24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film is a compendium of 24 four and a half minutes sequences, inspired, an opening title card notes, by the late director’s wonderings about still images, paintings and photographs, imagining what might have happened before or after the single instant captured by the artist. He says that the project was originally going to be based around recreations of several of his favorite paintings, but in the process he decided to just mostly use photos he had taken instead.

The first frame though is a painting, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow”. After resting onscreen for a bit, the scene slowly becomes animated with images (smoke rises from chimneys, snow falls) and sounds (a howling wind, a squawking crow). Soon the painting comes to life, motion everywhere except the people, the only humans we’ll see in any of the frames, do not move. Most of the frames to follow will feature some or all of these elements – birds, snow, wind, sometimes music (Kiarostami has room for both Ave Maria and, shockingly, Andrew Lloyd Webber), the hypnotic white noises of winter otherwise broken only by the occasional (unseen) hunter’s gunshot, a bolt in inexplicable terror rupturing the natural world.

Not that Kiraostami’s nature is one of peaceful harmony. The birds are constantly fighting amongst themselves – over food or a newly dug nest in the snow or a choice spot on a railing. A wolf stalks a flock of sheep as they huddle together against the wind. A cat prowls in the distance, suddenly appearing with silent playfulness in the foreground. Even the lions are afraid of thunder. Notable as well is that most of the animals we see aren’t even real, but rather this “natural” world is the manufactured product of a more or less realistic CGI.

The project is a relaxed meditation on what must have been a lifelong interest for Kiarostami, a master of both the frame within the frame (think of the car windows in Certified Copy) and the interaction of the world outside the frame with the one within it (the cobbled together conversations of Taste of Cherry, the courtroom scenes of Close-Up, or the simultaneously terrifying and liberating shatter at the end of Like Someone in Love). Most of the frames in 24 Frames contain internal frames, window panes or railings or fences or trees organizing the image. And the things Kiarostami adds to them as well function as frames, turning the potentialities of a still image into a part of a single sequence of events. A moment could be a part of anything, but in assigning a narrative function to it, Kiarostami defines it as a single thing, at least for four and a half minutes (what happens after is again a matter of infinite possibility). Framing is an imposition of order onto chaos. And despite the fact that images we see are ones of nature, the temptation to anthropomorphize them into little dramas motivated by human psychology is inescapable. I liked to imagine that the same crows were recurring in frame after frame, only to be tormented by one obnoxious bird (Kiarostami’s Angry Bird) who kept messing with them, trying to eat their food, trying to take over their perch. A little dog sets himself at war with a flag on a beach, barking at it relentlessly until it falls, he skips away exultant in his victory. I see myself in the frames about traveling herds, not so much the deer moving along at his own pace, against the crowd, rather in the cow sleeping on the beach, too lazy to get up and move along before the tide rolls in. This too is an act of framing: we obviously don’t know what animates a cow (well, except for animated cows, who are motivated by the whims of the auteur), their causation is in our choosing. Even the inanimate objects are susceptible to this framing by identification, the helical strand of saplings, centered in the snow, surrounded by the squares an rectangles of window panes, with larger, more impressive trees in the background, recalls, for me, Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, a brave little tree standing alone against the rush of modernity. In this case the association of memory does the work of defining the still object more or less unconsciously. We intrude on boundless nature with our thoughts, our intentionality, our memories, transforming everything we see, and not always with the rip of a chainsaw or the murderous intent of a rifle.

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Memories of the Sword (Park Heung-shik, 2015)

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Opening this week at the Century Cinemas in Federal Way is this Korean wuxia film, a revenge tale bearing more than a little resemblance to a certain sic-fi trilogy and filled with striking sunsets, lovely fields, elaborate sets and digitally-enhanced swordfighting. Directed by Park Heung-shik, the man behind such award-winning films as 2001’s I Wish I Had a Wife and 2004’s My Mother, the MermaidMemories of the Sword follows in the footsteps of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts films Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower in that it is a highly melodramatic tale told in sumptuous, gorgeously photographed settings. Beginning with a young woman walking through a field of sunflowers, she puts down her basket and takes a flying leap over a giant stalk, soaring weightlessly through the air. Her joy as she lands safely, accomplishing what must have been a task she’d set herself for weeks if not years, is palpable. Unfortunately it’s the last bit of happiness in what becomes an unremittingly grim tragedy. Like Zhang’s films, the tastefulness of the enterprise undermines any life the genre film within might have possessed.

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