Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Life. But Not as Know It…
Arguably, the late Abbas Kiarostami was the most critically-acclaimed Iranian Director there’s yet been. Whilst a darling of the international festival circuit, producing thoughtful, often solemn pictures, he remained on the commercial fringe outside his homeland; content to pursue his cinematic art, unfettered by the demands of a mainstream career.
An early career as a graphic designer, led in-turn, to Kiarostami helping to establish a ‘film school’ in a Tehran technical college. Although he started out with short films, made under the auspices of the college, features would soon follow; the honest, ‘realist’ themes of pictures such as The Traveler (1974) examined aspects of the human condition, revolving around amorality and the consequences accrued in its pursuit.
However, the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah’s regime in 1979, led to a virtual blackout of Iranian culture on the world stage. Undaunted, Kiarostami continued to direct, producing films for domestic consumption that, one presumes, had been ‘approved’ by the new, more authoritarian government.
His re-emergence as a Director-of-note, came with Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987); the first in what would come to be known as the ‘Koker’ trilogy of films, set around the eponymous North Iranian village. Other films appeared, to growing international acclaim: Taste of Cherry (1997), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) and more. Kiarostami’s reputation grew. His films won the Big Prizes (i.e. The Palm d’Or for ‘Cherry) and alongside, he pursued his other passions of landscape photography and poetry. There’s a simple honesty about his film work. A lack of guile and artifice that strips-away the trappings of what we, as an audience, expect. Yet this very simplicity liberates Kiarostami’s imagination, producing images as layered as they are ‘composed’; the poetry and photography are never far away. Little wonder, then, that luminous contemporaries such as Scorsese were quick to praise.
A typical Kiarostami film would probably incorporate the following: a dialogue between two lead characters whilst in a moving car, but shot from a distance, by fixed cameras. We therefore hear the dialogue but see a small car, lost amidst a rolling, twisting road. In being denied shots of the actors, we lose gesture and inflection, so are forced to listen with more attention, whilst passing landscape distracts the eye. Kiarostami also favours a changing ambient soundtrack, into which he’ll drop random ‘ambient’ sounds, i.e. a mobile phone or birdsong. By extending the soundstage of his films, to include items beyond what is seen, he widens the scope…
He does this, I think, to ‘fill in the gaps’ of narratives which are otherwise fractured or sparse. A film in the Western tradition, will generally concede a backstory or context of some kind, explaining how we got to where we are. Kiarostami, on the other hand, will typically tell us – that is, YOU – only what he wants you to know. Everything else, is the result of your own imagination filling-in blanks. Take for example his 2010 film Certified Copy, that features an ambiguous relationship between a couple as they travel through Tuscany. At first, we think they’ve just met yet, later, they act as if they’ve long been married. On first watching this, I struggled to grasp such nuances; further exposure to the Director’s work at least sheds light on his intention.
Which brings us to 24 Frames. Through the latter part of his career, Kiarostami was consciously stripping-away the trappings of ‘conventional cinema’ from his work, until it led to this project, presented here by Criterion in a crisp Blu-Ray transfer.
Consider, first, the Director’s opening statement:
I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it. For 24 Frames, I started with famous paintings, but then switched to photos I had taken through the years. I included about four and a half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image that I had captured.
Conventional cine-film must run-through a projector at a minimum speed of 24 frames-per-second, if it’s to fool the eye into accepting a naturalistic, smooth image free of jagged stuttering. Kiarostami then used this number, as the basis for an artistic conceit. Over five years, he – along with an assistant – developed a sequence of twenty-four animated vignettes (from an initial group of forty or so); all but one, ‘shot’ (or rather ‘composed’) with a fixed, stationary viewpoint to the ‘camera’. Layered digitally into each still image, would then be additional features – moving images (both ‘live action’ and animation) and audio – that, when combined, would achieve his goal, namely showing us what HIS imagination had conjured around the original twenty four moments-in-time.
The only piece of conventional art that made the cut, opens the film: The Hunters in the Snow by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Seconds pass. Our eye scans a silent, still image, looking in-vain for a sign of movement; of life. Then, a tentative column of smoke rises from the chimney of a cottage. A second chimney wisps into life. A bird flies and lands on a tree branch. A dog mooches about; has a pee. Cattle bellow as they cross the road at the bottom of the valley. Snow falls. Then, one by one, these elements are withdrawn as stealthily as they appeared, to leave the painting as it we found it: but our perceptions have also shifted in those four-and-a-bit minutes. We are ready for what follows. We don’t miss dialogue. In its absence, the animation paints a new tale over the old.
The twenty three remaining frames are all based on Kiarostami’s own photographs. Through a mixture of B&W & colour images, we recognise a few recurring themes: coastal shorelines in Winter or during storms. A sleepy cow, oblivious to what its herd is doing. Glimpses of behaviour shown by Jackdaws, Pigeons and a lone, hungry Robin.
No common narrative links any of it though, at one point, I discerned a filament of continuity between a series of wintry forest scenes and deer, but that was it. Instead, I found a meditation on the cruel indifference of nature and how our view of it, is blinkered by our anthropomorphism: we’re not being told what to think here: rather, we’re being asked merely ‘to think’. This is encouraged to a degree, when we consider the composition of the final images in many of the twenty four frames. Consider #8, for example: an ornamental stone balustrade bisects the screen, with an ocean’s shoreline right behind, where we’d expect to see a formal garden. In creating this composite image then, what are are being invited to consider: the impossibility of restraining the ocean, Canute-style? Yes – and no. Remember, we’re not being told anything. Our responses are individual.
The images and suggested interpretations roll-on, across an assemblage devoid of humour or levity. Everything is commonplace. Magical. Hilarious: it just depends on how you see the world and what baggage you bring to the party. Frame #22 shows nothing but a child’s flag pegged into a beach and fluttering in the stiff breeze. A Jack Russell terrier yaps at it, furiously, after seeing-off a bothersome gull. Just why he should be barking at the flag is irrelevant and left unexplained, yet the frame ends with the flag falling-over, leading us to one, obvious conclusion: the wind blew it over. Actually, viewed from the dog’s perspective, there’s a second: it ‘barked the flag to death’.
Remember, however, this is a composited sequence. Kiarostami filmed the dog separately, lifted its cropped sequence of frames and dropped it as a discreet layer into a ‘scene’ being built-up of other layers. None of this happened ‘as seen’. For all we know, the dog was actually barking at another dog. Or a bucket. Or a Bear. It matters not. In THIS context, it’s barking at a gull, then a flag. That falls over. Our eyes see the image. Our brains fit everything together and as the dots are joined, so we write our own narratives. These twenty four frames are more than artful screensavers: they’re a window onto a world we seldom stop to notice.
Kiarostami once gave an opinion on ‘boring’ films. I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence he stated that he didn’t object to any film that induced those watching to doze as long as, in the days that followed, thoughts and images of the offending film came-to-mind… In the event, 24 Frames came close to inducing a similar effect on me, yet I can foresee that a time might one day come, when this film might be the ONLY thing I choose to watch. Context really IS everything, after all.
It’s said that Walt Disney made films for an audience of children with but one, indulgent exception: a project that indulged his love of classical music and an attraction to mythic, almost abstract forms, tropes and Ideas. Having watched 24 Frames, perhaps it’s not that great a leap to think of this film, posthumously finished by Kiarostami’s son, Ahmad, as his father’s Fantasia?