Quiet, non-narrative films like Abbas Kiarostami’s posthumous 24 Frames are often tagged as “poetic,” the default term for anything that has neglected to squeeze itself into a commercially viable genre. Good enough. Let’s start with a few lines from a poem, Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow
And have been a cold long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice…
…and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind….
And here is the first of the 24 framed images that compose Kiarostami’s film: a full-screen reproduction of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow. Three men returning from their labors, their backs turned to you, trudge toward a vast, frigid valley, dogs following their sunken tracks, ravens perched in the bare branches above, the peaked, snow-thatched roofs of little houses dropping away below. You contemplate the utter stillness. You feel time has stopped.
Then a plume of smoke begins to rise from a chimney in the painting. A fresh flurry of snow drifts down, accompanied by the whistle of wind. Crackling and cawing break onto the soundtrack—from the fire being tended near the inn at the picture’s left, from a bird swooping across the center of a mottled, overcast sky—and a real dog (I mean, the filmed image of one) wanders in, just to nose around. Then the dog trots out of the painting, the snow lets up, the wind dies down. Having given you a few moments of “life,” Kiarostami returns you to the painting and to silence—to a time that’s frozen. Like the “listener” in “The Snow Man,” who has learned to become “nothing himself,” you now behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Fade to black.
It’s not hard to imagine Kiarostami himself fading to black, very slowly, during his time making 24 Frames. He puttered over the film in his basement in Tehran for three years, assisted by the digital animator Ali Kamali, who used a video program to layer movement and sound onto The Hunters in the Snow and dozens of scans of Kiarostami’s nature photographs. It must have been an absorbing process, which continued even after Kiarostami was hospitalized with cancer. By the time of his death, he had created more than enough computer-animated photographs to make up the 24 he wanted for a film—24 being the number of frames that ordinarily translate into one second of movie time. Each of his “frames,” though, lasts four and a half minutes. Kiarostami had figured out a new way to stretch time, but he couldn’t defeat it. After he died in July 2016, his son Ahmad completed the work.