24 FPS

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Until the last breath, it appears that the great Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami kept trying to break down the concept of cinema to its very bones. By the time he left us early in July 2016, gone appeared any indication that he was interested in telling a straightforward story (if still constructed in a slightly conventional manner, such as Taste of Cherry or Certified Copy. I have not yet seen Like Someone in Love, but I understand it was the case in this film too). Kiarostami’s reward as a storyteller was to demand the audience’s involvement in creating and piecing together the incident from fragments in no uncertain way from him.

His final feature film 24 Frames premiered almost a year after his death at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and is potentially his most extreme dive into his modus operandi as its premise is simple yet challenging: one by one, 24 static images each held for 4 to 6 minutes. They’re not frozen images, in fact they all mostly involve some impressively complex amount of digital work to give them… well, I don’t want to say life because their actions are consciously robotic especially against a still backdrop, but motion that obviously represents life. And it can’t be ignored that the motion is provided in “natural” forms such of winds and animals inhabiting the environments we spend those small amounts of time in. David Bordwell himself put it beautifully referring to the images as “nature morte” and I can’t think of a succinct way of establishing what we witness in 24 Frames.

Kiarostami doesn’t send us into this experience without warning, as he opens it up with an explanation that 23 of the images we will be sitting in on are based on landscape photographs he himself took and 1 in particular is based on the famous Pieter Brugel’s painting Hunters in the Snow (which also ends up being the frame most augmented by modern filmmaking techniques). And he doesn’t send us into this experiment with intent on making it uncomfortable or alienating: at the very least, the imagery is aesthetically in every possible way as they’re all centered with a sharp sense of lines that is frequently called attention to with a horizon established in some fashion (whether the line in which trees emerge from snow or a stone rail against a beach shore) and depth called attention to with Kiarostami’s powerful use of shadows, like practically hard-drawn artistry. And it’s quite a soothing lulling thing to listen to, composing a rhythm out of the sounds of whatever environments we’re dropped into so that we’re hypnotized into sinking into a frame rather than simply observing it, mostly pleasant with one exception – a frame where we are listening to a sinister droning relentlessly scoring a deer’s uncertainty before it’s punctuated by a violent crack.

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Which leads to the other thing that makes 24 Frames a much easier watch than I’d suppose it could have been: the digital reconstruction of the images Kiarostami wanted to bring to life also lead him to construct a story within each frame so that we’re not just sitting waiting for the next image but instead have a sense of direction. Not every one of the frames necessarily has a “beginning”, but they all have some punchline in which the cut to the next frame is not far behind like the orgasm of a lion or the flight of birds into the air (and at the very least, there are occasional interior shots specifically scored by a opera or orchestral song from a radio or record that furthers the concept of domestic respite after exploring images of the wild, so one can expect the end of the song to end the frame).

I feel there is an angle on which this could be seen as “cheating the experiment”, an attitude I’m not quite sure whether I adopt or not (though I sure it’s not as bad as I make it sound), but that begs me to recognize what the experiment is: Kiarostami is not only expecting us to determine what is the narrative in between the images, but also examine our personal ways of processing a series of images without any established guide to connect them in our minds. 24 Frames‘s ordering of each section isn’t random by any means – beginning with the Hunters segment to indicate towards us what to expect while making us be aware of the artificiality of the movements utilizing one of the most famous works in all of fine art, then establishing a pattern of sorts that uses images that favor windowed perspectives as checkpoints between alternating between the beach, the rain, the snow, the birds, and the quadrupeds, sometimes in combinations of each other. I can’t help imagining while every decision Kiarostami makes on which frame goes after which and what goes on in each on is deliberate, 24 Frames is meant to be an entirely subjective experience for the viewer to read the fragments of a story and input their own in between the shots.

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Obviously because it’s so well made, 24 Frames also could abide by us deciding not to create a narrative for the film and just relaxing within the landscapes Kiarostami captured for one last document. Nothing particularly about the film punishes us for not wanting to play along except perhaps the totally unconvincing manner in which the animals and weather conditions populate the images so that Kiarostami can make sure we’re aware that the cinema’s artifice is just as false as its narrative. But it’s of such a playful good faith sort of giveaway – the way you can tell a Harryhausen creation is obviously an effect but still will play along – that I can’t imagine the sort of viewer who could take umbrage at it, not when the result is still so dazzling. I mean, a movie about images that specifically takes time to return to looking out of windows has to already make you aware that you’re watching a frame within a frame literally.

Besides which 24 Frames as a final collection of all the things Kiarostami loved to do with movies – break narrative, break images, inject poetry, collaborate with the audience – is also a final document of Kiarostami’s pleasant sense of humor, particularly with its final frame, obnoxiously slowing down a television monitor while the rest of the image moves at normal speed until we can get one last gag that seems like a very sweet farewell, whether or not Kiarostami knew he was going to die or intended to continue after this film. The very last moment of 24 Frames is a winking knowing gesture that an artist could only accomplish by sharing it with a willing viewer.

P.S. Tim Brayton has suggested that Kiarostami’s preceding short film Take Me Home makes for an effective companion piece to 24 Frames and argued for it in his review of this film. I have not had the privilege but I hope above hopes that the short ends up on the feature’s inevitable Criterion collection release so I can see the pairing in action.

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25 for 25 – I Don’t Have Time for Movies. I’m Too Busy with Life.

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It’s really tough to square out and acknowledge exactly what makes movies and filmmakers that experiment and bend with the form of the medium so very intellectually stimulating to me. It might just be the challenge towards my perceived notions and comfortable expectations with what a film would do: “it would tell a story like so and so and so and so and it would look like so and so and so and so”. If it were really challenging, I feel I would be a lot more antagonistic towards the movies themselves, but instead I find it a lot more fun and engaging, no less so than watching a guy bungeeing off a giant rig in the Australian outback jamming on a flamethrower guitar. Every single time – Inland Empire, Full Frontal, F for Fake, hell even the concept of what Psycho is doing (acknowledging it can no longer work today where everybody is aware of its narrative structure) – it gives me more to roll around in my head after watching. I can think more on what kind of subjective material I’m witnessing and how much the movie itself believes its content. It’s probably why formalism – figuring out why a movie chooses to be presented the way it does – interests me more than narrative. That shit just rocks my socks.

Anyway, all of this is to say the Iranian poet/artist/filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was probably not the first artist to introduce this possibility of movies being more than our pre-conceived notions of what movies are nor is Close-Up the movie to introduce me to that (Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is probably that film), but it introduced me to the idea that such a clinically intellectual approach to movies, so aware of their form, could also be humane. For Kiarostami was possibly one of the most humane filmmakers of my time (and I miss him since his passing last year) and Close-Up feels like potentially the most humane film out of a man who wrote The White Balloon and directed Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Taste of Cherry.

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It certainly helps that the humanity behind Close-Up is a man whose crime is fuelled solely by his love for movies, not malice, not any intent for theft. Hossain Sabzian – our subject – only convinced the Ahankhah family in Tehran that he was the famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who is just as much a national treasure as Kiarostami was) simply because he found himself so affected by Makhmalbaf’s films that he couldn’t help but identify with the artist behind the work. Why wouldn’t one expect the sympathies of a filmmaker and film audience be with another cinephile and hear him out in the moments where he explains what Makhmalbaf’s films changed his life?

Now, here’s where Kiarostami plays with our subjectivity of the film: Close-Up is essentially a docudrama. Parts of the film are obviously documentary captured in real-time including the trial of Sabzian (indeed, the trial and the extended opening scene of reporter Hossain Farazmand provide the informal elements of what happened), which acts somewhat as a frame for us, and others are re-enactments, and the film doesn’t do a great job to hide which is which (the visual and audial elements of the verite segments are more troubled than the re-enacted portions). I’m not sure this is something Kiarostami intended but it works wonders because knowing from the get-go that elements of what we’re watching are just fake means we, as an audience, can recognize that we’re being manipulated into this story. At the same time, the veracity of the more important moments refuses to let us watch this at a divide from Sabzian and the family’s drama, we’re just as engaged as they are.

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Now, we’re definitely not going to be denied the fact that what Sabzian did, in the end, was criminal and there’s no such thing as innocence in this film. The elder son of the Ahankhahs, Mehrdad, is there to remind us that there is a matter of money borrowed under false pretenses and Sabzian claimed an interest to filming the family in their house, after all. Alarm is understandable. And there’s a clear resentment from Mehrdad and the others that he won’t actually be involved in a film like Sabzian promised that Kiarostami also understands. And yet Close-Up is patient with Sabzian’s diatribes and interested in him – the camera fixes on him when he talks about how the act has made him confident and felt more of a connection to Makhmalbaf than ever before. And in the end, it plays so obviously with the fact of what Sabzian has done with kid gloves and a willingness to forgive all involved, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

The manipulation comes full circle upon a late re-enactment of Sabzian’s arrest. Essentially a fixed shot waiting game, it’s where Kiarostami tries to test out whether or not we love Sabzian as much as he does by making him the subject of a Hitchcockian thriller scene where we know the outcome and are anticipating the moment he has to be taken away by the police. It’s a scene that relies on our perspective being affected by Sabzian’s testimony to work and when it works, it’s a triumph to Kiarostami’s manipulation of the facts (hell, it has to be somewhat aware of the camera’s presence in the courtroom somehow affecting the verdict) and cinema’s general ability to be generous to a character’s psyche.

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And then it compounds that generosity by one of the most affectionate motions that a document could make to its subject, an ending that leaves all parties satisfied and pleasant to a point that radiates unto the audience. Giving how much room it leaves for thinking about how what we witness has went (the sound is turned off during the scene; played within the film as an accident, but actually a deliberate decision by Kiarostami as a last manipulation), the viewer can insert himself into Sabzian the same feeling of validation and wonder at finally meeting their hero. Or the optimism of its final shot. Kiarostami knows what he’s doing all the way through (and hell even presents Makhmalbaf himself as just as manipulative in his visit to the flowershop). But what’s wrong with manipulating the audience in the end, especially with film? It’s what makes me endear to Spielberg’s sentimentality and never find the criticism worth that much thought. It’s what makes me root for ambitious projects even if I sense failure in them. It’s what makes film so engaging and makes me glad it’s possible to exist.

I defy anybody to walk out of a movie that’s obvious in what it’s trying to do than Close-Up and leave without a great feeling. Such a movie only means the best. For you, for me, and for all cinema. I would not hesitate to call it the most important movie of the last 30 years.

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For Hossain Sabzien and Abbas Kiarostami

P.S. apropos of nothing, if you are interested in Makhmalbaf’s films, Kandahar seems to be his best known. My personal favorite is A Moment of Innocence and I have a love for Salam Cinema. Iranian filmmaking is a treasure and I encourage you guys to dig into it.


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FLASHBACK: The Shuttered Wit of the Director’s Mind

We like to quote individuals when they say great things. Speech encourages ideals, movements, discussion and thought. When the speech carries something of depth that can reach the heart and minds of many, that is a gift… That is something universal that has the 

As such, we quote scientists, philosophers, authors, actors, playwrights, religious figures, civil rights icons, activists, humanitarians and even fictional characters. We make sure their truth, their ideals live on beyond the person themselves. And we choose people who seem to have a connection through their role in society to the human condition. I would say the only people we quote that we should be more wary of how we perceive their words are politicians… for very obvious reasons.

So why is it that we don’t see enough filmmakers being quoted? Not only do the finest them find a connection to the subconscious and conscious plane of human existence, they mean to portray those planes in their own eyes. Their vision says more than many words could.

David and I have a wall of quotes on our respective facebooks which we dedicate to the quotes of people we encounter – friends, family, acquaintances, enemies, co-workers, students, teachers, pastors, Imams, etc. – and we post what we hear out for others to reflect on… since the ordinary man is just as capable of saying brilliant or funny things as the scientist or the civil rights activist… for, in a sense, we all are ordinary men…

I’ve decided to look in and re-read some of my favorite quotes from some of my favorite directors and put them on here. I chose quotes that largely apply outside of cinema, though many of the quotes do seem to reflect what the filmmakers say in their own movies, and certainly a good portion of them hint at or imply filmmaking techniques but apply to life as it is too…

I would some of you readers could be just as moved by these words as the words of a President.

“What chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it’s really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”

“The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.”


“A satirist is someone who has a very skeptical view of human nature, but who still has the optimism to make some sort of a joke out of it. However brutal that joke might be.”


“I don’t like doing interviews. There is always the problem of being misquoted or, what’s even worse, of being quoted exactly.”


“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.”


“It’s a mistake to confuse pity with love.”


“It’s crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense and yet not be able to think about anything else.”


“If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered.”


“You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.”


“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”


“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

-Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey)

“I remain just one thing, and one thing only — and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”

“I am an individual and a believer in liberty. That is all the politics I have.”


“I believe that faith is a precursor of all our ideas. Without faith, there never could have evolved hypothesis, theory, science or mathematics. I believe that faith is an extension of the mind. It is the key that negates the impossible. To deny faith is to refute oneself and the spirit that generates all our creative forces. My faith is in the unknown, in all that we do not understand by reason; I believe that what is beyond our comprehension is a simple fact in other dimensions, and that in the realm of the unknown there is an infinite power for good.”


-Charles Chaplin (The Gold Rush)

 

“Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?”

“There is something about killing people at close range that is excruciating. It’s bound to try a man’s soul.”


“I love my kids as individuals, not as a herd, and I do have a herd of children: I have seven kids.”

-Steven Spielberg (Jaws)

“We’re all like detectives in life. There’s something at the end of the trail that we’re all looking for.”

“The ideas dictate everything, you have to be true to that or you’re dead.”


“Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance.”

-David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.)

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”

“Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem.”

-Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood)

“One should make one’s own “notes” because there is no one way to do anything. If anyone tells you there is only one way, their way, get as far away from them as possible, both physically and philosophically.”

-Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man)


“If one devalues rationality, the world tends to fall apart.”

“Far be it from me to force anyone into either chess or dressage, but if you choose to do so yourself, in my opinion there is only one way: follow the rules.”

“I’m happy that I’m alive. I feel like someone coming back from Vietnam, you know; I’m sure that later on I’ll start killing people in a square somewhere, but right now, I just feel happy to be alive.”

-Lars von Trier (Dogville)

“Is someone different at age 18 or 60? I believe one stays the same.”

“It seems like everything that we see perceived in the brain before we actually use our own eyes, that everything we see is coming through computers or machines and then is being input in our brain cells. So that really worries me.”

-Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro)

 
 
“There’s no such thing as simple. Simple is hard.”

“Alcohol decimated the working class and so many people.”

“Food tells you everything about the way people live and who they are.”

“It seems to me that any sensible person must see that violence does not change the world and if it does, then only temporarily.”

“You make a deal. You figure out how much sin you can live with.”

“There are two kinds of power you have to fight. The first is the money, and that’s just our system. The other is the people close around you, knowing when to accept their criticism, knowing when to say no.”

-Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver)

“The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea.”

-Jean-Luc Godard (Band of Outsiders)

“Experience is what you get while looking for something else.”

“The young watch television twenty-four hours a day, they don’t read and they rarely listen. This incessant bombardment of images has developed a hypertrophied eye condition that’s turning them into a race of mutants.”


“I think television has betrayed the meaning of democratic speech, adding visual chaos to the confusion of voices. What role does silence have in all this noise?”


“Money is everywhere but so is poetry. What we lack are the poets.”

-Federico Fellini (Nights of Cabiria)

“I think people talk too much; that’s the truth of the matter. I do. I don’t believe in words. People use too many words and usually wrongly. I am sure that in the distant future people will talk much less and in a more essential way. If people talk a lot less, they will be happier. Don’t ask me why.”

-Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-up)

“You have to really be courageous about your instincts and your ideas. Otherwise you’ll just knuckle under, and things that might have been memorable will be lost.”

“Anything you build on a large scale or with intense passion invites chaos.”


“It takes no imagination to live within your means.”


“I was never sloppy with other people’s money. Only my own. Because I figure, well, you can be.”

-Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula)

“It has been my observation that parents kill more dreams than anybody.”

“Everything I do is always scrutinised. But that’s all I’ll say about that.”


“I think that every minority in the United States of America knows everything about the dominant culture. From the time you can think, you are bombarded with images from TV, film, magazines, newspapers.”


“Culture is for everybody.”

-Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing)

 

“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

“The talent for being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don’t have.”


“Tradition is the illusion of permanance.”


-Woody Allen (Annie Hall)

“Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.”

“If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”


“You have to have a dream so you can get up in the morning.”


“If there’s anything I hate more than not being taken seriously, it’s being taken too seriously.”

-Billy Wilder (Ace in the Hole)

“We have too many intellectuals who are afraid to use the pistol of common sense.”

“Being a hooker does not mean being evil. The same with a pick-pocket, or even a thief. You do what you do out of necessity.”

-Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor)

“How do I respond to criticism? Critically. I listen to all criticism critically.”

“I’ll rebel against powers and principalities, all the time. Always, I will.”

“You have to be a brat in order to carve out your parameters, and you have to be a monster to anyone who gets in your way. But sometimes it’s difficult to know when that’s necessary and when you’re just being a baby, throwing your rattle from the cage.”

-Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia)

“I never reflect or convey that which I have not experienced myself.”

“In order to be universal, you have to be rooted in your own culture.”

“I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.”

-Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry)

“The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.”

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
 
“When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best – that is inspiration.”

-Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar)

“If you take a loud pride in anything, people will rightly shoot you down.” 

“Come a crisis, we want other people.”

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting)