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Review: In Search of Lost Time—Abbas Kiarostami's "24 Frames"

The final feature of the Iranian filmmaker uses digital animation to imagine what happens before or after a photograph is taken.
James Slaymaker
“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 a famous painting but then switched to photos I had taken through the years. I included about four and half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image that I had captured.”
This quotation opens 24 Frames, an experimental compilation of 24 vignettes, each one consisting of a single static shot that runs roughly 4-and-a-half minutes. The project was left unfinished at the time of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s tragically premature death in July 2016, and the final cut was assembled under the guidance of the filmmaker’s son, Ahmad, working from notes left behind by the auteur. The feature grew out of an abandoned project undertaken by Kiarostami which would see a selection of iconic paintings (by Bruegel, Picasso, Millet and Wyeth, among others) being brought to life by CGI rendering and creative sound design to imagine the scene a few minutes on either side of the moment captured on canvas, an attempt to imagine the narrative world of the paintings noce the element of time is added.
This proposed film was later re-worked, largely due to Kiarostami’s concerns over the huge costs involved in purchasing the licensing rights. In the final cut, only Kiarostami’s reworking of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow remains—the other 23 tableaux were inspired by the filmmaker’s own still photographs and paintings, brought to life by photorealistic computer animation and super-imposition effects. Each section therefore occupies a strange place between reality and artificiality, seeming to capture a miniature snapshot of mundane reality but realized through a process of hyper-mediation only possible through the most advanced digital technology. Kiarostami’s proposed title for the film was “24 Frames Before and After Lumière", and short actuality films by the Lumière brothers serve as a clear genesis point here, as Kiarostami reflects on the future of the medium as it enters its post-celluloid afterlife by looking back to on its origins. Each frame begins in media res and with no sense of closure, and though each sticks to a static, circumscribed perspective, the use of off-screen space and sound design creates the idea of a far wider environment that exists outside the corners of the screen. With each short unfolding in real time and portraying a very simple action, the occurrences presented are so humble that it is easy to forget what we’re watching is a simulation of reality. Kiarostami has long been concerned with the permeable line that separates truth from fiction and reality from construction, and here he focuses his attention on the ontological basis of digital cinema. 24 Frames uses elaborate technical means to capture an illusion of everyday reality, employing and building on many of the techniques used by Kiarostami in his great short Take Me Home (2016): digital compositing; the combination of still photography and motion; the clear splicing of the image along different planes of depth.
A dialogue is set up between the two mediums: paintings capture a single moment in time, while film is fundamentally rooted in the passing of time, expressed visually. Kiarostami gives his photographs context, but only for a few minutes before and after the image represented by the original photograph. There’s no sense of wider temporality, geography or socio-political context. The tension between hyper-mediation and verisimilitude that Kiarostami’s frames are built on destabilizes the viewer’s grasp of imagined reality and the actual thing. Because of the flexibility and high light-capturing capabilities of the DV camera, it holds the promise of bringing the viewer to a closer physical proximity to the real world. When a digital camera captures an event, the image isn’t directly impressed onto a celluloid chemical grid, it is transformed into a series of mathematical values, yet without the inscription of light values this crucial ontological link to what is being recorded is removed. The image is itself an abstraction, not the mark of a real event transpiring in front of the camera lens. So although 24 Frames is in many ways rooted in the principles of the Lumières’ project, it is also fundamentally removed from the material basis in empirical reality of their work, using the medium to transform the world it into something wildly artificial. These modifications destabilize the viewer’s perception, calling to mind American avant-garde filmmaker James Benning’s subtle toying with extended structuralist shots of natural landscapes in post-production—though while Benning’s manipulations of the digital image are imperceptible, Kiastromani foregrounds the artificiality of his images.
The first frame, inspired by Hunters in the Snow, sets the tone for the rest of the feature. At first, the painting itself is simply presented. Then, in the center of the image a small puff of smoke is discharged from an illustrated chimney in the background. Sounds of bird chirping and rustling wind enter the soundscape, piece by piece, until the silence is overwhelmed by the noises of wildlife. Snow falls in the foreground. Then the image becomes increasingly animated. Super-imposed dogs and birds start crossing along the snow and sky. The screen becomes charged with activity before, gradually, the movement ceases and we’re again looking at the still painting. The only other section of the film that so clearly involves such a distinction between the artificial and the actual begins with a still image of a crowd of spectators gazing at the Eiffel tower on a bridge, their backs to the camera. Gradually, pedestrians begin to cross the frame, followed by light snowfall in the foreground. The tourists remain completely static. The jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ begins to play, which is soon revealed to be coming from a busker, who then crosses the frame. Abruptly, night falls and the tower becomes illuminated.
The other segments skew closer to ontological naturalism, mostly revolving around images of nature: a dog chasing seagulls on the beach, a bird sitting on a pile of logs accompanied by the buzz of a chainsaw, a cow slumbering on the beach unaware of the tide coming in, a bird standing on a perch, silhouetted by a faint yellow blind. These minimalist, quaint compositions, heavy on negative space, tending to fill most of the primary action into a small portion of the frame, pack an extreme emotional punch. Yet there’s an element of the uncanny here; natural landscapes are captured with a great clarity and detail unique to the format of digital, yet these images are combined with deeply artificial computer generated imagery. Each image is fable-like in its simplicity, using the basic photograph as a stage through which stray details can be seized upon to stage a simple drama, mostly of animals fighting over territory or looking for sustenance. These dramatics are never contrived and never project anthropomorphic qualities onto the animals or landscapes he captures. The computer generated imagery is used to realize the plausible, a hybrid form that constantly destabilizes our gaze: what exactly is CGI and what has been super-imposed? How can the image be split up so cleanly?
The frames are largely constructed around broad binaries—interior and exterior space, man and nature, darkness and light, motion and stasis, alienation and community. Many of the shots are composed to observe elements of the natural world through windows, creating a frame-within-the-frame, and subdividing the composition into smaller parts. In one frame, we see two horses traversing a snowy landscape in a substantially de-saturated image. Francisco Canaro’s tango, ‘Poema’, plays in the background. We then discover that we’ve been looking at the scene through the perspective of a driver looking out through a tinted car window, and the music seems to be omitting from the stereo system. The image continues, with the window pulled down halfway, bisecting the screen into the lush crystalline wintry landscape and the de-colored version. It’s a sequence that recalls the many driving scenes in Kiarostami’s earlier films, though staged very differently. Our image is abstracted, showing us the view of a visually obscure landscape before slowly locating us in space. The driver is never seen, but the sequence allegorizes the distanced view of the natural world exemplified by the entire project.
These tensions are made most explicit in the beguiling final frame, which sees a young woman asleep, her head resting on her desk. On the laptop screen in front of her is an image from the final sequence of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), apparently rendered in some kind of image-editing program, the central couple locked in a tight embrace. The frame rate is slowed so this gesture is rendered obscure. Behind the screen is a huge window that takes up most of the frame, a darkened image of calligraphic trees brushing lightly in the wind. As the image goes on, the view outside the window becomes increasingly light and clear, as though we’re seeing a sunrise, though the shift in light is far too rapid and regular for it to have come from a natural source. The song ‘Love Never Dies’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber appears on the soundtrack, as the couple kiss and a title card reading ‘The End’ appears on the monitor, an introduction of melodramatic catharsis that disrupts the established rhythm and tone of Kiarostami’s minimalistic feature while still remaining firmly within the parameters it establishes for itself. It’s one of the most powerful final images in the history of movies, mourning the loss of physical media while pointing to the potentialities opened by new forms of movie-making technologies.


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