Cinema as Prayer: Abbas Kiarostami's 24 FRAMES
I feel a deep gratitude for being exposed to Kiarostami’s secretly subversive works in my college years, enchanted by his minimalism that subliminally begat enigmas. Some but not all of his mastery issues from how he has had to circumvent the rigors of Iranian state censorship, a case of creative constraint giving way to something essential (not that such censorship should be thanked for what sometimes seems like gifting us auteurs). To watch Kiarostami is to submit to a kind of quiet existential concussion, the effect of which, through its own use of appearances, is the erosion of the undue sanctity of appearances themselves. In this, the second anniversary of his passing at age 76, Criterion Collection presents what would be Kiarostami’s final film, 24 FRAMES. As many have already noted, 24 FRAMES is as synthesized and coalescent a final work as any filmmaker has ever produced. In these 24 vignettes, we experience the slow transience of life, heightened by the frame and sometimes frames within frames, wherein the filmmaker’s lifelong practices and fascinations with photography, poetry, cinema, the ever-diminishing narrative and the ever dissipating scrim between reality and fiction are all at play, perhaps more purely and playfully than ever before. Birds, sunlight, snow, and waves tell us how time truly passes.
24 FRAMES is a poem, a prayer, a patient communion. Composed of 24 motion-and-sound-integrated photographs from throughout his career, digitally collaged and “cinematized”, 24 Frames represents Kiarostami at his most and least controlling. The result is a film riveting in its stillness, compelling in its non-divisive unpredictability, enthralling in its play between movement and paralysis. I wondered, will I watch this all at once, will I watch a few at a time, will these tableau strung together constitute a film to me? Yet every time one ended I could not wait for the next to begin, and once begin I hoped it would not end. Rather than interruptions, the interstitial fade-to-blacks felt part of a continuity, like the lapping waves that crash upon so many shores throughout 24 FRAMES . To imagine them as not giving way to one another even as they rearrange in the reels of memory, to pretend that they don’t expand and breathe in my imagination (as indeed Kiarostami intended), is impossible. Some films renew you, others break you, others still may lift or enthrall you, many merely distract you. 24 FRAMES is indeed the former. It elicits such profound attention because it is itself attentive. The static frame which contains many dramas of movement, of nature, of events within and without, invites the eyes to wander and the ears to prick. It renders the act of staring out a window an act of cinema.
Kiarostami, whose cinema could have been described as reductive from as early on as Where Is The Friends House? (1980), distilled further and further over many years in a process of actually ceding control. This is a practice more so of setting conditions, the frame and context and seeing what happens. This is powerfully evident in his non-native language films and in particular Like Someone In Love. One of the functions of that film being set in Japan and entirely in Japanese is that it made him, to a more significant extent than ever before, a spectator, reliant upon translators and even the actors to sublimate ideas and actions into mannerisms, expressions and emotional displays that make sense within their own society and language. His more ostensibly experimental works like Shirin, Five Dedicated to Ozu, 10 and 24 Frames , which factor into his “narrative de-evolution” are variations on restraint. What comes across as daring, if not abstract, is actually a more vital, direct, undistracted version of cinema. Bu this I mean, what you see and how it is shown is more direct, but what is happening may in fact be more oblique. More like the photographer, Kiarostami seems to have made the fewest possible decisions in the creative architecture of filmmaking for these experimental works: the basic nature of the content and the position of the camera. To be clear, he determines much more than that, but these are the foundational and proportionally largest decisions under his authorship. The yield is something authentic and surprising, something spacious and sensuous. Amid his oeuvre Five Dedicated to Ozu is the closest in kind to 24 Frames and serves as a strong preface. As such, I can only watch 24 Frames through the lens of the other Kiarostami works I have seen. Though there is pure joy in the recognition of references and echoes, I am almost jealous of anyone who might see this film first and then visit the rest as a nonlinear deconstruction of what led to the magical distillation presented here.
The Bluray 2K digital master is a thing of sheer pristine beauty, and the 5.1 sound is supple and dimensional. Sarah Habibi’s design is understated, clean and reverent. Don’t get me wrong, I love when Criterion goes all out on packaging design (The Double Life of Veronique is a particular gem), but Habibi’s minimal approach to this project (and numerous other Criterion titles like The Human Condition) respects the same qualities of the film itself. Even the menu screen, simply a black frame with the title and menu options, feels perfect. As a result 24 FRAMES gains even greater impact, leaving everything yet to be seen as a surprise, a springing forth to life. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pine for some more supplements. I would relish the opportunity to see the six deleted frames from the thirty which Abbas Kiarostami had originally whittled down to at the time of his passing, or perhaps some of Kiarostami’s poetry and still photographs included in the booklet. But these are just my desires, my inevitable yearning for more, removed from what may or may not have been possible. It leaves the film to stand on its own, to continue to expand and enrich in its own reverent way, viewing after viewing, remembrance after remembrance.