This is the text of a tribute delivered at Victor’s wake on the 2nd of August, 2016.
Victor Perkins was my doctoral supervisor from 1993-96 at the University of Warwick in the Department of Film and Television. The following is a slightly expanded version of the address I gave at his funeral where his family invited me to remember him as a teacher:
Victor’s teaching was rooted in a love of film as an art form and in the appreciation of particular films. He had a few select films that were central to his teaching. They were like jewels that he would keep in a velvet bag, bring out every year, hold up to his students, let them catch the light, and sparkle. You knew that these films were not merely exemplary of a week’s topic, but something precious which you were guided to appreciate by someone who had been caring about them for many years.
He was a compelling teacher for so many students because of the balance he maintained between passion and reason, between subtlety and authority, between being committed and being critical, between attending closely and maintaining a productive distance. He also had an extraordinary capacity to give cogent expression to complex thought almost every time he opened his mouth.
This in turn meant that he could be very funny, intentionally and unintentionally. Unintentionally because the humour would arise not from him explicitly making a joke or being witty, but through the acuity and the precision of his articulacy which startled, unsettled, punctured…
Victor was a scrupulous and exacting teacher, and often stern and strict. He insisted upon great care in thought, expression, and argumentation. Anybody who had any doubts about film as an academic discipline should have been taught by him. Doctoral supervisions with him were never simply intelligent and instructive conversations. Instead, he would go through your work sentence by sentence persistently questioning the suitability or accuracy of phraseology or vocabulary. By this method, he would get you to refine what you were saying about the film in part to clarify your thinking. This included teasing out your attachment to words, those words that were doing too much work for you. This was sometimes a painful process – akin to a form a therapy – where your repetitions, limitations, complacencies were exposed, revealing a range of prejudicial and sentimental assumptions. I never felt that this method was undertaken to be cruel, or to bully, or to serve his ego, but rather because it sincerely mattered to him, and he thought it should matter to you. One should at least aspire to be as clear, precise and responsive as you could, and recognise that fine-grained, local distinctions and discriminations, in speaking, in writing, in films, make a world of difference. Being in Victor’s presence, whatever the occasion, always felt to me, like an invigorating instruction on quite how one might, or might not, go about expressing things.
Because Victor was also a teacher outside the classroom you always had to be on your toes. He could be testing, oblique, provocative, mischievous, yet I never found him wilfully or arbitrarily contrary. Everything he said felt surprising, challenging, yet apposite. I’m not sure Victor could have been conventional or superficial even if he tried. If he caught you in the Warwick University student union, where he would sometimes be found playing on a pinball machine, he’d pick up on some critical issue that he felt had been left hanging from a supervision. Even if friends and colleagues had not seen him for months, he’d greet them with an intellectual matter that had been occupying him. Impatient of small talk, he’d be eager, anxious even, to cut to the chase about a merit or demerit of a film (or an essay on a film). For Victor, the need to develop a justifiable evaluation was an intellectual, emotional and ethical matter of some urgency.
A demanding teacher, but a generous one too. He was particularly generous with advice but his wisdom worked in mysterious ways. Because Victor rarely said what you were wanting, or expecting, to hear, sometimes it would take a few days, perhaps longer, to realise what was at stake in the advice he had offered. The counsel was doing more than reflecting on alternative ways of proceeding, it was providing alternative ways of conceiving the situation. He never said the easily pleasing thing, and he rarely smoothed over, yet he was concerned to find a way of offering something positive or helpful as far as he could without compromising honesty.
Incapable of retiring, the urge to teach – to advise, to guide, to enlighten, to inform, to train, to instruct, to supervise, to discipline – was in his very being. We say Rest in Peace, but I’m not sure I want to think of him that way – resting or peaceful – because for this insatiable teacher there was no time to rest. Victor probably wouldn’t accept the idea of a heaven unless it appeared in an Ernst Lubitsch film so I’ll offer a Lubitschean fantasy. Victor is now in heaven and he is already organising screenings of films for anyone who cares to come along. Perhaps this might include some of the filmmakers he most adored, gleefully taking their places to a shout of “seats in all parts”. After the screenings, he restlessly agitates, cajoles, urges the congregation to see something, to share something, to appreciate something. Naturally, he will need to correct them too.
I’ll close with a short phrase of gratitude, on behalf of all the students for whom his teaching was an inspiration. It is one I found myself saying at the end of almost every one of our conversations together and I think he would have approved of the understatement: Thank you, Victor.