Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances (Samantha Rebello 2010)

In view of this film’s use of text, it may be useful to regard the four opening titles as shots, beginning with the title itself. On screen it ends with a full stop, and is held longer than the functional norm, long enough for a statement. There follows a quotation from Aristotle, ‘Metaphysics XIII 1076b’: “It would seem impossible for the substance and that which is the substance to exist in separation.” Then, a large numeral ‘I.’, followed at the same scale by ‘SIGNS.’ The serif typeface, cited quotation and Roman numeral recall the setting and layout of a letterpress-era monograph. Title and credits apart, the film uses printed words in three ways: in the intertitles which introduce the film’s three parts (‘SIGNS’, ‘CONCEPTS’ and ‘THINGS’); in the bracketing Aristotle quotations, and in shots of physical objects, ink on paper. In these shots, the words ‘From a mammal’ are followed by words such as ‘blood’ and ‘flesh’ spelled in unfamiliar, archaic-looking ways, the viewer shown the text as object while ‘hearing’ an unfamiliar accent in these spellings, the word in the context of time thus immediately placed in the context of the body, of physicality, and specifically of the mouth, the locus of consumption.

The four Samantha Rebello films I’ve seen can be divided into two structural categories. Surface of Residual Matter and In Suspension render tiny spaces and objects panoramic and topographical, editing seeming to serve only to refresh the film’s attention upon a continuum. In the object which thinks us: OBJECT 1 and Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances, the camera moves out, the imagery becomes more diverse, and editing is foregrounded, with significant use of black leader. If the continua and intense focus on radically restricted spaces seen in the former create experiences reminiscent of improvised music (a comparison perhaps brought to mind partly by Angharad Davies’s soundtrack for Surfaces), then the latter, in their arrangement of images of diverse focus and scale between instances of a black screen which, in its material texture, is not simply absence or space but something closer to room tone, suggest composition, the arrangement of actions, tones, and durations over the staves of manuscript paper. As music organises time, these films’ visual silences arrange spaces of illumination.

During the darkness of Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances, beings occupy the soundtrack. When the first ‘real’ shot, a Romanesque roof, appears a few minutes into the film, the echoing sound of footfalls on stone, overlaid with the close, slowed sound of an animal have prepared us, even if we don’t know or remember that this is a rib vault ceiling, to recognise its resemblance to an animal’s ribcage.

Part of the exhilaration of this film comes from the disquieting discovery, at those points which leave us in darkness with the sounds of animals, of the continuing ominous power of the creaturely; we can soon imagine a medieval gratitude for those parts of the world we can grasp. The fear of how much is unknown which is still borne in on us when left alone in a darkness with texture is not a fear of the darkness, but of what may be about to break cover. This unease is not entirely dispelled when images return. The tension of not understanding yet, the push-pull between working assumptions quickly revised – it’s liquid, no, it’s birds; it’s an embryo, no, it’s an adult – has a particular meaning here. The diffuse colours and shapes, as attributes, prior in definition but not in substantiality, which Aristotle observes (in Metaphysics Book XIII Part 2) could not exist apart from the substances in which they inhere, do not register as abstractions, disembodied or insubstantial. The constructed experience or worldview of the medieval consciousness – in which, as for Aristotle, the universal is said of substance, not prior to its apprehension – provides the most elaborated imaginative analogue so far for Rebello’s use of the threshold of focus. Too close for comfort, these images, rather than implying a disembodiment, create a disconcertingly intimate materiality, in spaces of recognition that precede registration, closer to touch and scent than to sight and sound.

The stone carvings of the first part precede the real beasts and illustrations of the second, the cooking food and human figure of the third. In intermittent, conditional focus and at uncomfortable volume, food becomes again the index of violence, the fate of animals. The proximity of a material’s use to sustain life, its roots in another life, or its status, as the end of another being’s life is tangible in each image. To a greater extent than in Rebello’s previous films, the challenging part of the viewer’s work is not learning a mode of viewing, but facing an unlooked-for reintroduction; not what we are given to do by the film, but how close it comes, what it represents or seems on the verge of representing.

The bestiary illustrations in ‘II. CONCEPTS.’, are also examined in close-up. The camera recomposes them, centring on acts of consumption and sustenance. Piglets suckling at their mother; a stork biting into what may be a fox; an eerie, abstract hound biting into the neck/face of a human figure, the eyes of both open and expressionless. The stillness and order of these flattened incidents – the figure is grabbing the dog’s upper arm, but without the appearance of a struggle – suggest the timeless, uninflected quality of the Platonic universal. The last of these images, and the final shot in this section of the film, is subtly different kind of depiction; a close-up of the poised moment before an action, whose outcome (or rather, its modern equivalent), opens the third part of the film, ‘III. THINGS.’

The carvings which appear in the first part of the film are by Giselbertus, at Cathédrale Saint-Lazare d’Autun – Lazare the Biblical Lazarus, whose tomb is there – and this is a film which recalls to life the medieval imaginative universe, anchored by reliquary and shrine, in which the holy is proven by the physical, the lives of saints becoming germane not only as exemplars, or stirring legends, but because they have laid their bones among us. In close-up isolation from their decorative function, these carvings are the nightmares of the world in which Pierre Abélard contended with Bernard of Clairvaux; the film’s sense of that time could be apprehended as a superimposition of their sensibilities. Abélard, whose work inaugurated the resurgence of Aristotle, and his argument for the supervenience of forms; Bernard, the opponent of inquiry and dialectic, whose ascetic procedures suggest, to the present-day reader, an elated masochism; a denial of the flesh paradoxically reliant upon what human body chemistry does with pain.

It is that immanence of the creatural, as incarnation or burden, which grants the actors and actions excerpted from works so suffused with piety their undiminished resonance in this materialist context. They were not conceived within a theology that could postpone the flesh for a reified intellectual conception, as for later Protestants the Eucharist, demoted by Grace’s sufficiency, could be flesh and blood while remaining bread and wine; as for earlier gnostics the spirit was the divine prisoner of the physical (for all the progressive connotations its derivatives acquired in the second half of the last century, gnosticism is for the initiate, who knows not to be deceived by the commonality of flesh into disavowing his exceptional spirit). Returning to the known of their time, we can understand the later censure of Aristotelian scholasticism; even as the primacy of substances, the beginning of materialist understanding, was being thought into being, the vitality of dogma was drawn from a felt necessity. It’s a life-raft: this much we know. As the medieval world was, to its inhabitants, yet to be moved; a bright disc of the known, touched, scented and feared, an illuminated circle at the bottom of night; in a void which centred on it, and existed to define it, the known world wasn’t the starting-point, the basics, but the camp, the retreat, the shield.

It isn’t only in darkness and imagery that Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances constructs its discourse, but in the way it limns that territory between the two which I referred to in a previous entry as ‘the charged area between silence and enunciation’, the point at which silence is no longer maintained, but the communication which has broken it is not yet stable enough for the silence to be considered absent, or past. From the darkness of the first part, images emerge with frame flashes, specks, false starts, unsteady motion, as the approach of footfalls on stone reaches the point of distortion. The second part encounters real animals and the printed word, returning to different words on, and compositions of, the same page, as the animals’ sounds are set against distant sounds of the urban present (traffic, a siren). The third part, in which food is prepared and the body that consumes it rests, is mostly without repetition (except for one instance, crucial to the film’s formal exposition, which it would spoil the viewer’s fun to reveal).

The conclusion of this third part, and of the film, is punctuated by the sounding of the Angelus bell, the Catholic commemoration of the Incarnation, Word becoming flesh as, materially, the work we’ve just experienced has been the incarnation of its own conception, not only describing but embodying, making present for us, a worldview the materiality of which renders the miraculous supervenient on the quotidian, the physical, the sensual. The film’s body is conditional, and never vague; not especially vulnerable, verging on breakup, or at its wit’s end – not by any means at the limits of enunciation, at the end of clarity, but contingent, as it indicates all forms are, not being self-subsistent.

Whatever we know about the visited period through its buildings, books and images, this is also a work of imagination. The intellectual climate of the past is construed from the works left to the present. This is fitting; the trace of that culture for us, as the reliquary for them, anchoring the conceivable. The world was strange, and filled with aids to contemplation, to meditation, to devotion. For visitors like us, aligning their projections and gaps with what we know, or trust is known by others, their explications illuminate their sources while making the world harder to parse, like the lighting on a night train. These shots surrounded by darkness – this universe of the essential – echo their medieval cosmos, obscurity turning upon a bright centre, and also the space of viewing, the projection screen and the darkness from which we watch.

When I join in imagining the medieval world of Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances, the application of its image of essentialist life like the film’s structure, conditional but hardy, is not slow in coming to mind. The fortitude, dispatch, and stoicism mingling in the film’s temper are surely qualities familiar too, if only as aspirations, to all who work as close to their materials as Rebello’s lens comes to its subjects. This is not to frame such work with some quasi-mystical notion of a recusant artisanate – this film isn’t fuel for glib sustaining fables – but to acknowledge the sympathetic insight, and weight of solidarity, made known to us in these twenty-three minutes.

In Britain, it is often easier to read the past than to look at it. Where the heritage discourse has declared sites of historic interest, reactionary narratives of Identity and Continuity blare against understanding. Even as noise to shout over, these distract some of the attention we try to pay to the objects themselves. Perhaps the most lasting benison of this work is that after experiencing it, even a brief cultural moment seems too vast a field of interest for such accounts to enforceably claim; it is difficult to imagine how we feared their attempts.

We meet the past not as what has been said of it, taken for granted, pressed into service; its monuments patronised, its sense unvisited; its judgement invoked, its plurality unsought; unceasingly appealed-to and never interrogated; not even as ‘the past’, but as a culture, knowable by what it left to history, to the living, to us. As a culture seen by an artist, in context: an address to the actual, unsettling, exciting and relevant, yes, supremely relevant, in the light of this time, to our thinking in the darkness, and to the work of hands.

Forms Are Not Self-Subsistent Substances is available on DVD from RGB via the BFI and LUX.


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