Gilberto Perez as Scholar and Critic

Gilberto Perez

It is a cliche to remark that a scholar’s work was unique, but I can think of nobody of whom this was truer than Gilberto Perez. Gil brought a fierce independence to the study of film just as it was becoming an academic discipline. While the first generation of professional film scholars increasingly focused on exposing film as a pernicious tool of ideological domination, Gil steadfastly practiced film criticism, and was passionately devoted to explicating and extolling the glories of film art. Yet Gil's work transcended film criticism, which is why it made such an impact on film scholarship. While critics typically attend to the particular film or filmmaker, and scholars specialize in narrow sub-fields, Gil was fascinated by film as a medium, not just its individual instances ("Films and their Medium" was the subtitle of his book). Hence, in his teaching and writing, he dedicated himself to better understanding the broad capacities and features that make film a distinctive art: its rhetorical structures, its blending of documentation and creation, and its stylistic properties, such as editing and camera movement. In undertaking this quest, he bravely refused to embrace the twin dogmas of psychoanalysis and semiotics at a time when they were considered the hallmarks of "serious" film scholarship, but this didn't mean he was anti-theoretical, as are so many film critics. Instead, he built on and extended the theoretical insights of earlier writers on film, such as Andre Bazin and Robert Warshow, with whom he felt a deep kinship due to their love of the medium.

Gil also continued to defend the artistic achievements of genres, such as the Western, and filmmakers, like D. W. Griffith, after they came under assault during the culture wars. He devoted most of his writing to canonical filmmakers, such as Keaton, his beloved Renoir, Antonioni, and Godard. But this didn’t prevent him from considering more recent work, such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the films of Michael Haneke. (The eagerly anticipated course he was slated to teach this spring was titled The Contemporary Cinema.) As these names suggest, Gil’s capacious, generous sense of film art meant he championed a wide range of films and filmmakers, from Chaplin, who has been eclipsed by Keaton in the hearts of many cinephiles since the 1960s, to the austere Brechtian films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huilet. In his writing, he attended lovingly to the intricacies of film form and style, describing them in meticulous detail. But he was not a formalist, and he always strove to uncover the larger meanings and themes that can be conveyed through a film’s visual and aural texture, and to show how the films he analyzed revealed something about their medium.

It was in part because of his singular ability to combine criticism with theory that Gil was one of the few film scholars whose work was widely read outside the field. His magnum opus The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium (Johns Hopkins, 1998) was lauded by Edward Said, Stanley Cavell, Michael Wood, and other prominent intellectuals on its release, and Gil was the only film scholar I know who published in widely read intellectual publications such as The Nation and London Review of Books. But perhaps the main reason Gil commanded a broad audience was that he was, quite simply, the best writer in the field. He was extraordinarily eloquent, and he could dismiss an opponent's argument with a single, withering turn of phrase. Gil will be sorely missed, not only for his many contributions to film criticism and scholarship, but because he was as close to a public intellectual advocating for the art of film as we had.

Malcolm Turvey
Film History Faculty