The first shot of 24 Frames is of an instantly recognizable work of art—Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow. After a few seconds, the static shot comes to life: Smoke starts billowing from one of the chimneys, then another. Snow begins to fall. Birds start to circle overhead. A dog pops into the frame and starts sniffing around, eventually relieving himself against a tree. After about four and a half minutes, we’re finished and onto “Frame Two.” Just what is going on?
In each of 24 Frames’ shots, a motionless picture comes alive, functioning like an artful screensaver. Aside from the first entry, the frames are inspired by photographs that Kiarostami himself took and then embellished upon, adding sound, movement (often animals wandering around), and weather, creating a miniature environment from a perfectly composed still image. Each one’s four-and-a-half-minute running time is long enough to encourage the viewer to pick specific details out of the picture, or to simply let it wash over them.
24 Frames immediately communicates the power of the theater experience, in the way that so many of Kiarostami’s movies can. You can’t background the image as you might if you were watching at home, can’t glance at your phone or skip ahead out of boredom. You’re compelled to search the image, to reflect on ways it might speak to you specifically, to ponder why the filmmaker thought to include certain elements, or to just bask in its atmosphere. It’s not an experience many would seek out. 24 Frames is the kind of visual art one would typically find in a museum installation rather than in a movie theater, but it’s oddly delightful all the same.
The film that introduced me to (and caused me to fall in love with) Kiarostami’s work, his 1990 quasi-documentary Close-Up, has a little bit more narrative thrust to it. It recaps the legal case of Hossain Sabzian (who plays himself), a cinephile who adores the movies of the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (also playing himself). Sabzian loves Makhmalbaf so much that he starts impersonating him, even visiting other people’s homes pretending to be him; he’s eventually arrested and put on trial.
Kiarostami filmed the actual trial, while reconstructing other events from the past; the entire movie has a somewhat drab look, helping to confuse which parts are documentary or fiction. That all feeds into Close-Up’s central plot, about this mysterious man who talks with an odd affect pretending to be someone he’s not, and trying to access art that he loves by combining it with his everyday existence. Kiarostami put his camera at the spot where reality and fiction intersect and conjured something entirely unique from the nexus; it’s the sort of work that leaves you wondering, for weeks, what the deeper purpose of moviemaking even is.