Play Me Something

(Timothy Neat, UK, 1989)


John Berger, the writer and on-screen narrator of Play Me Something, is someone who wears many cultural hats. He is perhaps best known as the radical art historian responsible for the 1970s book and television series Ways of Seeing; but he is also a novelist, popular columnist, screenwriter and – judging by this film – a formidable raconteur, wandering the hills of Scotland.

Play Me Something features Berger retelling a story from one of his own books, Once In Europa. Appearing magically, Berger entertains a motley band of travellers waiting for a delayed plane. At first bored or irritated, the listeners gradually become a rapt and participating audience, interjecting with their own associations and memories.

Berger's tale resembles those he wrote for the Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner in the '70s (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976). Two people, from different positions in society and with vastly different philosophies of living, unexpectedly meet and fall in love. Their union provides a glimpse of a new world, in which people can bridge the barriers that separate them. But are these lovers brave enough to seize the day?

Play Me Something showcases Berger's distinctive, deeply moving outlook. His politics are passionate: Marxism mixed with song, dance, laughter and, above all, romantic ecstasy. Berger's endless celebration of the difference between men and women is a little old-fashioned, but undeniably poetic.

Director Timothy Neat surrounds the central story with rather too many fussy elaborations. Like other projects funded by Britain's progressive Channel 4, Play Me Something is self-conscious, unspontaneous, too calculated. But Berger's radical humanism lingers in the memory long after all the arty images have faded.

© Adrian Martin September 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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