The pragmatic and the spiritual: meditations on cinema by the late critic Gilberto Perez.
The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film, by Gilberto Perez, University of Minnesota Press, 405 pages, $29.95
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Criticism is companionship. For those growing up in communities where art is not a subject of everyday conversation, aesthetic experience can be isolating and bewildering, a site of powerful emotions and challenging ideas that one navigates alone. Before assuming a position as tastemaker or teacher, the critic is first a kind of imaginary friend—someone who can share that lonely space and justify the intensity of the reader’s feelings. This sense of fellowship can arise even when the writer’s personality is so flamboyant and vision so totalizing that there appears to be little room for dialogue. Film criticism in particular is filled with loud voices, hot tempers, and gauntlet-throwing pronouncements, befitting an insecure young medium whose enshrinement as art once demanded defense. As quaint as they may seem now, the long-standing debates that have fueled this tradition—throwdowns over everything from authorship to form to representation—have been opportunities for writers to perform their passions, to assert that movies are indeed worth getting riled up about.
Because of this history of contentiousness, influential critics are often reduced to an allegiance, a stance, a sound bite. But it’s not likely this fate will befall Gilberto Perez, who died in 2015 and whose last project, The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film, is posthumously being released. The book is a testament to a lifetime spent thinking about cinema, and demonstrates how the writer approached the most dominant ideas in film culture with deep curiosity and engagement, as well as a refreshing skepticism.
Perhaps that skepticism came so naturally to him because he began as an outsider, unconnected to the centers of cinephile fashion. Prerevolutionary Cuba, where Perez grew up in the 1940s and ’50s, was hardly a hub of film production, though his writing includes recollections of the eclectic, highly international movie diet he enjoyed as a child. After moving to the United States in the early 1960s, he studied engineering as an undergraduate and enrolled in a PhD program in theoretical physics, which he never completed. By the time Perez became the head of the film-history department at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1980s, auteurism had become entrenched as the most widely accepted framework for talking seriously about movies (at least outside the academy), while various psychoanalytic, semiotic, and sociopolitical modes were ascending as alternatives in American universities.
The result was a kind of critical discourse torn between intoxication and suspicion. You were either in thrall to the seduction of the screen or you were intent on deconstructing its sinister capacities for mass control. Perez departed from these trends in both substance and tone. In 1998’s The Material Ghost, the one book he published during his lifetime, and The Eloquent Screen, he embraces his love of movies without qualifications or apologies. But that love is not expressed as mere formalist appreciation, even as the literary, gentlemanly finesse of his prose signals his eye for exquisite construction. Perez was always aiming for a grander philosophy of the art, one mindful of not only other arts (of which his knowledge seemed to be encyclopedic) but also resonances with the world beyond the screen.
More than The Material Ghost, whose disparately themed chapters coalesce into one magnificent vista, The Eloquent Screen mostly adheres to a granular level of attention, illuminating the intricacies of how movies communicate with their viewers. Perez’s stated motivation is to fill the gap between two prevailing camps in film studies: those who focus on the mechanics of form and style (what scholars call “poetics”) and those who examine the cultural, historical, and emotional factors that shape audience responses (“reception”). This fissure is primarily an academic one, so it’s inevitable that The Eloquent Screen will strike the generalist reader as a much less immediately accessible volume than its predecessor. Perez divides the book’s dense three-hundred-fifty-odd pages into mini-meditations on devices and themes—documentary realism, dramatic irony, characterization—and at times these musings seem held together only by the author’s refined taste for the classics.
The specificity of the book’s mission suggests that Perez might have been reaching for a career-defining sound bite of his own, with the hope that readers would emerge with a set of broadly applicable ideas. But that doesn’t really come to pass, and it’s perhaps for the best that Perez’s work has never quite managed an easily graspable theory. Drawn to the faintest glimmers of nuance and paradox, he rejected what he called, in The Material Ghost, “commonsensical explanations that would lay claim to everything.” Theory, then, was not a collection of dogmas ready to unlock every filmic text in its path; instead, it interacted uniquely with each work, spawning new mysteries along the way. It’s because of this approach that Perez’s writing never loses sight of what’s at stake when we talk about art, and rarely fails at convincing us that there’s something important undergirding even the most abstruse and hair-splitting of arguments.
Rather than achieving some false or overly convenient cohesion, The Eloquent Screen is filled with smaller-scaled insights. Informed though he is by theory, Perez is above all a fiercely attentive describer, capable of evoking the strange texture of an image (in Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou, there are “dead donkeys with their eyes bloodily plucked out lying on grand pianos being dragged along the floor in arduous striving toward the object of desire”) or encapsulating the spirit of a movie in one tight, aphoristic sentence (in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, “the camera bears witness visually to the act of bearing witness verbally”).
The best of these descriptions reveal that the central tension in Perez’s work may not be between theory and criticism, but rather between pragmatism and spiritualism. Part of him revels in his ability to analyze and generalize: a long stretch in the book’s first chapter goes to great lengths to pin down how metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche work in cinema, with the ultimate goal of arguing that movies, like words, are presences standing in for absences. This is the clinician in Perez, the side of him that reaches for the definable. But there are also moments in the book that make clear that what the writer treasures most in the art form is its intimacy with the sublime, the irrational. In defense of Terrence Malick’s recent critically maligned films, Perez writes, “I imagine it embarrasses people to see love depicted so earnestly, and to see it connected with a sense of the divine.”
This affirmation of transcendence through art, evident even in the most rigorous passages of The Eloquent Screen, contrasts with the tenor of contemporary criticism. But it’s also what links Perez with the phenomenologically oriented aesthetic thinkers he returns to time and again in the book, from Plato to Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs. Like them, Perez perceives something in art so profound, so personally haunting, that it begs to be contained in language even as it defies explanation. Though seldom indulging in the sentimentality that such a passion can invoke, his work is a balm to anyone who has ever felt the same way. He reminds us that the shadows we see onscreen are not just the result of human endeavor but also, as much as anything else in this world, a miracle.
Andrew Chan is web editor at the Criterion Collection. He is a frequent contributor to Film Comment and has also written for Reverse Shot, Slant, Wax Poetics, and other publications.