The eminent scholar-critic Gilberto Perez died recently at the age of 72. Jonathan Rosenbaum has put up a post in tribute to him, and Sarah Lawrence College, where Perez taught for many decades, has assembled a set of reminiscences of him and his work. Like so many others, I’m a huge admirer of Perez’s writings. I never knew him personally—we met briefly when Victor Perkins introduced us at an SCMS meeting once. But I’ve always had a strong personal curiosity about Perez from afar because of certain biographical similarities I share with him: we’re both immigrants to the USA; our native language isn’t English; and when we went to university from high school, it wasn’t for study in the humanities. Over the last few weeks, my own personal act of remembering Perez has consisted of revisiting films alongside his writings about them in his classic, magisterial book, The Material Ghost (1998), which contains nearly three decades of his work. These films, on which he wrote indelible, definitive essays, include Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dovzkenko’s Earth, Renoir’s A Day in the Country, Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Huillet/Straub’s History Lessons, Godard’s Alphaville, and Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and L’Avventura.
Perez’s book begins with a touching account of childhood cinephilia. He describes the experience of going to the movies in his native Havana, often with his father, his most frequent movie-going companion. The films he saw formed a truly broad and international mix that included but went well beyond Hollywood. He writes: “With negligibly few exceptions, the movies were all foreign, which is to say that none of them were: they all took place in the spellbinding elsewhere of the screen.” By “foreign” he means “non-Cuban,” but there is a wonderful ambiguity about the way he views these films: they are simultaneously close (taking place on the movie screens of Havana with which he was on such intimate terms) and distant (unfolding in foreign places and spaces, the screen itself being such an alien space of “elsewhere”).
“The history of cinephilia,” wrote Richard Brody recently, “is a tale of two cities, New York and Paris.” As someone whose cinephilia was formed and nurtured very far away from these places—over the course of an itinerant childhood spent traveling all over India—I am struck by the simplistic nature of this oft-repeated, much-mythologized account. It is a narrative that turns a blind eye to a vast reality: that of the truly global and complex history of cinephilia. To unproblematically place New York and Paris at the center of cinephilia is to ignore the fact that we live in a world of unequal power relations. These imbalances of power determine the flows of knowledge: specifically, what knowledge travels, and in which direction, thus deciding what finds its way into the narratives of history—and what remains absent, “off-screen”.
As a kid in Calcutta, the first book I remember reading about cinema was James Monaco’s The New Wave. At its heart was the story of Cahiers cinephilia. To my teenage cinephile friends and I, Henri Langlois was a hero. But how many Western cinephiles, then or now, know of the great Indian archivist, P.K. Nair? Or of the Calcutta Film Society, founded by the renowned Indian film critic, Chidananda Dasgupta? Or of the legendary Indian “tent cinemas,” in which many of us made our formative discoveries of Tamil cinema? These—and many other figures, institutions and practices—were important to Indian cinephilia, but the “story of cinephilia” dismayingly often remains “a tale of two cities, New York and Paris.”
When Gilberto Perez recalls his formative critical influence, it is refreshing to find that it’s not someone with a starring role in the “standard history” of cinephilia, like Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael or one of the Cahiers du Cinéma writers. Instead, the critic who first taught Perez how to “attentively appreciate” a film was one “G. Caín,” a pseudonym for the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. (Cabrera Infante’s English-language collection of film criticism, A Twentieth Century Job, is a wonderful, must-own volume for any cinephile.) Beyond the well-known Franco-American narrative, we need stories that teach us about new and unfamiliar flavors of internationalism. Perez’s formative experiences of film and criticism furnish instructive examples that bypass—or, at the very least, are not confined to—the traditional and customary touch points of cinephilic history.
Perez recalls the impact, upon his earliest film appreciation, of Cabrera Infante’s review of Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)—and its simultaneous, twin emphases on the present and the future, on the actual and the potential of cinema:
Like Clement Greenberg’s early reviews of Jackson Pollock, this was criticism whose awareness of the present put it in touch with the future, criticism with eyes to see both what was there in the work and what the work had in store, both what Antonioni had succeeded in doing with quiet originality and where he was tending the lead the practice of his art … Cabrera Infante was a film critic animated by a sense of expectation and possibility, a spirited looking forward to the coming attractions of an art in the making.
One of the things I value most about Perez is that he is a bridge-builder and a master synthesist. Driving these traits is a sharp sensitivity for dualisms. If I had to identify a single thread that runs through Perez’s entire body of work, it is a proclivity for exploring, complicating and dismantling these dualisms. Of these, perhaps the most significant for Perez is the split between theory and criticism.
Perez moved from Cuba to the USA after high school to study engineering at MIT, then swerved away toward math and physics, picking up bachelor’s degrees in both. He then went to graduate school, drawn specifically to theoretical physics rather than experimental physics. He writes:
I was a theoretical physicist, like Einstein, like Maxwell, like Heisenberg. A scientist friend from England, more aware of matters of class, would call me a “gentleman’s mathematician” who didn’t want to get his hands dirty … my friend was not wrong to discern something snobbish in my theoretician’s posture.
Perez relates this to cinema by drawing an analogy between the disciplines: “Film theory is to film criticism as theoretical physics is to experimental physics.” Despite his initial affinity for theory in physics, he critiques the notion of theory—springing from structuralism and post-structuralism—that took hold when film studies became an academic discipline. His main complaint is that
It is a theory largely detached from criticism and often disdainful of it, a theory presuming to know the answers (“always already” knowing the answers, to use one of its favourite phrases) and averse to getting its hands dirty with the evidence …
Perez is nevertheless drawn to theorizing about film, and believes that experimental physics and film criticism are similar in that they both rely crucially on theory (“whether they know it or not, and better if they know it”) in order to illuminate their own respective practices. Film theory, for him, should not live in “a realm of its own” but should be intimately involved in a “vital give and take with concrete reality” at every step. The Material Ghost is one of the best, most detailed and patient works of film criticism ever written, but it is also grounded in Perez’s own theoretical framework, an alternative to the film theory he critiques above.
Another dualism that Perez’s writing challenges is that between classical and modern cinema. A good part of his book is given over to daunting, difficult modernist filmmakers such as Huillet/Straub, Godard and Antonioni. He pays great, meticulous attention to the formal strategies and inventiveness of these directors—the Huillet/Straub section, which focuses mostly on History Lessons (1972), runs to nearly 50 pages! But Perez is equally in thrall to the pleasures of classical cinema, and brings to his analysis the care, the eye and ear, he lavishes upon complex, modernist works.
Take, for example, this passage in which he extols aspects of Frank Capra’s films that are rarely singled out by critics:
Capra is a master of texture and light, of texture as the play of light projected on the screen. Applying to film the duality proposed by Heinrich Wöfflin in art history, one may call Hitchcock linear, a leader of the eye along the exactly determined line of his camera angles and movements, and Capra painterly, a colorist in black-and-white film with a palette of luster and sparkle, glimmer and glow, light subdued and diffused and resplendent. The distinctive look and light of a Capra film owe much to the work of Joseph Walker, Capra’s cameraman all through the thirties […] Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), and Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) seem to me the three best screwball comedies, or comedies of remarriage as Stanley Cavell calls them, the three best instances of a genre that represents classical old Hollywood at its best. Joseph Walker photographed all three.
As news of Perez’s death circulated on social media, one of his former students disclosed that Perez had just finished writing a book (his second) called
The Elegant Screen [EDIT: The Eloquent Screen] that he had been working on for many years. It was well known among his friends and colleagues that the subject of this book was unusual: rhetoric and film. A glimpse of this work can be seen in a paper Perez presented at the SCMS conference in 2000. The paper analyzes the concept of “identification,” which, in film criticism, refers mostly to identifying with specific characters in a film. But Perez expands this limited and often clichéd notion to encompass something larger: a context—such as a story, setting or genre—that can now involve multiple levels of identifications.
Here’s hoping that the book will see light of day very soon.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Perez. Do you have any favorites among his writings? And I wonder what your views are on his unique presence and contributions to film criticism and film studies.