“I’ve often noticed that we’re not able to look at what’s in front of us unless it’s inside a frame.” – Abbas Kiarostami
Lions humping in the rain, a deer violently fallen by a rifle shot, the shadow of a pigeon perched on a wire softening with the passing of a cloud. These are just some of the dramas of 24 Frames, a work of both cinema and art by the late, great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. The dramas are slight but vary from overtly humorous to startlingly surprising to subtle in a manner that only comes with acclimating oneself to this experimental movie’s unique pacing.
The near two-hour film, which was among the winners of the International Cinephile Society’s award for Best Picture Not Released in 2017, is comprised of 24 short films based mostly on photographs by Kiarostami. Besides one short that features a tracking shot through a car window and a painting (Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “The Hunters in the Snow”), all the shorts are stationary landscape shots that last just under five minutes at a time. Between fade-ins and fade-outs the mostly black and white vignettes are introduced with title cards counting up from “Frame 1” to “Frame 24.” A title card opening the film explains the director’s view that a single painting or still image is a limited representation of reality because it only captures a split second of life. He wanted to create a new kind of medium that reveals an expanse of time, in this case what happens before and after the image in a range of “about four and a half minutes each.” The result cracks open perspective on looking at both cinema and art in an incomparable manner.
The transcendent moments in contemplation of art come with patience, and depending on one’s amount of patience, your mileage may vary. This work, with dynamic images featuring movement and sound, can move too fast for those accustomed to examining paintings or photographs at a leisurely, self-prescribed pace. They might also seem like endurance tests for those who seek dynamic stories and characters in films, as all of these images are basically landscapes featuring mostly animals. Full disclosure: as a child, this writer used to wake up before dawn to stare out his bedroom window to watch the light change and the birds emerge with the sun. Several of these shorts speak to that experience, as many feature shots outside windows, so this film fits comfortably in my wheelhouse of observing art.
Within several of these vignettes are instances that speak to the cycling of existence. In “Frame 8,” when seagulls perch themselves on pylons jutting from the ocean and trade positions with other gulls flying past, Kiarostami presents stasis, repetition and change in nature in a single take. This realization only comes with time to take in the entire image over its duration. There’s also mystery to behold. In “Frame 3,” featuring another beach scene (which seems to be a favorite location for the director), there’s a massive lump at the foreground that appears to be breathing. Cows pass by in the background as the tide rolls in, striking the breathing mass that never budges. Some cows pause and glance at it before moving on with the herd. You consider whether it might be a dying creature of some kind. Only at the end is it revealed what it is and what sort of perspective Kiarostami is playing with.
Contrary to what one might expect, there’s plenty of drama to experience in this film. Some frames are entrancing and relaxing. Others are tense with possible danger. Sound often plays an important role, from music both diegetic and extra-diegetic to animal and environmental sounds from sources seen and unseen, enhancing a world that exists beyond the frames. There are only two frames that falter, the first, which features the Brueghel painting, and the only one dominated by people, who are leaning on a railing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Because living things are so static in these images, the heavy hand of concept stands out in these. However, they are revealing as to the basis of the work. The rest capture the randomness and serendipity of nature with true poetry, as action calls attention to the stillness of nature in genuinely natural ways even despite the digital effects calling attention to their own artificiality with mixed perspective. These are images superimposed on still images, after all, but it can also be easy for the viewer to forget, as Kiarostami allows scenes to unfold in that natural manner he has fine-tuned till his dying days.
24 Frames is revolutionary. It provides a new, patient way for the audience to observe images while remaining briskly paced. This movie could be seen as a tool to retrain how people consume cinema with a new sense of attention for long, seemingly nondescript vignettes. Sound and image begin to meld so that the richness of the trees can be understood with the undertones of the natural soundtrack created by unseen fauna, croaking, chirping and whistling somewhere off screen or hidden in the foliage. The time contemplating seemingly static images takes you beyond time. As the camera peers out of a home’s window to a short but lush tree, one considers how this sapling might one day fill out the frame — in a future unknowable by anyone or anything that might dwell inside or outside the house — as other trees do in other “frames” within this film. The grace of 24 Frames is to consider the world beyond one’s own experience, a key to empathy. After all, to look at anything is not simply to observe, and observation is not as simple as it sounds.