24 Frames: The World Made Visible

24 Frames: The World Made Visible

On Film / Essays — Jan 8, 2019

“Elements which can be eliminated have been eliminated” is how Abbas Kiarostami once described his late turn toward minimalism. While the Iranian director was known for the intricate, metatextual playfulness of his work, he also spent much of his career trying to achieve a certain purity of expression, one that he at first found more readily in his photographs and his poetry. “I want my films to become closer to my photography and more distant from storytelling,” he said in a 2000 interview, and the ensuing decade and a half would prove pivotal in that effort. 

Especially after his embrace of digital video in the early 2000s, Kiarostami sought a closer equilibrium between film, poetry, and photography. Though his career had already gone through several mutations, he now truly became the great shape-shifter of international cinema, constantly experimenting with form and technique. He even talked of trying to erase the author from his work; he delighted in the fact that he was rarely anywhere near the cameras for his improvisatory, mesmerizing 2002 docu-fiction hybrid Ten, set entirely within one Tehran woman’s car. As a result, many of his efforts from these later years betray a curious tension—between the powerful sense of perspective that had always been a defining trait of Kiarostami’s films and a desire to cede control, to open up the frame to the reality around it—as can also be found in 2003’s Five, which consists of a series of static shots in which Kiarostami had little control over what would happen within the frame, and 2010’s Certified Copy, in which the very nature of a couple’s relationship changes as they travel through Tuscany, almost as if it is being rewritten and reimagined over the course of the film.  

Kiarostami’s final work, 24 Frames (2017), may be his most powerful and daring exploration of this tension, its very conception bearing out the conflict between control and expansiveness. The film is composed of twenty-four segments, each of which involves a still image—a painting in one instance, photographs in the others—that has been “brought to life” through digital means. Kiarostami spoke of wanting to capture the moments before and after a photograph was taken. To that end, he labored for three years with his close collaborator Ali Kamali, layering each still with animation, stock footage, and images he himself directed, sometimes even bringing in actors. Together, they created around sixty “frames.” At the time of his death in July 2016, Kiarostami had narrowed these down to thirty and established a rough order. His son Ahmad Kiarostami helped finish the project. 

“By the end, it is as if a whole world has been opened up—as if our very understanding of cinema has changed.”

Understated and languid, these twenty-four segments, lasting four and a half minutes apiece, may at first feel more like environments than components of a movie; it’s tempting to say they might be better off as separate gallery installations, which was, in fact, one criticism leveled at 24 Frames upon its premiere. A closer look reveals that each segment has its own narrative shape, its own peculiar grace and logic, even its own payoff. Each vignette is at once strikingly composed and gently unruly—unexpected and naturalistic and haunting in all the ways that we’ve come to expect from Kiarostami’s most indelible works. But the film is much more than the sum of its parts. As we watch 24 Frames, each segment seems to build on the visual and emotional complexities of the previous ones: we see better with every frame. By the end, it is as if a whole world has been opened up—as if our very understanding of cinema has changed. And what could be more fitting for Kiarostami? For all of his desire to remove the authorial voice from the process, the director clearly put his imprimatur on 24 Frames. It feels at times like both a summation of his nearly five-decade career and a radical step in a new direction.

The first frame begins with Dutch master Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s immortal sixteenth-century painting Hunters in the Snow, a winter scene of a group of men and dogs looking over a small village beside a frozen lake. Slowly, Kiarostami’s digital embellishments emerge. Smoke rises from a chimney. A bird flits among the branches of a tree. A dog starts sniffing around. A herd of cows lumbers along in the distance. But amid all this movement, the figures of the original painting stand motionless. The hunters carry the same poses they did in 1565. Some birds may hop among the trees, but one remains frozen in the sky, captured midflight by Brueghel 450 years ago, its wings spread out forever. 

As a short documentary by Salma Monshizadeh included on this release shows us, Kiarostami “animated” multiple familiar paintings, among them Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, but the Brueghel is the only one that made it into the finished work. Putting it here serves a practical purpose: placing such an easily recognizable artwork at the very start helps establish the nature of the endeavor. But if Frame 1 lays out the technical parameters, one could argue that Frame 2—in which we watch through a partly rolled-down car window as two horses cavort in the snow—makes it clear that we are watching a Kiarostami film. He was, after all, the auteur of automotive existentialism, having set some of his most acclaimed pictures in and around cars. As the two horses dance around each other, we may also wonder whether we’re watching a fight or a courtship. That mystery brings to mind the immortal final shot of one of Kiarostami’s greatest films, Through the Olive Trees (1994), in which a young man approaches the woman he has been pining for and, after a brief exchange that we do not hear, runs off; because the camera is so distant from the action, we cannot tell if he’s despondent or elated. These first two frames, then, introduce the main forces that will run through the whole film: the tension between motion and stillness, between the living moment and the captured instant, and the sense of watching, of emotional ambiguity, and, indeed, narrative and allegory. 

“While there may not be many actual humans in 24 Frames, it is nevertheless one of Kiarostami’s most humanist works.”

Animals and nature figure prominently in the vignettes of 24 Frames—just as they do in the poetry of the beloved Iranian writer Forugh Farrokhzad, as well as in Japanese haiku, both of which Kiarostami cited as influences throughout his career. While there may not be many actual humans in 24 Frames, it is nevertheless one of Kiarostami’s most humanist works. Its peculiar magic lies in its ability to tell brief, evocative stories without ever having to rely on cheap anthropomorphization. The birds, the wolves, the cows, the horses and deer and lions and dogs of Kiarostami’s snow-globe menageries are allowed to be themselves while still evoking the poetry and turmoil of our lives.

For example, in Frame 4, a loud gunshot sets a herd of deer scurrying through a snowbound landscape. One deer, however, stops and looks off to the left, in the direction of the gunshot. Slowly, it walks back in that direction, even as more deer trot past. Undeterred, it keeps watching, and waiting. Eventually, another deer—a parent, a companion, a friend?—emerges from the left side of the screen, walking slowly. The two of them amble off to join the others. It’s a touching glimpse of loyalty and camaraderie, and yet it never strays into the maudlin or contrived. 

We hear such gunshots several times in this film, but we never see or hear the humans who presumably fired them. Frame 13, which Kiarostami reportedly meant as a tribute to a close friend who died at a young age, shows a group of seagulls swooping above a beach as one of them is shot out of the sky. While the other gulls flee the scene, one lands next to the dead bird in the surf and stands sentry beside it. Soon, the others return. But we never see a hunter, or for that matter anyone else, come to the fallen bird. The gunshot thus takes on the quality of an existential fact. The vignette evokes the loneliness of death and grief, and maybe even the belated solidarity of community—but it also never quite stops being about a bunch of birds flying around a beach.

At times, Kiarostami’s playful fondness for grand gestures shines through. In Frame 6, a bird perches on the ledge of a window. A tree in the background sways in the wind, as the sound of waves mixes with the aria “Un bel dì vedremo,” from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Another bird soon lands, and the two stand close to each other. As the aria reaches its crescendo, the wind picks up and the tree starts to shake with greater fury. One bird flies off, leaving the other alone on its ledge. Suddenly, we see an airplane take off in the distance—its appearance so perfectly timed that we have to wonder if the bird that just left has boarded it and departed for truly distant shores. We may realize at this point that we’ve just witnessed an avian variation on Puccini’s tragic tale of abandonment. (Remember, all these elements have been added, deliberately and carefully, by Kiarostami and his team; that plane didn’t just happen to be there.) And yet, again, we’re always also aware that we’re just watching two birds on a ledge.

But what a ledge! Shot in near-perfect symmetry, it resembles—like many of Kiarostami’s frames—a proscenium, thus setting the stage for the theatrical narrative that unfolds. Over and over again, the environments around Kiarostami’s avian and animal protagonists lend emotional texture to his vignettes. Consider the pigeons gathered on a street in Frame 14, seen through the lower window of a dank, empty building, its walls spattered with grime, dirt, and waste. A moped buzzes through and sends the birds scurrying. But they quickly return. Another moped passes, going in the opposite direction, and they flee again. The birds then gather one last time on the street. Now they’re displaced by a truck that parks itself right there. These pigeons’ repeated attempts to gather in the same spot begins to feel like a community attempting to reconstitute itself after being vanquished by powerful outside forces—an idea made all the more poignant by the fact that we’re watching this scene through the window of what appears to be an abandoned, devastated building. 

These spaces, of course, are often perfectly still, while the subjects—the birds, deer, wolves, trees—are in constant motion. That tension between stillness and movement can be an affecting one throughout 24 Frames. But the dynamic is reversed in Frame 15, one of the most powerful segments of the film and of Kiarostami’s entire career. Built around a photograph the director took in Paris many years ago, this is the rare frame that features people—six of them, what appears to be a Muslim family glimpsed from behind as they stare across a pedestrian bridge at the Eiffel Tower. The figures seem curiously outside of time; they could just as easily be from the 1950s as the 2000s. They could be immigrants, or tourists, or native Parisians, for all we know. We can make all sorts of narrative conjectures about them, but they remain frozen, revealing no secrets. Others walk past, day turns to night, and the Eiffel Tower lights up. (We can see in Monshizadeh’s documentary how carefully Kiarostami directed the passersby, doing multiple takes.) A street busker strolls by, guitar in hand, singing. She sidles up to them, as if trying to coax them to life. But the family remains eternally still. They will forever be on this bridge, perpetual outsiders, charmed, awed, and maybe even a little bewildered by the City of Light. One wonders if Kiarostami saw something of himself in them.

Which brings us to Frame 24—Kiarostami’s final image, sadly, in more ways than one—which also features a person at its center, this time a young woman with wild hair who appears to have fallen asleep at a computer that is painstakingly and glacially rendering the romantic final embrace of William Wyler’s 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives. (She’s not frozen, however; she stirs a couple of times.) As the image unfolds on the computer screen, a group of trees once again sways in the evening light, visible through a window in the background. 

Is this how Kiarostami, a pioneer of video technology, often experienced the act of filmmaking? Maybe that’s why, in his final testament, this most innovative and perceptive of artists chose to direct our attention to the great world of motion and mystery beyond the frame itself, and perhaps to poke one last bit of fun at the notion of an all-powerful director. The woman is asleep, the computer is slow, but the true spectacle—those majestic trees shaking with operatic grandeur—remains so wonderfully, eternally alive. Here, then, is the artist’s absence fully embodied one last time, as the final image of this posthumous work fades to black. “Elements which can be eliminated have been eliminated.” The creator may be asleep, but cinema goes on. Until it doesn’t.