Remembering Gil Perez (1943-2015)

Scholar, Critic, Colleague, Mentor, and Friend

by Karen Lawrence, President

Gil Perez

I read Gil before I met him, when I served on the Christian Gauss Award Committee (for Phi Beta Kappa), charged with selecting the best book of literary scholarship or criticism published in 1998. Gil’s book, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, had been nominated for the award, one of a list of important books from which a team of scholars/reviewers were asked to select a winner of the annual prize. Ultimately, although the committee chose to award the prize to another book, The Material Ghost continued to haunt me.

The Gauss Award is designed to highlight books that are neither technical nor arcane and that appeal to a broad readership. It came as no surprise to see Gil’s book nominated for such a prize. It was, and is, smart, readable, and profound about both cinema and life. For Gil, the images on the screen are a construction of “a parallel realm that may look recognizably like reality but that nobody can mistake for it.” The Material Ghost makes a powerful argument for how the cinema “defamiliarizes” our perception of what we often take for granted. It enables us to see how a film technically constructs our fresh perceptions about the world, whether through the actors’ posture and gesture or the camera’s focus.

“As seen through Antonioni’s camera,” Gil writes, “our everyday world gives us pause. We’re kept from presuming familiarity and made to look with fresh inquiring eyes.” The freshness of Gil’s own argument and style won him an extraordinary range of supporters. High praise for the book came from the philosopher Stanley Cavell, the postcolonial critic Edward Said, and the Marxist theorist Slavoj Zizek, as well as excellent scholars in the fields of film history and film studies.

The aphoristic, common-sense quality of Gil’s prose plays down the brilliance of his fresh perceptions, as if it WERE common sense to know how unlike things hang together.

“Expressionism is a romanticism that can no longer bear the face of nature and retreats into a world of the self’s anxious fabrication.” If this sounds something like Oscar Wilde, the declarative pronouncements display a playfulness and confidence very much Gil’s own. He was a master of genre theory whose favorite films stretched the norm or reimagined it. Like Sarah Lawrence College, he appreciated idiosyncrasy and difference.

Gil was a generous critic, crediting powerful theories and readings where he found them, but he also reveled in showing where they went wrong. Although deeply sympathetic to the seminal work of Robert Warshow on the Western, Gil faulted Warshow for failing to acknowledge the genre’s political valences: “[Warshow] thought social issues didn’t belong in the Western. But the Western is almost always about social and political issues, though it treats them not in the manner of social realism but of romance or allegory.” Gil was a critic for whom distinctions made a difference.

The theme of this issue of the alumni magazine is “Then and Now,” and there are many who know the “then” of Gil’s teaching career better than I, close colleagues who grew up and grew older with Gil at Sarah Lawrence (see our Web site for some of their remarks). The picture that accompanies this column happens to be from the mid-1990s, but the gesture is characteristic, demonstrative Gil. In the aftermath of his sudden death, I was moved to reread the book which first introduced me to his mind. I was struck all over again by both the large and small beauties of his work. On every page, there is an epiphany, delivered eloquently but unceremoniously.

It gives me pleasure and satisfaction to know from Diane, his wife, that Gil felt appreciated not only by his close colleagues and students, but also by the College he enriched for over three decades. He was touched and honored by his appointment as the Noble Foundation Chair in Art and Cultural History, a sign of esteem his fellow faculty recently bestowed on him. Gil felt particularly acknowledged during the final phase of his career at Sarah Lawrence. With brio, he attended almost every faculty and staff party, arguing and joking with his contemporaries. He and I did not always see eye to eye, and Gil never pulled punches.

But if for 32 years Gil gave the gift of “fresh inquiring eyes” to generations of students and colleagues, I am particularly grateful to have shared in this gift for the past seven. We will all miss him greatly.