The day before learning that Gilberto Perez had died, I plucked his book The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium off the shelf hoping to find a point of reference for some of my recent notes on documentary style. As usual, I was not disappointed. The Material Ghost is one of the very few perennials shelved under “Film Studies,” a true north for thinking and writing well about movies. I only met Perez once, when we sat next to one another at a screening of Ernie Gehr’s films. I introduced myself, and somehow – I do not remember how – our conversation turned to the riches of Ford’s Wagon Master. Even amidst the din of a sold-out show, I remember his conversation being calm, lucid, welcoming.
Here is that passage. Watch how he drives away the inane preoccupations of much documentary criticism (i.e. “But is it true?”) in one clean stroke:
…Reality is as commonly attenuated, and as rarely confronted, in films now as it was then. The call to confront it, however, has recurred throughout the history of cinema. Taking the camera our into the world, into the thick of concrete things, has been a vitalizing impulse, at different times and places since the Lumiére beginnings, for such various filmmakers as Flaherty and Vertov, Keaton and Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Vigo, Buñuel and Renoir, Jennings and Rossellini, De Sica and Satyajit Ray, Rouch and Pennebaker, Ford and Nunez and Burnett, Kurosawa and Gutiérrez Alea and Pereira dos Santos, Godard and Sembène and Kiarostami, Antonioni and Straub and Huillet. Not satisfied with a veneer, these filmmakers have sought from reality something richer and stranger, of more potency and consequence, but also, in just that measure, harder to deal with coherently, more resistant to articulate arrangement. For there lies the problem reality poses to the filmmaker seriously aiming to engage it: the closer the engagement to reality, the more difficult the task of giving it form and meaning. The remove of the film images makes the things of reality easier to handle, more amenable to the workings of art, and by keeping things at a far enough remove incoherence may be avoided, but so will any genuine engagement with reality. The risk of incoherence must be run, unruly reality met on a ground close enough to its own for it energies and its resistance to come into place. Only by contending with its resistance can a filmmaker derive from its energies, and arrange into expressive structures, a vividness and force that tell on the screen.