24 Frames – released posthumously and screened at Cannes this year as a Special Selection to honor the passing of Abbas Kiarostami – could either be taken as his style’s culmination or its implosion.
Artists put a good deal of energy into trying to have the last word. Choosing to view life as the prelude to death, one could say that any creation is simply the artist’s attempt to outlive themselves. But legacy is written by no one but time, and can often leave you in a very different part of history than expected.
Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away in July of last year, had accomplished a great life’s work as a filmmaker in Iran, rising to the pinnacle of that nation’s cinema for his quiet, contemplative films. A postmodernist at a time when films were still profoundly tied to traditional narrative, Kiarostami often played with audience engagement and participation in his films, and with elements of time. Considering this, his work 24 Frames – released posthumously and screened at Cannes this year as a Special Selection to honor the auteur’s passing – could either be taken as his style’s culmination or its implosion.
“For me, the distinction between short and feature is meaningless. A film is a film. It has a beginning, a story and an end. It is more difficult to make a short film. Its weaknesses are more visible and can’t be compensated for as the film progresses. Freed from the constraints of theatre release, financing and what the public wants to see, short films are more personal and, therefore, more artistic. This is why we expect new forms of experimentation from their directors, as well as artistic audacity. The constant renewal essential to the art of cinema is the duty of young filmmakers. This is the very function of their short films, which are far more than mere exercises to enable access to cinema as a profession.”—Abbas Kiarostami
24 Frames is likely the most experimental film ever shown at the Lumiere theater, Cannes’ biggest and most important screening room. In fact, there’s some dispute over whether it could be called a film at all. For one thing, it has no actors and no plot. As suggested by the title, the feature is instead devoted to twenty-four still images of the director’s choosing or credit – pictures that mattered to him late in life. The rumination on these images is the entirety of the movie.
Kiarostami mentions, in an epigraph which introduces the screening, his interest in the idea of the still image, in what it contains and elides. Nowhere else can a story be told without movement, without any sense of time. Kiarostami was interested in what would happen, then, if time was introduced into the picture, and curated two dozen, both paintings, and photographs, which he could play with to induce a sense of time. Each frame is extended to four-and-a-half minutes, where they begin to include motion Kiarostami added through computer generated images to make the stills move naturally, as though the frame itself expands into a world of singularity. These subtle modifications of the twenty-four images – which strictly exclude anything that would not be found in the frame, to begin with – is literally the entire viewing experience.
Frame one is The Hunters in the Snow, a famous sixteenth-century Flemish oil painting of just that. Because it displays as two-dimensionality traditional in medieval art, this one is easily animated, a good warm up to the project. First, snow begins to fall. Birds fly in and out of the frame (although never the birds which are suspended mid-flight in the original painting). An animated dog wanders around on a frozen lake, and then up to the hill’s crest to examine the hunters and other dogs in the foreground. The sound of wind and chirping birds further inundate the scene. Immediately, it becomes frustrating and confusing that, although movement is imbued upon the image, it is never conferred to any of the actual subjects – the hunters in the snow. This sets up a precedent for the film, which is notably devoid of human movement, and often of images people entirely. After four-and-a-half minutes, the first frame fades away.
The average space between cuts in an average film is anywhere from three to thirty seconds, a narrating pace that sets the tempo for all of the cinema. The importance of such a rhythm becomes felt immediately when it is disrupted. Even experimental films such as Chantal Ackerman’s three-and-a-half hour Jeanne Dielman, which plays constantly with expected pacing, don’t venture as far into the realm of inertia as Kiarostami’s tableaus. The monotony is only heightened by the similarities of the frames. Highlights include a car window rolling down to view a horse in a snowstorm, reeds in the breeze, and a small group viewed from behind as they watch the Eiffel Tower. But over half of the selected images are mellow landscape shots, particularly of the ocean and birds, probably because these things can be animated easily and realistically with CGI. The result is like a two-hour exercise in watching the tide come in. Or watching paint dry.
During the screening at the Lumiere, where I sat in the balcony, probably half the audience in my area got up and left in the first hour. Over half of those who remained spent portions of the film asleep (though this is not rare for even the most watchable of films at Cannes, given the intense conditions of the festival’s late nights and early mornings). I got very near to dozing off myself, fighting the urge mostly out of sheer anticipation that something, anything unusual, might happen. Kiarostami gave himself such intense constraints in the selection of the frames that it was compelling, at least to some, simply to see their extent. Does music enter the film? Will we ever see a human subject twitch?
Later, back at the American Pavilion, one of my crueler colleagues described 24 Frames as less a film than a “collection of screensavers.” I would call the work, at my most generous, a cinematic meditation. The total effect of the two hours was almost profoundly calming, but one wonders if the movie augments this or simply allows for it. One thing I could not shake was the feeling that Kiarostami, had he not died before the release, probably never wanted a screening such as the one we attended for 24 Frames, which would not have been allowed otherwise. Perhaps this was intended for the corner of a modern art museum, where viewers could watch the cyclical frames at any point on their loop, and step out again five minutes later.
Learning more about the director after the fact, though, I have to conclude that this was a radical and profound reversal of expectations for him, one that was not so much intended to be loved as to be effective. In many ways, 24 Frames is an extension of the very thinking that sparked the revelation of cinema – working through the hopes of making an image move. And few people felt the revelation of cinema more than Abbas Kiarostami.