The cinema inside the cinema
“Someone once said that every filmmaker basically makes only one film in his lifetime, but he cuts it down and offers it in cinematic installments to his audience over a period of time” says Abbas Kiarostami in a 2008 interview, when he is asked about the main links or connections that structure his entire body of work. 24 frames, his latest movie, which he didn’t have the chance to finish by himself, nor see its final version –because of his premature death at 76 years of age–, seems to fit perfectly to this statement. In this sense, this movie does not only appear as a premonitory closure for his legendary filmography but as an example of the fact that most artists, in this case, a filmmaker, keep coming to a series of recurrent ideas, thoughts, concerns and visual leitmotifs that speak to them as voices or ghosts.
In this case, those presences take the form of 24 still images, that is to say, the standard frame rate per second in cinema as well as the total hours of a day, each one during around 4 minutes and a half. The particularity is that those apparently still frames, starting with a reproduction of the painting The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel, are at the same time subtly animated or used as a background layer for the motion of other things: snowflakes, drops of water, waves, animals, trees, persons, fumes, among other elements. While the original idea was to work just with paintings, Kiarostami decided to use, instead, after the second frame, photographs that he had taken during his lifetime. The animation techniques vary between overlays, light changes, horizontal travelling’s, rotoscoped real living figures, motion graphics and blendings. The effect is very similar to a type of “gifs” that are usually called cinemagraphs, in which just one part of the image suddenly moves. Of course, Kiarostami’s experience is far more sophisticated and impressive. Additionally, this choreography is complemented with an outstanding soundtrack –including towards the end the song Love Never Dies performed by Katherine Jenkins–, and precise sound effects that add to the movie a general sense of expectation, solemnity and romanticism. To be fair to him and his original undertaking, the kind of cinema that he estimates the most, and the kind of film that seems more a painting than a movie.
While every frame is different from each other there is an evident and conscious repetition of motifs that connect the whole movie. To synthesize, this is a movie in which the main characters are the snow, all kind of animals (especially birds), windows, the sea, and almost invisible humans (usually in the form of gunshots or distractors of the slowness). The snow, at times intense or softer, appears at least in 60% of the movie giving the still image some kind of tone. For me, this winter precipitations along with the wind or the rain, allows the audience to feel the passage of time and to make us aware of natural cycles. It is also, as in real life, something that keeps you fascinated for its dual characteristic: tragic and beautiful. Which remind me of the book Winter Journal by the American writer Paul Auster, where he deepens down into his memories from childhood to adulthood in a quest for clues, especially in relation to his fears of failing as a writer. With regard to animals, the birds are the ones that appear the most. Pigeons, gulls, crows or ducks are like witnesses that act as omens to announce something that could happen, as for example, a big wave due to the high tide, the arrival of the humans, a death, or just a new movement in the frame. As for the others –cows, horses, deer, sheep, lions, dogs or wolves– they play more active roles. Sometimes in an instinctive, vibrant and passionate way –we see them fighting, barking, dancing, having sex or killing– or on the contrary, very calm and wise –I think of the cows and sheep–. On the other hand, humans only appear briefly, in a vertiginous way, as very fast predators or disturbing elements (except for the end) to break the stillness of the film. I would add that with exception of a few frames (e.g. The lions in a scene that remind me of the work Étant donnés by Marcel Duchamp), it is a black and white movie, or better, a grey movie plenty of graceful melancholy. Finally, and probably one of the most important motifs are a great number of windows or frames inside the frame. Rectangular compositions that point out, or guide us, into little details of the image. That’s how Kiarostami re-capture our attention and keeps us attached and focused on each hypnotic tableau. Moreover, he is probably doing a meta-commentary to the title and also, to the unavoidable legacy of modernism, the grid.
A grid that gets reinforced towards the end, in the 24th frame, where, in a similar logic as the Russian Poppets (Matryoshka), he submerges us in a frame within the frame, conveying a sense of eternity. I’m talking about a love scene from an old black and white movie, slowly playing on the screen of a computer, which at the same time is framed by a window in the back. All of it taking place inside the medium shot that we are contemplating in the theatre. The cinema inside the cinema as well as the dreams inside the head of a sleeping female that rest on the table. As the Dreams of Akira Kurosawa, these are probably the dreams of Abbas Kiarostami (R.I.P).