Onscreen/Offscreen: The elegant simplicity of Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames

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      Two hours, two dozen four-and-a-half minute segments—such is the elegant simplicity of the late Abbas Kiarostami's final, posthumously completed feature 24 Frames. Apart from the first sequence (a recreation of the well-known 1565 painting, The Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder), each composition is a digital rendering of various photographs the Iranian master took through the years, each durational “frame” an imagining of what might have taken place before and after a photographic instant, per his own description of the project. In that sense, the film—more accurately described as an experimental, non-narrative video piece—acknowledges its own visual history, not just leaping from painting to photography to cinema, but infusing (or, perhaps, freeing) the former two with the unique qualities of the latter. It's an elemental vision of “reality” at 24 frames per second.

      For most other directors, such a swan song would be an anomaly. But from the start of his career, Kiarostami has pushed the boundaries of what cinema is, or is “supposed” to do. In the 2000s, especially, his adoption of digital technologies resulted in a series of projects that, in many ways, anticipate 24 Frames. Made in 2002, 10 follows a series of encounters—each signalled by a decrementing film countdown—between a woman driving through the streets of Iran and each of her various passengers: her belligerent, talkative son, a woman jilted by her boyfriend, an unseen sex worker, among others. Although the film is made up entirely of two compositions within the car—one angled from the dashboard to face the driver, the other facing the passenger—it’s paradoxically expansive, the claustrophobic rigor of its conceit allowing its ideas to build with a kind of structural integrity. (French director Catherine Breillat’s unimprovable description: "Perfect Kiarostami, because there's no more image, no more mise en scène, just a camera and intelligence, and pure thought.") Although 10 wasn't composed of just ten discrete shots, it certainly revealed Kiarostami’s structural tendencies and interests, which he would extend and refine in later experiments such as Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), which is composed of just five shots, and Shirin (2008), a feature that flips the very act of spectatorship, assembled entirely from shots of various actresses watching the Persian romance, Khosrow and Shirin (though Kiarostami has said that he only selected what the actresses would be “watching” after shooting). 

      These projects lead back, quite naturally, to 24 Frames, a film that relies heavily—almost exclusively—on digital manipulation, on virtual imagination projected back onto reality. In the first “frame,” Bruegel's canvas comes alive with a delicate fall of snow; smoke rises in the distance, crows flit across the frame. In another, the egg-like shadow of a bird sits behind a pane of glass (further obscured by a translucent sunshade), its playful movements set to the solemn strains of “Ave Maria.” In yet another, a marble railing occupies the foreground, the ocean—punctuated by a line of four wooden poles—stretches behind, as waves travel diagonally across its surface. These (literal) movements would be compelling enough on their own, igniting both practical curiosity (regarding the VFX and general working method) and a soothing sense of contemplation. Like, say, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker series—all of which observe actor Lee Kang-Sheng walking, in near-imperceptible motion, across various fixed compositions, heightening our senses to the movement and non-movement around him—the film becomes a kind of Where's Waldo? of motion (here, often of animals: birds, dogs, even mating lions) within stasis (snowy landscapes, open windows, horizontal railings), each discrete “frame” foregrounding the ostensibly banal act of observation. But after all, the film is, as the title suggests, a return to the medium’s essence, an articulation of its originary sense of wonder: that of an instant liberated from static existence, of a single moment transformed by temporal succession. Once that single frame became twenty-four per second, the rapture of an image was no longer just that of the captured instant, but also of the sense of infinity carried in the “before” and “after.”

      Kiarostami's unique understanding of this fundamental fact was, in essence, what made him a master filmmaker. Consider, for example, how a nondescript shot of an aerosol can rolling down a gently sloping street could become the most well-known moment of his masterpiece (and most well-known film), Close Up (1990). Or think of the scene in Certified Copy (2010),in which William Shimell and Juliette Binoche’s characters carry an ostensibly banal conversation in a café, but which then flows—imperceptibly at first, then delicately, movingly, ecstatically thereafter—between familiarity and estrangement, ardor and contempt, innocence and experience. Or recall the breathtaking moment in Like Someone in Love (2012) that jumps from a dimly lit bedroom to the sky reflected on a car windshield, transforming a call-girl and her would-be customer into a grandfather and granddaughter in the space of a single cut. Before and after.

      When considering 24 Frames, it's hard not to wonder how aware Kiarostami was of his impending death while working on the film. (Reportedly, the true severity of his condition was withheld from or unaware to him over the years-long project.) In any case, his passing inevitably infuses the film with a mournful air, every tactile image—each of which took weeks to complete—leaving a ghostly trace of its maker’s presence. It seems telling, though, that unlike in the majority of his filmography, human figures are here largely absent; animals, landscapes, interiors and exteriors both beautiful and nondescript, all take precedence. It’s almost as if Kiarostami had, on some level, preemptively elided his own existence. That thought is a difficult one to shake, especially as each frame fades into the next with clockwork regularity—counted down as in the segments of 10, and fixed in length, in contrast to the sequences of Five. There's a decisive sense of momentum, with each apprehended moment released to Time’s inexorable flow. It's elegiac, yes, but also oddly hopeful, naive almost, content with the knowledge that—to borrow an alternate translation of one of Kiarostami's own titles—life goes on. No surprise, then, that the final segment of 24 Frames observes a figure sleeping at a desk, trees swaying gently outside, just beyond an open window, while a movie plays on a computer screen—frames within frames. An onscreen couple kiss as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies” crescendos; then the film ends, and the screen fades to black. And as the strains of the (phantom) melody echo in the mind thereafter, one can almost imagine that sleeping figure waking from his dream, moving beyond that final frame, transcending its decisive transience. 24 Frames, then, for an artist whose films have always revealed themselves to be so much more and which never fail to linger well beyond their final instants. Before and after.

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