The frame holds me.
Straining to see beyond,
tension & peace.
In the sleep, I dream,
The dream, a window
into what is
and what could be.
–(Adapted from the original tweet, 9/29/2017)
An inevitable sort of melancholy hangs over a beloved filmmaker’s last film, and one feels a certain pressure to love it, whatever it is. Going into the screening of the final film of Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), 24 Frames, I couldn’t ignore the nostalgia associated with the endeavor. I am not sure, ultimately, if it will ever be possible for me to disassociate the film from the cinema experience of sitting in the dark, grieving a film lover’s grief and thinking, “This 120 minutes will be the last new footage I will ever see.” But sitting there, even so intensely aware of the experience as a memento mori, Kiarostami’s film–flickering relentlessly forward through those precious minutes–took on its own weight. Like all of his films have done for me, it slowly removed me from self-consciousness and immersed me in itself.
24 Frames is certainly unique within Kiarostami’s oeuvre. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find in an exhibition at the MoMA, where you can study an art piece for a while and then wander away. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to sit in the dark and watch for two hours. But then, Kiarostami has always been playing with the idea of cinema, his films so often reflecting back on themselves and on the act of filmmaking, and in these reflections, he has continually made his audiences consider again what cinema is and what it could be.
24 Frames opens with an epigraph, Kiarostami setting before us the inquiry with which he began the project: “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.”
The film that follows is, then, as Kiarostami indicates, made up of 24 frames, 24 images, the first, a painting, Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, and the rest photographs, primarily of the natural world. Each image, as we watch each for four and a half minutes, comes to life, realistic animation and sounds imposed on the original photographic stillness. Snow falls in the frame in some. Or rain. Waves crash and bubble along a shore. Wind rushes. Tree branches stretch and creak in the wind. Leaves drift past. An unseen chainsaw gutters and growls. Little sparrow-like birds flutter and hop, foraging for seeds in the snow. Crows fly into the frame, brusquely intruding on the spaces again and again. Horses paw and prance. Cows bellow or lie quietly, just breathing. Wolves gnaw a carcass. A deer grazes and startles at the sound of predatory animal howls. A cat slinks past in the distant background.
With each static frame, we are aware of how much we are bound by the frame itself, forced, as it were, to see the world as Kiarostami imagines it within just these rectangular lines that do not and will not move for four and a half minutes, again and again. In the second image, our POV is from within a car, music on the radio giving us a soundtrack. The driver, or passenger, rolls down the window – our theater curtain of sorts – and we observe the scene outside on the whim of this unseen person who controls the window. Aware of our inability to close the window, to move on, there’s a peculiar sense of simultaneous bondage and curiosity. Whatever this person wants to see, I will see. Whatever is in my frame of vision, I do not control. I become intensely aware of any slight movement within the frame, intensely aware of sound – any sound that appears to be coming from within the frame and any sound that comes from something in the off-screen space. The cat moving across the screen in the background and disappearing makes me only more aware of that cat I cannot see, the cat who may suddenly leap into my frame of vision and onto the little feeding birds. So both off-screen and onscreen space jostle together in a kind of conflicting, tense unity, each fighting the other for my attention.
It’s like suddenly being alive to vision again, to the limits of what we, as cinema goers, can see and to the detail of what we can see–if only we’d look.
I’m not particularly given to sitting still and watching the natural world go by. Perhaps I would be a healthier person if I sat on a park bench once in awhile and just gazed at a tree across a stretch of grass, observed the birds and squirrels flitting here and there. But I’m not that person, and Kiarostami forced me into it in this film, saying, as I imagine him doing, “Look. Keep looking. No, stop, keep looking.” And so I sat and looked, and became aware of the barest rise and fall of an animal’s breathing body, or waited with intensity to see if the single duck would be able to find his way around the fence to join the rest of the flock, or worried that the grazing deer might not be paying enough attention to those wolf howls.
And yet, the intensity of looking, the worrying about certain threats, on screen and off, was also paired with a desire to sleep. The wind rushing, you see, was so soothing; the ocean waves and driving rain so lulling, my increasingly heavy lids fought with the brain’s command to pay attention, and I’m not entirely sure I did not doze off for a moment, like the person next to me did, nodding and shaking himself awake at intervals.
24 Frames is a strange, provocative thing, making me feel bound to the prison of a frame, even while I understand the frame liberates me to see in ways I do not normally see. And over the whole experience, I’m tempted to simply go to sleep, in the comfort of the sounds and in front of the window to the natural world in front of me. Kiarostami said in a 1997 interview he did not want to “take viewers hostage and provoke them,” like some filmmakers do. “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap.” I am, with 24 Frames, provoked, but perhaps not in with the kind of provocation Kiarostami disliked in other films, for he invites me, too, into sleep, and in the sleeping, I feel more awake to cinema than I can remember feeling in a long while. The experience is something like the dreaming kind vision he wanted cinema to be, perhaps. Dreaming, he said, in the same interview, is “like being in a stuffy room and opening a window . . . You let the air in and then you breathe. In my mind, dreams are windows in our lives, and the significance of cinema is in its similarity to this window.”
Did I feel pressured to love this last film? Perhaps. But if the pressure to love it comes with joy and an even deeper love for cinema and its windows, those rectangles that frame and enlarge our sight, I don’t think it really matters.
Sleep in peace, Kiarostami.