanner were asking this question in their own ways, both separately and together. Tanner’s third film, Return from Africa, begins with one version of the riddle: “Speaking words can be an act in itself, it can also be a substitute for action.” Berger’s novel G. investigated the same duality through the protean nature of sexual experience. A similar wager—escape or liberation?—might apply to all utopian pockets: from communal living, psychedelic trips, and rainbow festivals to the experience of love and friendship and the decision to have children, a utopian wager on the most personal scale. Are these experiences merely refuges in a fallen world? Do they work like anodyne escape-valves, letting the present order maintain itself? Or are they the personal foundations for action and social change? Will a utopian personal experience engender a corresponding political hope?

There is almost certainly no ready-made or reliable answer to the question. I can see as many examples for the argument as against it. The outcome will vary from person to person. As Octavio Paz has said, “history is unpredictable because its agent, mankind, is the personification of indeterminism.”[11]         

That too is my argument for Jonah, a film whose indeterminacy grew out of a moment when the historical confidence of the left had evaporated. Without the assurances of ideology, individuals were placed back in their local environments to create solutions to smaller, much more delimited and personal problems. Is this localism a betrayal of politics? Or is it a sensible correction of what turned out to be a too facile understanding of progress? We still live with this uncertainty.

But I would go one step further. In our contemporary age when the logic and pressures of the market have pervaded nearly every inch of human life, the small, human gestures of Jonah provide, if not the tools for revolution, then the reasons not to submit. “What is the purpose of resisting corporate globalization,” Rebecca Solnit has asked, “if not to protect the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric?” The word that unites the rest, at least in my view, is protect. We live at a time when plans for global revolution are obsolete. Austerity politics threaten livelihoods and ways of life. Accordingly, we have moved, out of necessity, to a politics of resistance: of preservation and survival.

Berger and Tanner after Jonah

It is one thing to be attacked from the right; quite another to be attacked from the left. Although Berger and Tanner have remained close friends, Jonah was their last collaboration. It marked both the pinnacle of their partnership and its final step: an act of a synthesis that was also an impasse.

In the years that followed, Tanner entered a depression. He emerged from this with the incredibly bitter film, Messidor (1979), about two lesbian runaways. (The film served as the inspiration for Thelma and Louise.) In a sense, Tanner responded directly to the feminist criticisms of Jonah. Whether he thought about his own work this way or not, his entire subsequent trajectory might be seen as a protracted wrestling with the accusations of sexism and naiveté that Jonah provoked. In the 1980s, his films explored destructive female anti-heroes and anhedonic, disoriented men. Despair replaced gleeful irreverence. By 1985, Serge Daney, who had praised Jonah at the time of its release, could write of Tanner’s films:

"I knew the characters … having seen them come and go: they were flawed and bad in '68, then armchair idealists, then, in '85, embittered, dissatisfied hippies, that's all."[12]

The assessment is harsh, but it does speak to a dwindling in Tanner’s later work—an inability to match the energy and inspiration of his early films.  

Berger, for his part, emerged from Jonah heading in a very different direction. He moved from Geneva to a small village in the Haute Savoie, and toward a direct engagement with the day-to-day experience of French agrarian workers. In this sense, his trajectory can be seen to respond to a separate criticism leveled at Jonah: that its makers did not truly understand the lives of the working class, that they were nothing but class-imposters, “pretending to be workers and peasants.”

In fact, Berger had always been fascinated by working men and women, which likely made the accusations about the privileged consciousness of Jonah even more stinging. In conversation today, he plays down his role in the film, while holding up his collaboration with Jean Mohr from the same period, A Seventh Man, about migrant laborers, as the book of which he is proudest. In the years since the mid-1970s, the dignity of work, the importance of survival rather than progress, and the continued presence of the dead have all became central elements to his worldview, almost a theology. The title of his trilogy on peasant life, spanning two decades of writing, is taken from the Gospel of John: “Others have labored / and ye are entered into their labours.” For many contemporary readers, including myself, this is this period that signifies the Berger we most admire: an honorary world elder and spiritual lodestar of the anti-globalization movement.

Berger worked with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr, on three books including A Seventh Man (1975), the book he says he is proudest of. The montage-inspired photo-text documents the experience of migrant laborers in Europe. (Stills from Another Way of Telling, BBC, Dir. John Christie, 1989)

A fleeting marriage of contradictions

For a brief window in the 1970s, Tanner’s and Berger’s purposes overlapped. They made films that were unique in spirit, tone, energy and ideas. They tried to encompass the theoretical complexities of commitment, rebellion and idealism in the face of political closure, while also doing justice to the lived experience of those complexities. Although certain aspects of their films have grown more awkward and problematic with time, others have become more revolutionary. Assigning a political “score” to a film, like carats to a diamond, will never be as important as taking from that work what can be of value to the present, and leaving behind what cannot.

And so what remains radical about Jonah is its sense of connection. It refused to separate feeling from thought, songs from lectures, or politics from the attendant, smaller acts of friendship and community that can both beget and cement political ideals. At a time when miserabilism has become the default manner of the avant-garde and social documentaries have fallen back on stereotyped modes of persuasion, the lessons Jonah provides, notwithstanding its flaws, are needed now more than ever. It has always been our duty to distinguish hope from fantasy. But as fear gushes out of the media like water from a tap, there is something all the more relevant about Jonah’s little pleasures. Or as Tanner put it recently in conversation, people are still searching for un peu d’espoir, un peu d’utopie—a little bit of hope, a piece of utopia.