“What is the message that wild animals bring, the message that seems to say everything and nothing? What is this message that is wordless, that is nothing more or less than the animals themselves — that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?”
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
24 Frames is no memoir, elegy, skeleton key — it is hard to even call it Abbas Kiarostami’s final film. Before his death last year, Kiarostami had been, on and off, working on the project for three years, a photo-animation experiment in four-minute segments that resemble, from moment to moment, both early short documentary studies of the early 1900s and video-game environments from the early 3D era of the mid-to-late ‘90s. All the segments in this film, according to Ahmad Kiarostami, the director’s son, who oversaw the film’s completion, were directed by his father, and were based, except for an opening animation test (Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow), on his photography, for the most part landscape frames: clouds and horizons and depths of snow, marked by darkened trees, impressions, and the occasional bird.
In place of that simplicity, the animation effects are bewildering, tending towards the extremes of comedy and tragedy. Here, a photorealistic caribou in a field, followed by 37 others in deadpan trot — cows, pigeons, seagulls, sheep, dogs, big cats, an endless interruption of crows, deer; these animal-call-filled landscapes almost mock the stillness and composition of Kiarostami’s photography. In an interview with CNN, Ahmad suggests at least one of the segments is allegorical, but most of them follow a predictable natural course of territorial competition, domination contests, and hunting; this is something every farmer, pet-owner, and parent knows intimately, sequenced with little variation.
While Kiarostami undoubtedly left notes and some form of instruction, and the finished segments likely connect in fascinating ways with his poetry even more than the original photos, this posthumous release gives us an interrupted work. Over 40 segments were in some form of production at the time of the director’s passing, and one can’t help but imagine the many ways the work, which was largely independent and unbeholden to financiers, potential release dates, or a set script, could still have changed and grown. Perhaps the order of shots would have changed, perhaps it never would have been released as a film (it may yet be installed in New York or Paris galleries), perhaps it might have found its way into one of his works in a different form. As is, the concept is, at face value, somewhat uninteresting: all the time the photographer spent not clicking the shutter. Kiarostami chooses not to “document” this process: there is, except through the rare sound design suggestion, no presence of the photographer or the camera, no re-framing, no equipment, no shutter sounds or footprints. It’s a strange, suggestive, and clouded hybrid: a disembodied fixed frame that asks us to consider the dog, glitching its way around a blizzard-sheltering flock of lambs, its body curiously rejecting even a single snowflake, and, in a couple moments, people who never once converse or seem to move as the world spins round them.
Similar questions crop up around Monika Willi and Michael Glawogger’s Untitled — Glawogger died in 2014, four months through a year-long across-the-globe shooting schedule. After the concentrated labour subjects of his three major documentaries, Glawogger wanted to clear his process of all preconceptions: to try to look at the world with a kind of learned innocence, to be totally open and never to impose a reading or filtering process to what the trip threw at him — except for his typical rejection of stasis. This idea of freedom is admirable — how many filmmakers, documentary or otherwise, reach for something higher than their learned tendencies? And it is hubristic, a part of the mythmaking of Glawogger’s work — his process of total immersion in and access to and recreation, if necessary, of the “truth” he found, was often used as a narrative to beat back criticisms against his work. This despite how his credo of creating “knots in your head” was based on claims that the image of an animal corpse could be an evocation of Bosch-like horror-beauty.
With new posthumous works, criticism can feel inappropriate. These releases are often framed as wakes, gatherings of remembrance, celebrations of life — the artist and their work are united, their lives, as in most obituaries, cleared of controversy to show us a man and his talents. To say more is just impolite. In this context, it can be easy to forget the resistance to Kiarostami’s work in North America — Ebert thought he was boring, and debates over the “deception” in his work sometimes overtook the films themselves. And this affects Glawogger’s work too — there is a strong thread of quasi-diaristic patronage in Untitled’s narration (read by Fiona Shaw, expert of Brecht and Shakespeare, with a post-human clip), which perhaps explains the reviews which emphasize the humanism of the work above all else. But this is a filmmaker whose films can’t be so easily encapsulated and celebrated.
The images, from Liberia and Yugoslavia and unidentified deserts, valleys, and plunging streets, are stunning — it is easy to type “master filmmaker.” But also: an old idea of a master, the one who charges forth into unexamined corners of the world — and brings back mental-map-expanding stories, a bounty of them. Even when one agrees with or understands Glawogger’s ideas — that objectivity is a false ideal, that the documentarian is not a social-change hero holding a camera, but someone who can capture things as they are, and leave it at that — there is the implicit guiding hand at work.
“There’s a huge awareness now on the part of many people about what they think reality is supposed to look like,” Glawogger said, speaking to Scott MacDonald. “In other parts of the world it’s less this way, but still, for all these reasons, the world is only available to a documentary filmmaker to a certain degree.” So: the less media-saturated were sought out, and this truth, fitted into a macrocosm, was what Glawogger was after. Willi, working with composer Wolfgang Mitterer, has created a probing, wondrous fractured whole out of what was likely the half-revealed structure of some unknown finding. There are also, despite the open-ended promise of the work and its premise, some extremely obvious cuts between different species of scavengers (including maggot-eaten roadkill) and common rituals — the same banal Profound Biological Imperative that repeats in Kiarostami’s animations. That is, that for every impulse that guided the concept (to travel, and be open, and nothing more), there is an equal countervailing force in the editing of the work that drops — without completely defeating — the specificity and difference between people and their lives into a montage in service of a director’s musing, wandering voice.