A model of critical writing: A tribute to Gilberto Perez

At one point in Moana (1926), Flaherty’s documentary about Samoa, we see a native boy start to climb a coconut tree. We don’t see the whole tree, only the bottom part of it, and that view is held, as the boy climbs up, until he disappears at the top of the frame. Then the camera moves upward to take in the boy climbing up another section of the tree, no longer the bottom and not yet the top, and that view is held again until the boy again disappears at the top of the frame. Again the camera moves upward, to take in now the top part of the tree and the boy still climbing until finally he reaches the coconuts he was after. […] Like a narrator, [Flaherty] makes a sequence of something that is not: he shows us the tree a piece at a time, this and then that and then that, as if he were telling us about it. Deliberately he only shows us so much, which makes us curious to find out what more there is and surprised at how very tall the tree turns out to be. The climb, unlike the tree, is itself sequential, but Flaherty’s rendering of it is sequential in a way that the climb is not. Deliberately he allows the boy to leave our view, which draws our interest to where the boy has gone, the space we are yet to see above the frame.
Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 53-4.

I was very sad to receive the news that Gilberto Perez, an extraordinary film critic, died suddenly last month. Perez taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and on the college’s website a touching set of tributes has been compiled. I met Perez in person only once, briefly, when he visited the UK for a conference. But as a writer on the page, Perez was a source of near-constant intellectual company, stimulation and inspiration for me for long portions of my postgraduate studies – and beyond. He is one of a very small handful of writers about film that I have tried sustainedly to emulate as a model of critical thinking and writing.

Perez often begins a passage of argumentation by presenting a description of a short sequence from a film. His description of the tree-climbing sequence from Moana is a good example. It is economical, clear and precise (and at the same time very evocative), highlighting for us the things about the sequence that matter to the argument. The writing serves the sequence: in this example, Perez embraces repetition (‘the camera moves upward to take in’ … ‘again the camera moves upward, to take in now’) as a way of conveying the sequence’s patterning.

Next, Perez will take a step back and discuss the significance of the sequence he has described – what it tells us about the medium of film and its possibilities. The passage quoted above appears in a chapter in The Material Ghost where Perez considers film’s storytelling possibilities.

Often, Perez will then draw film theory into his discussion. After his discussion of Moana, Perez sketches Benveniste’s category of ‘enunciation’ and his distinction between ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, and the uptake of these categories by film theorists. Perez’s summaries of film theory are as clear and precise as his summaries of film sequences, but his purpose when summarising theory is often to identify blind spots and/or logical failings.

After summarising and challenging the general claims of a particular film theory on general grounds, Perez then brings the two parts of his argument together, and returns to the sequence he began with, and tests the theory against the sequence. Should we put our faith in the categories and distinctions offered by this theory, Perez is usually implicitly asking, if it fails to do justice to what is going on in (what has been achieved by) the sequence we have been considering?

The camera is an observer, not a speaker; the boy climbing the coconut tree is something the camera sees, not something it says, not an utterance. Our sense of a telling in Flaherty’s sequence comes not from an act of saying but from an act of seeing, from a way of directing our seeing. Rather than an enunciator, the camera is an indicator, an instrument for pointing our attention to things in the world before its gaze. (Ibid, p. 55)

This is beautiful writing. Perez moves through and adjudicates between a series of possible ways of describing the sequence as a way of sharpening our powers of discrimination and perception. The discrimination is accompanied by a use of supplementary (re-)phrasings which come after sentences could have been concluded and which create the impression of thought at work, of striving to arrive at formulations that do justice to the thing being discussed, of there always being more to say about and other ways of nuancing one’s descriptions (‘…from an act of seeing, from a way of directing our seeing.’).

In the first chapter of The Material Ghost, Perez offers the book as a ‘combination of criticism and theory’ (p. 21), and it is the way that Perez combines the two that made me want to adopt him as a model. Films and moments within them come first (both in terms of what is measured against what, and often also in terms of the ordering of the argument). Theory is measured against the achievements of particular films, and against the careful descriptions of those sequences in language that strives to be accessible to all, not just those already in possession of a particular theoretical vocabulary. This seems to me to be a good way to proceed.

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