Farewell, Gil: A Tribute

I have long thought Gil Perez’s The Material Ghost the most illuminating book ever written about film and the theory of film. Gil belongs in the company of the great French critic Andre Bazin. Bazin’s collected essays posed the question: Qu’ est-ce que le cinema? (What is Cinema?). Gil, by considering cinema in its many aspects—its relation to theater, to photography, to nature, to history—and illustrating his ideas through the close examination of major directors such as Ford and Murnau, more than any other writer answered the question. Just before his untimely death, Gil was working on the companion volume to this masterpiece, to be entitled The Rhetoric of Film. For after explaining to us in happily jargon-free language what cinema is, he was explaining to us how we are affected by this, our era’s favorite art form. I suspect that the course he offered for this spring semester would have provided the final testing of his ideas and led to the completion of the book. Hopefully, it will be published.

Already as a teenager, Gil had achieved fame as a caricaturist for a leading Havana newspaper. When he left Cuba to attend MIT, he had no idea he was leaving his home forever. But during his freshman year, Castro overthrew Batista, and Gil did not return to his native land until several decades later. Upon graduating from MIT, Gil was accepted into the graduate program in physics at Princeton, a program that admitted no more than a dozen students a year and was, at that time, the most prestigious in the world. Yes, he was intelligent. But as he did at MIT, at Princeton he not only founded and conducted a film society, he started writing about film. An early piece on Buster Keaton remains the definitive work on that great artist.

Through these activities he came to the attention of Alan Downer, then the chairman of Princeton’s English Department. In 1950, Professor Downer, my own thesis advisor, following departmental rules, rejected my idea of writing a thesis on the Marx Brothers, but in 1966, the year Will Leach and I began teaching “The Movies” at Sarah Lawrence, Professor Downer introduced film history into the curriculum of Princeton and hired Gil to help teach the subject. From there Gil went to Harvard as a special fellow in Stanley Cavell’s film program, and then secured a tenure track full time job—not easy to find in those early glory days—at Sarah Lawrence. Let me say, I had nothing to do with his hiring. I was so angry with the College for denying tenure to Ron Mottram that I had gone into a sulky boycott of the whole program. The honors for this precious appointment go to Danny Kaiser, Bill Shullenberger and Ilya Wachs.

In his teaching, as in his writing, Gil brought all the powers of his mind and his vast learning to bear upon the subject. I was always in awe of how much he could see in one scene of a film—the setting, the framing of the actors, the position and movement of the camera, how each element contributed to the overall meaning of the film. In the Faculty Dining Room, Gil could be prickly and contrary in the many arguments we had about film, but these qualities arose from his precision, his meticulousness, and indeed his care and passion for his subject. He usually won. Not only was he a close observer of the immediate experience, he brought to this experience a world of learning about the arts, about philosophy, about history, and of course about worldwide cinema. Very few writers on film have ever matched the breadth and depth of his culture. And then he wrote not just clearly but eloquently—and this in a second language.

Farewell, Gil. You were ever a great example and aid to me and your other students. I doubt that any of your successors will be able to match your genius, but they will at least have your books and articles from which they can learn and by which they too can be inspired.

William Park
Literature Faculty Emeritus