Just moments before I headed out the door for a screening of I Feel Pretty, an email arrived from the Digital Gym containing a link to 24 Frames, the final film signed by the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. What to do when life offers both the high and low roads, and its either a TV visit to a master-framer who, according to Martin Scorsese, “represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema” or a trip to the multiplex for a big screen viewing of the latest (PG-13?!) comedy from Amy Schumer? Windex the flat-screen, stretch out on the couch, and hit “play.”
Trailer for 24 Frames
I felt pretty stunned and entranced — and more than a bit chagrined — as the closing credits rolled. Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) succumbed to cancer at the age of 76, and with him went a uniquely audible voice in world cinema. 24 Frames consumed a good portion of the last three years of his life, providing Kiarostami with a middle-ground in which to explore his dual passion for photography and filmmaking. Reasoning that a photographic image exists in the time it took a camera-person to press and disengage a shutter button, the director imagined what might have happened during the brief moments before and after the plunger was pushed.
For what turned out to be his crowning work, the perdurable experimenter opted, for the first time in his career, to try his hand at animation. Some segments were filmed in color, the majority in black-and-white. Not a word was spoken, there is but a single movement of the camera (a tracking shot of a horse taken from inside a car), and with the exception of one of the 24 individual four-and-a-half minute narratives that make up the feature, no humans appear before the camera. In this instance, Kiarostami’s animated acting stable — cows, crows, horses, sparrows, etc. — could just as easily have been raised in a stable.
Working out of the basement office of his home in north Tehran, the filmmaker collaborated closely with visual effects artist Ali Kamali. It was Kamali’s job to assemble the piece, creating each of the two-dozen multi-layered images, all but one of which was sourced from Kiarostami’s photographs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but considering that there’s not a straight cut in the entire picture, this is the first movie since the single-take Russian Ark to play San Diego for which no editing credit is assigned.
Alas, Kiarostami died within weeks of the film’s completion, with the production eventually moving to Toronto where it was supervised by his son, Ahmad Kiarostami.
Coming of age during the last gasp of Hollywood’s golden period of studio animation made it impossible for this five-year-old not to take notice of the vast difference between what played in a theatre and the rigid, TV-produced babysitter cartoons that networks beamed into the living room for free. Gone was the full-blown character movement associated with the Merrie Loons at Termite Terrace or the painstakingly lush layout work of Uncle Walt’s “9 Old Men”. In their place stood an inflexible army of Gumby and his Pals, or The Flintstones rock-tree-house-rock-tree- house piano roll background design.
What I didn’t know then (and what I was delightedly reminded of while watching 24 Frames) was how challenging it is for an animator to pierce a flat surface by bringing to the frame an illusion of distance. Consider how much more difficult it is to maintain proportions with a character moving in-and-out of a frame rather than side-to-side. Kiarostami literally went to great depths, using every inch of the screen in telling his stories. Even when there is no physical movement in the frame, footsteps or diagonal lines bring a deepness to the compositions. If nothing else, look upon the endeavor as an excellent reminder of how to see a movie.
Don’t expect a freeze-frame of a photograph suddenly coming to life. This is Kiarostami, not Dreamworks. Some frames ended in romance, one in death! Each segment presented a mystery of sorts, a question that sparked interest while advancing the narrative. Without a close-up to cut away to, Kiarostami gently worked his flair for compelling viewers to connect with an image, to scan the screen in anticipation of that one spot in the frame from whence new information might spring. Take for example, Frame 3: a horizontal strip of land stretches across the middle ground of the picture, with a dividing line separating the background seashore from a soft-focus object positioned in the lower foreground of the frame.
The chest of whatever the fuzzy entity is, possibly a beached-whale, appears to be moving, as if drawing in air. A line of cows enters the scene frame-left, and before long a bovine parade is cutting a path across the image. No sooner did one specific cow appear on scene than the abstract lump at the bottom of the pic rose to its feet, as though waiting for a pal to catch up. SPOILER ALERT: Elsie made a return appearance (and in almost the identical position) in Frame 19.
Had the call been mine to make, 3D IMAX prints would have been struck and the Ooohs! and Aaahs! emanating from patrons soaking in the director’s immersive compositions in the domed-splendor of the Reuben Fleet Space Museum would have been heard all the way to Park Boulevard. Instead, let the noise be heard on El Cajon Boulevard when the picture opens Friday at the Digital Gym.