We’ve been watching the bird feeder. As the day comes into focus with the bedroom window’s frame, the light catches steam rising from our morning mugs like smoke rising from sacrifices on altars. Anne and I attend, blank journals propped like tents in our laps. We are not alone. Our cats, Mardukas and Zooey, keep vigil.
The stage is set: the background, a stand of slender trees; the foreground, a moss-upholstered fence. The cast? So far, only Alan: That’s what Anne has named this pudgy, defiant squirrel who lashes his tail at the salivating, trembling cats.
Suction-cupped high on the glass, a bowl of golden seeds beneath a plastic awning looks like a see-through balcony. The bird feeder prisms the sunrise—first red, then pearl—summoning a shimmering danseuse to slowly pirouette on our bedroom wall. This miasma, Anne once said, looks to her like the Spirit christening the apostles’ heads as they sang unfamiliar languages.
Our hushed anticipation before the frame feels particularly promising today because I engaged in a similar ceremony last night: 24 times, in fact. I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s film 24 Frames. And it tuned my senses to savor pregnant pauses, readying me for surprise.
In a 150-seat shoebox at the Northwest Film Forum, seated with eight or nine silent strangers in hard, unfriendly seats, I worried: Would this be worth it?
The title 24 Frames refers to two dozen short films just under five minutes each. Each one reveals a single photograph of a view—a landscape, a wilderness stage, a pastoral scene—that Kiarostami captured, often through a window. But as we stare into big-panoramic snapshots, those ocean waves advance, those storms roil—and, in an exception, a 1565 painting by Bruegel the Elder called “The Hunters in the Snow,” a dog meanders through the scene. Digital artists, at the photographer’s direction, have conjured dreamlike action within a frozen moment. Snowflakes drift. Crows, pigeons, gulls, and ducks glide, complain, and agitate. Thunder activates amorous lions. A shadow heaves at the screen’s edge, then stands: a slumbering cow, awakened by the herd. In a rare view of human beings, Muslim tourists ogle the Eiffel Tower while pedestrians pass without pausing.
Some cynical critics have called these pictures “screensavers.” At The Filmstage, Giovanni Marchini Camia writes, “The result, it must be said, is … often quite tacky.” And sure enough, two viewers at our screening surrendered by the third frame, tiptoeing down the aisles to escape what they could not quickly comprehend.
But almost all of us were slowly undone by the film’s insistent whisper.
It’s easy to forget, or to entirely overlook, that Abbas Kiarostami was not just the most celebrated auteur of the Iranian New Wave. He was first a graphic designer, a children’s book illustrator, a nature photographer. Yes, he became a giant on the international film circuit, and he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for 1997’s Taste of Cherry, but the film work began with an appointment to direct a branch of Iran’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.
Those films that made him famous—if you haven’t seen them, make time for Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us, and (my favorite) Certified Copy—were playful, self-effacingly honest about their artifice, and experimental in their forms.
24 Frames, released on home video by The Criterion Collection in January, is the last gift from from an artist some have called cinema’s greatest master — a sobering moment, if we take seriously the claim of master filmmaker Jean Luc Godard: “Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” He passed away in July 2016 at the peak of his powers, still speaking new cinematic languages. Each one was a trailblazing step for the art form. Few casual moviegoers know these films, but many who do treasure them as rare occasions of mystery, wisdom, empathy—even transcendence. Whatever his mode, he was provocative, asking us to expand our understanding of what is possible within this rectangular conceit.
As if caught in a current, Anne and I are carried along a highway between Alburquerque and Roswell, New Mexico, in a blue dusk. It’s quiet. We’re entranced by the road’s wavering lines; the jagged horizon of mountains; that single, fuschia cloud; and—suddenly, to our right—a white-faced bull, bawling, leaning against barbed wire, nostrils agape. On the other side, a fenced-in herd, the objects of his longing.
And before we can find words for that unexpected scene, a full moon leaps from the purpling cloud, flaring like a fresh 100-watt bulb, its face full of scars and the faraway sun.
Hours and hours with Kiarostami’s visions have made me suspicious of so much that I see. I cannot shake the sense of an artist at play. On the car stereo, an Over the Rhine song catalogues images recalled from a life of mindfulness, and how “all of it was music.”
All of it is cinema, too, I propose.
And Anne, inspired and unsettled, will strive for months to find the words for all this. A poem is born.
In his essay “In Praise of Boredom” (Image, Issue 99), James K. A. Smith says, “Every work of art that is true or beautiful is, one might say, a pièce de résistance, telling the truth about how the world really is and offering us a portal to what we’re called to be.”
At RogerEbert.com, Godfrey Cheshire argues that these images are evidence that Kiarostami’s interests were more meditative than commercial. Perhaps increasingly so. They were “a chance to craft contemplative images by himself, away from the scale, budgets and necessary collaborations of moviemaking.”
Famous as Kiarostami was, he had no need for big budgets. Nor was he concerned with crowd-pleasing. Critics often quote his confession from a 1997 Cannes interview with Jamsheed Akrami:
I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. … Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.
If you know this, then these “frames” are invitations, giving us an unusual freedom. Cheshire writes,
I suspect that every viewer will simultaneously (re)make the movie in his or her own mind by providing a wealth of personal thoughts and associations. Among the many that I flashed on were: the early films of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies; the discrete worlds of Joseph Cornell’s boxes; experimental works by filmmakers ranging from Maya Deren to Stan Brakhage; a host of early animated films leading and including the masterpieces of Walt Disney; the valedictory purity of Kurosawa’s Dreams.
And for me — a view of sunsets from a hilltop in Taos, where I heard the call and response of one coyote to another, and then the riot of a pack of pups. Or the midnight sway of Whidbey Island evergreens, ghostly over our cabin, while six invisible owls hoot that they have us surrounded. Or harsh lines of hail blurring my view of the school’s clock tower outside my campus office window, like an image on a big-screen TV dissolving into static. A fog engulfs the world as I stand on the deck of a ferryboat among passengers who wear bulky goggles and stare silently at a solar eclipse.
Each time, phone in hand, I try to secure the scene, every snap a failed lunge for something that will speak the truth of the moment. These moments “make me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them.” For years.
“When I take a picture of the city
It’s only a photograph
The city is gone.”
On the album Fan Dance, Sam Phillips is singing about her inclinations to preserve what she experiences, but also about how, when she returns to this recording, she cannot find exactly the experience she held in its making. In this song, “Taking Pictures,” she is paraphrasing something she read in Walker Percy’s Message in a Bottle. But even in her paraphrase, the light is bent, the idea not quite the same idea that Percy held. Nor am I now thinking the same thoughts that Phillips sought to speak.
And we’re all, of course, on the path once taken by Heraclitus, who told us we cannot step twice into the same river.
“The places I go,” Phillips sings, “are never there.”
And yet, we keep taking pictures. Moments happen suddenly, and we want to seize them. Preserve them.
To those slack-jawed apostles who have seen him transfigured and speaking with the dead before their eyes, Jesus says that, no, they must not erect a temple there, a measure to house and hold down what is meant to remain in motion.
In spite of the futility of speaking these moments into monuments, the poet Robert Siegel, in the poem “Half a Second,” observes,
There is no more to be said.
There never was,
but one goes on saying. It is
the hopeless addiction of the tongue
to an ecstasy of particulars….
His closing line: “That white cloud hanging there forever.” It’s a testimony, a tent to house a holy moment.
In Nine Gates, her book about the art of poetry, Jane Hirshfield asserts meaning in the mystery of reciting a poem aloud:
We breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this … Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.
I never met Kiarostami. But I feel closer to him than to family.
“There.” Two black-headed, brown-breasted junkos appear on the bird feeder—unworried, twitching like fingers of one hand. Then, a sparrow, assertive and arrogant, chases them off, kicking apart seeds before choosing. (The junkos dive to catch debris.)
The Duke just scowls and sulks, too long disillusioned by unreachable birds, but the drama starts Zooey to chattering. She still believes that she might catch one, in spite of the glass.
All these little birds flee in a flash at a blaze of cobalt blue: the jay, screaming, regal, indignant. He woodpeckers the tray, morse-coding his sovereignty, taking what he needs. Thwip—he’s gone.
I open my journal. Anne has fallen asleep.
Duke’s eyes are closed, too. He lies on his side, legs extended, in the shape of an animal pouncing on prey. As the urgent world roils just beyond the fence and the trees, unaware of him, he sleeps unaware of them. His claws extend, curl, twitch upon what they have seized. The jay is gone. But the jay is caught as well.
24 Frames was just released on blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.
Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
+ Click here to make a donation.
+ Click here to subscribe to Image.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet
Jeffrey Overstreet is a novelist (Auralia's Colors and three sequels); a writer on the arts (Through a Screen Darkly, a moviegoer's memoir); and an assistant professor of English and writing at Seattle Pacific University, where he teaches creative writing, academic writing, and "Film & Faith." He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific. He's leading the Film Seminar at the 2019 Glen Workshop.