Gilberto Perez, beloved Sarah Lawrence professor and scholar, whose knowledge of and passion for film was unrivaled, and whose office door was always open to his students, died of a heart attack on January 5, 2015. He was 71 years-old. He is survived by his wife, Diane Stevenson, his brother, Jorge Guillermo, two nephews, Bernardo and Nicolas Guillermo, a niece, Juliana Guillermo, and his students. We called him Gil.
Gil dedicated most of his adult life to teaching and writing about film, and his work in the field was eloquent and illuminative. It was, however, for theoretical physics that he left his home in Havana, Cuba to attend college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While there, he quickly established himself as the resident cinephile on campus. He founded and presided over a film society on campus and he began to write critical film reviews for the campus newspaper. Around this time, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution brought an end to the Batista administration’s authoritative rule of the Cuban government. In part because of the political upheaval and its consequences, and also, of course, because he would be busy at MIT, Princeton, Harvard, the University of Missouri, and finally here with us, it would be decades before Gil returned home.
It was not until he had graduated from MIT and had begun to pursue a degree in Princeton’s graduate program in theoretical physics that Gil’s academic career took an unexpected turn. The theoretical physics program into which he was accepted was, in those days, the most prestigious in the country. Yet, as he had at MIT, Gil somehow found the time to further express his passion for the cinema while working towards meeting the rigorous demands of a master’s degree in physics from an Ivy League institution. This caught the attention of Princeton’s then-head of the English Department, and, in 1966, the first year Princeton introduced film history into its curriculum, Gil, the aspiring theoretical physicist, was hired to teach. Nearly twenty years later, still teaching film, Gil found himself here at SLC. “You don’t know what life has in store for you,” Gil once said to me, beaming from his office in Heimbold. He looked happy to be here.
Although Gil spent most of his life in the United States, he remained, until his death, a Cuban at heart. The love he had for his country and its culture was profound and never left him. He loved to show Agnes Varda’s great photodocumentary Salut Les Cubains! in class and, when he did, his face would light up at the sound of Benny More’s tenor voice on the soundtrack. In Havana, Gil had been employed from the age of thirteen as a cartoonist for a local newspaper, and he never lost the guileful, subtly mischievous sense of humor that landed him that job. He loved to smoke those narrow Cuban cigarillos, the ones that came in a pack and smelled sticky and sweet. Gil also loved to speak Spanish; when he encountered students who were fluent in the language, he often conducted his conferences with them in his native tongue. I am told that during those sessions, all traces of his stutter, which in English was pronounced, left his voice.
And what a voice it was. Gil did speak with a stutter, but his rich, resonant voice, and what he said with it, was never anything less than captivating. And the stutter was never really a speech impediment, anyway. Rather, it was the verbal manifestation of the careful way he went about articulating himself. Gil was a man who always said exactly what he meant to.
We have that to thank for Gil’s magnum opus, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium. Widely considered to be one of the most important texts in film academia ever written, the work is a strikingly lucid, unpretentious testament to its author’s lifelong fascination with movies and their ability to move us. He was also working on a follow-up, entitled The Rhetoric of Film, with which my class with Gil shared its name. For all that he achieved in his remarkable life, Gil was a man who still had much more to give.
His untimely and unexpected death has left the Sarah Lawrence community in a state of shock. For those of us who knew Gil, his passing is a tremendous loss. Much will be written about his contributions to film theory and his prodigious intelligence, and rightfully so. He possessed an uncommonly versatile intellect that he used to build as sterling an academic career as there ever was or will be. But to the Sarah Lawrence community, Gil’s irreplaceable value was of an even rarer kind. He was, perhaps, the most cherished of all dons, and in many ways, represented everything a good don should be. He took a genuine interest in each and every one of his students. He set an example simply by showing up and bringing his searching, insatiable curiosity with him every time our class met. He made us all, in his gentle, unfussy way, want to work a little harder, and dream a little bigger.
Gil was someone whose company I enjoyed immensely. He was someone I wanted to impress. My friends and I used to joke around about inviting Gil out to dinner or to the movies, but we were only half kidding. The night he gave me permission to skip a class to go see a film premiere at the New York Film Festival, and then ended up sitting right behind me, remains one of my most special memories. Just as the lights started to dim, I felt a nudge and turned around to see Gil, looking as at home as I’d ever seen him, directing a warm smile my way.
He was the kind of guy with whom I could imagine discussing not just movies, but more intimate matters of the heart, like what made us happiest, or what it felt like the first time we fell in love. I wish we had. I am sure he would have listened, just as I am sure he would have had stories of his own to share. In the last year of his life, in class, in conversation, or at the cinema, he was as eager as ever to learn, and of course, to teach. For Gil, teaching was less about arriving at the answers and more about searching for the right questions. Blessed with passionate humility and a quiet tenderness, he touched the lives of countless friends, faculty, and students since arriving at Sarah Lawrence in 1983.
Farewell, Gil. If only we had more time, we’d tell you how much you meant to us. Better yet, we’d show you. “Don’t worry,” I imagine you’d say. “That you can still do.”
by Anthony Verone ’17