24 Frames, the final feature from master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, grew out of an abandoned project the auteur had been developing in conjunction with the Louvre. The plan was to bring a number of iconic paintings – including works by Bruegel, Picasso, Millet and Wyeth – to life by animating them through a combination of CGI imagery, newly filmed footage, and detailed soundscapes.1 Partly as a result of the financial difficulties of obtaining rights to these images, Kiarostami’s focus gradually shifted away from animating the work of other artists to the creation of motion shorts based on his own extensive collection of still photography. The result is one of the most ravishingly beautiful and aesthetically radical swansongs in cinema history. At the centre of 24 Frames is a serious enquiry into the ontological basis of the digital image, its place in the larger genealogy of the visual arts, and the nature of cinema in the era of the post-filmic. This is unsurprising within the context of Kiarostami’s career, considering that the auteur has embraced the possibilities of digital cameras as early as 1997’s Taste of Cherry.
Released on the cusp of the 21st century, the ending of Taste of Cherry looks forward to a new era of cinema that will come to be defined by digital technologies. The protagonist Mr Badiei finally lies down in his grave, stares upwards, and the camera cuts to what is, presumably, his final sight: a static image of the night sky, the luminous moon gradually shrouded by thick storm clouds. The screen gradually fades to black, and Kiarostami lingers on this emptiness for 2 full minutes. An abrupt cut introduces a lush green landscape, shot on grainy consumer-grade DV. In contrast to the shadowy autumnal colour scheme which previously dominated the feature, the coda presents us with a palette of unnaturally saturated greens and blues. We see the film crew at work – P.A.s set up tripods, actors take a smoke break, and Kiarostami himself gives instructions through a walkie-talkie. There is a clear juxtaposition in this moment between several dichotomies: 35mm film and digital, new and old, life and death. Kiarostami describes the ending as representing a major transitional point: “One is aware that there is nothing there. But life comes from light. Here, cinema and life merge into one another. Because the cinema, too, is only light.”2 On an extra-textual level, then, the ending of Taste of Cherry reflects on the death of one form of cinematic image while acknowledging that this passing will give life to another. Far from being a downbeat act of mourning, this brazen transition announces the technological shift to digital imaging as being a major ontological and aesthetic development in cinematic form, as well as marking a thrillingly new phase in Kiarostami’s career.
Kiarostami’s millennial output has been distinguished by an ongoing effort to grapple with the philosophical implications and visual potentialities of digital cinema: Certified Copy explores the ideas of authorship and reproduction; Ten focuses on the democratization of the cinematic image through the development of high-powered consumer-grade cameras; Five Dedicated to Ozu plays with the temporal possibilities of the DV camera. 24 Frames seems, in this writer’s eyes, to represent the culmination of these experiments. Conceptually and formally, the prior Kiarostami projects which 24 Frames most closely resembles are the shorts Take Me Home and his untitled entry in Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded. In Future Reloaded, Kiarostami – alongside a wide range of other internationally acclaimed filmmakers – was tasked with producing a 60-90 second piece that would envision the future of cinema to celebrate the 70th year of the Venice Film Festival. Kiarostami’s response was to combine the most modern of filmmaking technologies with the origins of cinematic form. The short re-imagines the Lumière brothers’ landmark 1895 comedy The Sprinkler Sprinkled using a cheap HD digital camera, before cutting to a reverse angle to show a young boy behind the lens, laughing gleefully. The short is beautiful in its simplicity, as it mimics the compositional strategies of the Lumière’s film to investigate the fundamental pictorial differences between celluloid and digital capture. In doing so, Kiarostami suggests a need to recognize the importance of the DV camera as an imaging tool which holds radical artistic potential; the landscape of digital cinema, Kiarostami seems to be saying, is a world of limitless possibilities which holds the power to revolutionize the visual arts, just as the development of the motion picture camera did at the tail end of the 18th century. The reverse cut to the joyful child emphasizes the faith Kiarostami places in the younger generation to make full use of these incredibly powerful filmmaking tools. In Take Me Home, Kiarostami constructs a series of landscape shots using complex digital compositing techniques, tracking a ball as it rolls across the South Italian coast. These collage-like compositions combine still photography, computer generated imaging and digitally shot footage into a unified whole. However, rather than striving for simple seamless integration, Kiarostami foregrounds the artificially composed nature of his frames. The viewer is always aware of the fact that they are watching a combination of varying elements with different ontological constitutions, rather than being lulled into believing the illusion of perceptual realism. As it becomes difficult to process the disparate parts of these supposedly united images, our visual perception is challenged. These ruptures in the visual veracity of the images call their ontological truth into question, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the unstable nature of the digital in the larger genealogy of the visual arts. Kiarostami, then, resists the nostalgic longing for the physicality and ontological realism of the celluloid image that so has consumed so many theorists and directors, and instead envisions the landscape of the post-filmic as a fascinating field of play.
24 Frames combines the two strategies employed by these shorts, as it constructs a series of complex digital composites which draw on the aesthetics of the Lumières’ actuality films – revealingly, a reported working title for the project was 24 Frames Before and After Lumière. In doing so, Kiarostami reflects back on the origins of the cinematic image as a means of understanding the nature of the cinematic image as it enters its post-celluloid afterlife. Academic work on Kiarostami has predominantly focused on the ways in which the filmmaker blurs the lines which separate between reality and artifice, immediacy and hyper-mediacy, documentary and narrative, the diegetic and non-diegetic, etc. 24 Frames continues this tendency to destabilize the rigid dichotomies which have traditionally defined filmmaking practices and criticism. 24 Frames may, in fact, stand as Kiarostami’s most radical experiment in disrupting the ontological truth of the cinematic image, in large part because it seems at first glance to be one of the director’s most straightforward features. The 24 shorts which comprise the feature are constructed around several, clearly defined rules: each ‘frame’ lasts exactly 4-and-a-half-minutes; the camera remains static; each frame must consist of a single shot each frame is introduced with a simple, numbered, white-on-black title card. As in early actuality cinema, each vignette is presented as an observational slice of action rather than being driven by a narrative through-line (as in the actuality shorts). With the notable exception of the final frame, there is no non-diegetic sound. For the most part, humans are absent – and in the cases in which they do appear, they are presented as mere compositional elements rather than being figures of psychological or emotional identification. Within these strict parameters, however, Kiarostami launches arguably the most complex interrogation of the cinematic form of his career. The self-reflexive and hyper-mediated nature of the project is made explicit in an opening title card, which is worth outlining in full: “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it. For “24 Frames” I started with famous paintings but then switched to photos I had taken through the years. I included about four and half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image that I had captured”.
Within the deceptively simple vignettes of 24 Frames, then, several forms of image-making are combined as a means of interrogating their conditions of artistic possibility – painting, photography, celluloid film, CGI modelling, DV footage. The sustained interaction between alternate visual regimes renders the boundaries between one artistic medium and another uncertain, thus demolishing the perimeters which would traditionally contain each image. The digital image, then, is framed not merely as being a transformation of the celluloid picture, but rather as a radically new form of visual art that combines elements from several pre-existing art forms. 24 Frames, then, calls into play many of the concerns regarding the ontological nature of the digital image that have fascinated scholars of new media over the past two decades.
According to Bazin, the ontological basis of the photographic image is rooted in the mechanical means of its production.3 The photographic mechanism automatically inscribes the light values placed before the lens in a photochemical surface, crafting an immediate visual record bound to the real through a direct isomorphic link. The film may then be developed to produce a reliable, realistic replication of the conditions once present in the space before the camera. The development of the photograph, then, marked a major stage in the genealogy of the visual arts as it represented the exact replication of external reality, fixed within a frame, rather than a human interpretation of that reality expressed visually through a secondary medium. As opposed to the signifying arts such as painting and sculpture, then, photography is a process of doubling which holds a direct indexical relationship with the real. This is not to say that Bazin’s theories are tied to notions of naive realism or he downplayed the value of the photographer as an artist. The photographer arranges objects and figures in front of the lens to express an individual artistic vision, yet the exact moment of exposure is a mechanical process which evades human control. As such, the spectator can be sure that when they are looking at a photographic image they are viewing a direct reproduction of elements which existed in the world at one point in time. A photograph may be an expression of an individual perspective, but it is expressed through a direct contact with the real that renders it distinct from any other existing art form. The agential independence photography is founded upon is far removed from the visual register of the plastic arts which preceded it, which filter the real through the abstraction of symbolic signification. A painting, for example, may resemble the external world, but it is not inherently tied to it through a direct indexical trace. Thus, for Bazin, the awesome quality of the photographic image is a result of its detachment from the human hand; its processes of enunciation are determined by elements which exist outside of the intentions of the photographer.
Bazin describes this rupture in the regime of the visual arts as marking “the end of the imaginary”. “All the arts are based on the presence of man,” he explains. “Only photography derives an advantage from his absence.”4 The technological processes of the camera produces a perfect, one-to-one duplication of the elements placed in front of the lens, essentially erasing the difference between the model and its artistic reproduction. The photograph therefore finally enabled the perfect realization of perceptual truth that had long been the aspiration of realist painters through painstaking instrumental control and the replication of linear perspective. As Cavell argues, “photography overcame subjectivity in a way un- dreamed of by painting, a way that could not satisfy painting, one which does not so much defeat the act of painting as escape it alto-gether”. He concludes that the automatism of photography “remov[es] the human agent from the task of reproduction.”5 In the medium of photography, the artist does not act as an intermediary standing in between the viewer and the resulting image; the reality of the image is communicated automatically through the objectivity of technological reproduction. The photograph must not be simply presumed to be an impartial reproduction of the reality that inspired it, yet its grounding in automatic reproduction and indexical link with the outside world grants it a privileged connection to the real that marks it as distinct. An image produced mechanically is inherently an object of presence, while a painting is an object of absence, as it can only approximate presence through the manipulation of an instrumental medium filtered through the subjective consciousness of the artist. The former therefore serves as evidence of the existence of an object that once existed in the external world, while the painting remains fundamentally abstracted from the conditions of any specific place or time. Dubois provides the following definition: “the photograph, like every index, derives from a physical connection with its referent: it constitutes a singular trace, attesting to the existence of its object and designating it by right of its powers of metonymic extension.”6
Photography is based on isolating a single moment from the passage of time and transforming it into a fixed, static image that will endure as a physical totem of a past event. Cinema, then, adds to the ontological realism of the photograph a temporal dimension. The motion picture camera, as Bazin observes, allows not only for the direct capture of the shape, texture, and colours of a scene, but also to “imprint the duration of the object”: “The photographic image is the object itself. The object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. Viewed from this perspective, the cinema is objectivity in time. Now, for the first time, the image of things is the image of their duration.”7 During filmic capture the camera inscribes light values bound to a temporal unit. The photochemical surface serves as a temporal as well as a spatial record, preserving duration as a direct indexical trace. The mechanical processes of the projector animate this series of still celluloid frames, creating the illusion of organic motion. Each shot thus functions as a reliable record of temporality, so that the time represented on film aligns with the time of exposure. This act of transcribing an event within a black of photographic duration allows the photographer to preserve a moment within the finitude of lived experience; film is therefore unique in its ability to allow the viewer to observe a snapshot of the external world as it is effected by the passage of time. The significance of temporality to the singularity of the filmic image is the basis of Tarkovsky’s seminal book Sculpting in Time: “The cinema image is the observation of a phenomenon passing through time. Time becomes the very foundation of cinema [. . .] Time exerts a pressure which runs through the shot. [. ..] Just as a quivering reed can tell you about the current or water pressure of a river, in the same way we know the movement of time as it flows through the shot.”8
This conception of the celluloid film image as being grounded in physical reality should not be mistaken for mimetic realism. Even within the domain of the filmic avant-garde (filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton), in which the visual content of the frame is obscured so that the content of the image is difficult (or impossible) to decipher, the photochemical basis and isomorphic link to the pro-filmic remains fundamental. The viewer’s ingrained knowledge of the way the photographic apparatus functions will lead them to immediately sense the presence of the referent, even though the exact contours of the content may be difficult to determine. Furthermore, the index of the celluloid frames remain embedded in the passage of time. This temporal link is metaphysical, and overpowers manipulation of this succession through, for example, increased motion or freeze-framing.
The digital image, however, has a fundamentally different ontological relationship to the real. The digital camera registers light values not by imprinting them on photochemical frames but by transforming them into computerized code. This information is then stored on a hard drive as abstract symbolic notation, rather than a physical record on photo-chemical paper. A digital frame exists not as a complete and unified fixed unit but a collection of pixels constantly in flux. Pixels are arranged into conceptual shapes which stand-in for the real, rather than assuming a direct, physical continuity with the real. As space and time are transformed into symbolic values within a pixel grid at the time of exposure, they can be easily manipulated without the viewer feeling like there has been a substantial break from the original input values. This opens the image up to easy pictorial manipulation: colours may be tinted, contours may be stretched, and CGI may be seamlessly implanted. Increasingly, the act of shooting is perceived as secondary to the lengthy post-production practices which enhance the image. The shot is no longer a period of duration transcribed physically onto a series of frames, but a collection of pixels which are always open to syntactic manipulation to produce infinite variations in the image.
It is clear, then, that the development of digital technology has resulted in a substantial rupture in the development of the visual arts, comparable to the gulf between painting and photography, or still photography and motion pictures. Rodowick argues that the digital image lies somewhere between the immediacy of the photograph and the abstraction of the painting.9 Although the digital camera captures light values in a way that is more direct than the processes of painting, the severing of the isomorphic link from the real renders the fundamental ontological constitution of the digital image closer to the symbolic arts. Like painting, the digital image is founded upon the removal of the model; we may assume that the digital image used an outside source as its origin, but it exists in a state of virtual negation, essentially removed from the conditions of reality which contributed its original input values. The digital, therefore, functions as a medium of absence, rather than presence.
The abstract nature of digital imaging is clearly demonstrated through the development of photo-realistic digital modelling. Computer systems may be employed to produce images ex nihilo through modelling programs which are virtually identical to the photographs which inspired them, despite bearing no photographic relation to the pro-filmic. Similarly, animated landscapes which are purely fantastical may be so perfect in their approximation of real-world lighting, texturing and motion that the viewer may be fooled into believing that they are images of real places. A simulacrum of the real, rather than an isomorphic reproduction of it, the digitized image eliminates the concrete bond with reality which the traditional photograph relies on to establish its aesthetic verisimilitude. Like painting, then, the digital image exists as an independent object removed from a concrete spatio-temporal referential situation.
As Manovich argues, digital imaging must therefore be conceptualized as a symbolic art rather than an analogical one:
“The manual construction of images in digital cinema represents a return to nineteenth century pre-cinematic practices, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated. At the turn of the twentieth century, the cinema was to delegate these techniques to animation and define itself as a recording medium. As cinema enters the digital age, these techniques are again becoming commonplace in the film making process. Consequently, cinema can no longer be distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a sub-genre of painting.”10
Yet, digital photography still requires input values from light sources captured automatically by the mechanical lens, and is therefore more thoroughly grounded in the properties of mimetic verisimilitude than the purely instrumental medium of painting is. It is possible to be presented with a digital photograph of an object which is visually identical to a real-world referent. Such a similarity, however, would be a conscious artistic choice, rather than an existential inevitability. Therefore, the digital image should not be mistaken for bearing an inherent documentary charge. The pixels registered by the lens function as abstract, symbolic tokens which may be left as they are or reconstituted in post-production to craft an image which bears little resemblance to the external world. This raises significant questions regarding the place of the artist in the language of digital cinema. Whereas the traditional photographer is absent from the mechanical moment of exposure, the digital artist is always working as an intermediate, manipulating items in the image, mixing colours, altering shades. These creative processes – commonplace in digital image-making – can be as delicate as a painter working on a canvas. As Thomas Elsaesser observes:
“As a graphic mode, digital cinema joins painting also in another respect: it requires a new kind of individual input, indeed manual application of craft and skill, which is to say, it marks the return of the ‘artist’ as source and origin of the image. In this respect, the digital image should be regarded as an expressive, rather than reproductive medium, with both the software and the ‘effects’ it produces bearing the imprint and signature of the creator.”11
As the contingent link between the referent and the image is ruptured, there is no clear-cut chain of causality between the actual and digital footage. Electronic synthesis replaces the physical process of transcription. The contemporary dominance of digital technologies in cinema must therefore not be perceived merely in technological, industrial and economic terms – it has fundamentally altered the aesthetic constitution and ontological basis of the cinematic image. 24 Frames self-reflexively interrogates the philosophical implications that such a transition has wrought on the identity of cinema as a medium in the 21st century. Many specialists in media archaeology have drawn parallels between the development of film cameras during the late 1880s and their subsequent refinement over the preceding few decades and the development of digital cameras over the 1990s and 2000s – suggesting a seismic rupture in the cinematic image that will come to define the current century of motion pictures. The obvious influence of the Lumière Brothers on 24 Frames is appropriate, then, as Kiarostami tests the perceptual possibilities of a new form of visual art which holds the potential to revitalize the medium – and he too is working towards this goal through a complex process of remediation.
Since the 1950s, the early years of cinema have been too often conceptualized as a dichotomy between the mundane realism of the Lumières and the exhibitionistic fabulism of Méliès. Taking inspiration from Godard’s challenge of this over-simplified clarification in La Chinoise, this paper argues that the Lumières should instead be regarded as radical impressionists, carefully composing motion pictures which play with light, motion, colour, duration and texture to create thrilling painterly effects in a new medium. Despite being too often categorized as documentarians, the Lumières did not encourage their spectators to view their actuality films as providing a simple Albertian window into reality, but to take pleasure in the artistic capacities of the cinematograph to radically alter their perception of reality. As Gunning argues, the power of the actuality films during the late 19th century was dependent on a complex combination of both immediacy and hyper-mediacy: The early spectator was encouraged to delight in the foreign sight being presented to them by the camera, while also delighting in the alien power of the radical technology which was allowing such a sight to take place. The audience, then, was encouraged to marvel at the content while also never forgetting the presence of the medium; they looked through the screen and at the screen simultaneously. The awesome power of the cinematograph would be emphasized by the presentation of the shorts, as the Lumières would first present each film as a still image, and then crank the projector into motion so that the stasis would erupt into glorious movement; the ground-breaking nature of the motion picture was heightened by a direct comparison with photography. Hyper-mediacy was, then, the dominant mode during the very early stages of cinema. As Mary Anne Doane notes, it was only during the subsequent decades – as the image increasingly became subsumed to the rigid storytelling structures and continuity rules of conventional narrative cinema – that immediacy became the dominant mode.12 In the traditional narrative film, the role of the camera is perceptually ‘erased’, and the viewer is invited to view the screen as being a simple window allowing them to view an unfolding narrative. The development of continuity style allowed for the development of codes which came to be perceived as natural, such as spatio-temporal unity, close-ups, the 180 degree rule, etc.
24 Frames rejuvenates cinema’s origins in hyper-mediacy and remediation by experimenting with the new aesthetic possibilities introduced by the medium of digital cinematography. Instead of striving for seamless integration or perceptual realism, the shorts which comprise 24 Frames foreground the artificial nature of the digitally mediated image. Each frame is comprised of a complex combination of still photography, motion footage, and CGI, all integrated into a whole that is generally unified but ontologically uncomfortable. At times, it is easy to delineate the different visual forms within the same image. The first frame is a re-imagining of Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow, which begins with a static image of the painting – seemingly untouched but de-materialized by the abstract mechanisms of digital scanning – before gradually adding snowdrops, smoke, and CGI animals to the foreground. This vignette is seemingly the only leftover from Kiarostami’s original vision for the project, and plainly introduces the hyper-mediated, composited nature of the project in a relatively straightforward way. The painting remains fixed in space in the background, while a number of visual post-production effects are methodically added; there is a clear split between the stasis of the painting in the background and the animated activity in the foreground, making the composite relatively easy to digest. The most ambiguous aspect of this frame is the uncertainty regarding what elements of animal activity and weather conditions were crafted in a CGI program and which were shot in front of a green screen. In other frames, however, the actual and the antifactual blend together in a way that is far more difficult to decipher. It is true, certainly, that composited images were in existence before the advent of digital imaging and editing (1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes marked the first case of a CGI character interacting with real actors), but the structures of the analogue collage were fundamentally different.
In analogue filmic composites, each component exists as its own ontologically independent entity with its own spatio-temporal self-contained values, linked to a specific external referent. The act of compositing was a matter of combining these independent entities to craft a new photomontage cell. The digital composite, in contrast, is a matter of containing several layers of digital data within the same frame to craft a new image; the resulting image seems so seamlessly integrated because each of these elements exists as an ontologically identical block of mathematical code. Once transformed into the medium of digital signals, a discrete element can be subject to any number of manipulations – colour tinting, saturation, cropping, distortion, etc. The strict boundaries that would have once defined the components of a composite are now permeable and smooth. The development of digital editing and shooting technologies have rendered compositing a far more commonplace practice, and its ontological nature makes it far more difficult to determine where one element ends and the next begins.
Rather than playing a facile game which involves encourages the spectator to determine what is ‘artificial’ and what is ‘authentic’, however, Kiarostami highlights the collapse of such distinctions in the realm of the virtual sphere of the post-visual media landscape. As Will J. Mitchell argues:
“For a century and half photographic evidence seemed unassailably probative. [. . .] An interlude of false innocence has passed. Today, as we enter the post-photographic era, we must face once again the ineradicable fragility our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real, tragic elusiveness of the Cartesian dream.”13
Considering the huge fundamental differences in celluloid and digital filmmaking, it seems strange that the vast majority of mainstream productions actively seek to replicate the appearance of the former. Digital compositing has become the staple of the 21st century Hollywood blockbuster, blending CGI and green-screen elements with more traditional footage of actors and landscapes. Yet this normative strand of narrative cinema strives to integrate these varied elements so as to make the act of artificial collage appear seamless and unified.
The cognitive dissonance inherent in the digital composite, then, has been largely subsumed to the demands of narrative integration and realistic binocular representation that have come to define mainstream filmmaking. Hollywood filmmakers have tended to ‘contain’ the alien properties of the digital image through the demands of classical narrative and continuity, as well as the rigid laws of classical geometry, perceptual realism and spatio-temporal unity. A notable example of this trend is Avatar, a feature constructed using ground-breaking CGI and intermediate techniques which chains its imagery to the structures of Cartesian coordinates which have come to define visual realism in cinematic art. The widespread attempts to circumscribe the potentialities of digital technologies by using them to approximate as closely as possible the dynamic of biological vision and efface the presence of the medium has been compared by Jay and Grusin to the Persectivist tradition which has dominated Western painting since the Renaissance. “Cartesian perspectivalism”, they explain, “constituted a peculiar way of seeing that dominated Western culture from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth by allowing the Cartesian subject to control space from a single vantage point.”14 The infinite medium of painting was subsumed to the strict confines of linear perspective, which organizes the content of the painting according to the perspective of human consciousness. The natural vision of the spectator is thus paralleled by the visual regime of the painting, centered by a focalizing figure either implied or literally present in the composition. Linear perspective, the dominant mode of Western art (although certainly not the only form of painting during this period), can be perceived as “the technique that effaced itself as technique15”. If achieved accurately, the surface material of the canvas seems to disappear, and the paper is viewed as being simply a window onto a world. The presence of the painter was thus ‘erased’ through careful attention to detail and the mathematizing of space, creating a close approximation to reality. As in mainstream digital imaging, a symbolic medium is manipulated so as to deny the mediation of the medium, placing the viewer in an illusionistic visual environment and naturalizing any potential ruptures in the image.
24 Frames, however, pointedly destabilizes the drive towards mimetic illusionism that has characterized popular conceptions of digital compositing. It is difficult to decipher which elements are fully CGI crafted without a real-world referent, which are photographic inputs digital manipulated, and which are untouched pieces of photography. Rather than attempting to efface the ontologically unstable nature of his composites, Kiarostami encourages the viewer to always remain aware of the artificiality of his images. 24 Frames is thus a work of extreme hyper-mediation; the viewer is always conscious of the presence of the medium. The quotation which opens the film further destabilizes our notion of what is real and what is not, as we are made aware of the fact that each digital composite has been based on a single still photograph, yet it is unclear what this initial, static image would have looked like. We see only a continuous stream of cinematic motion, rather than a still image being thrust into movement. It remains uncertain whether the movement Kiarostami is portraying is supposed to have occurred before or after the frame which inspired it. By erasing any clear indication of the original photograph as the origin point for the complex CGI composition experiments, traditional boundaries of temporality, of perceptual truth, of the profilmic and antifactual, representation and manipulation evaporate. What is clear, however, is that the process of bringing each photograph to life was conducted by artificial imaging mechanisms, rather than each short existing as a block of celluloid duration. Rather than inviting the audience to look for the ‘authentic’ elements of the composition, or for the ‘original’ photograph which inspired the moving frame, Kiarostami is investigating the loss of the ontological real that was inherent to the photograph and the celluloid image. At the same time, 24 Frames’ methods of combining elements from several disparate visual mediums, Kiarostami explicitly places the digital image in a lineage of related artistic traditions in order to decipher how it borrows from and adapts existing aesthetic strategies.
The final frame of the project features a young woman sleeping at a computer monitor while the final sequence of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives slowly renders on the post-production program After Effects. As Isiah Medina points out, the program is likely to have been the very piece of software used by Kiarostami to compose 24 Frames, given its flexibility and its speciality in the fields of special effects, CGI and compositing.16 The image of Wyler’s film is itself a complex act of remediation: a classical Hollywood picture, shot on celluloid, not projected, but reduced to a digital image, its temporality muddled through the rendering process, and placed as a small element of a larger digital image. A striking example of this self-reflexivity is the final frame of the project, which sees a woman asleep The fractured, slowed-down motion of Wyler’s actors produce a deeply uncanny quality, particularly when situated in the same visual plane as the sleeping woman, whose total lack of movement suggests that she has been implanted into the frame from a still photograph – although the figure may well have been selected from a freeze-frame of a motion picture. What, exactly, is the origin point of this image? The room with the sleeping woman and the computer? The computer with a frame from Wyler’s film? The room itself, as an empty entity, with the window as the primary focal point? Kiarostami’s approach renders all of these questions moot. Several temporal orders and types of media appear simultaneously within this single frame. The layers of the image are not seamlessly integrated but detached and disruptive. Because the image fails to adhere to the imagistic principals of a conventional photographic or celluloid image, the fractured ontology of the digital medium is foregrounded. It becomes immediately clear, then, that the image corresponds not to any real event, but rather exist as exercises in computer imaging and illumination. We are invited to see it not as a purely symbolic or an analogical frame, but rather as an image which lies between the two modes. What is perhaps most disconcerting about this segment is that the sun falls in the background of the image at an absurdly rapid pace, while the middle and foreground planes seem to be running according a standardized time-frame. This foregrounds the element of temporality that is central to Kiarostami’s project.
The turn of the century was a period of extreme transition and instability for the cinematic arts, and scholars are still struggling to fully come to terms with the full philosophical and aesthetic ramifications of digitization. The exact nature of the ontological basis of the digital image is not easy to define, as it exists somewhere between the instrumental control of painting, the mechanical reproduction of photography and the virtual notation of computing. Although the digital image remains, for the most part, reliant on the input of light values of the outside world, captured automatically by the lens, it needn’t remain fixed to these values through an isomorphic mimetic relationship. The digital is also an abstract medium which is able to absorb, reconstitute and recombine all of its earlier visual predecessors within the virtual space of computerized code. Kiarostami’s 24 Frames is less concerned with resolving these issues than thoroughly interrogating them, pushing forward the aesthetic possibilities of digital by foregrounding the ontological dissonance inherent to the medium. Through the combination of painting, still photography, CGI imaging and digitally shot motion footage, Kiarostami establishes a theoretical dimension which considers the nature of the digital image, the temporality of the digital image, and the relationship of the post-visual to its filmic predecessor. The film thus stands at a convergence point – between visual regimes, between the modern and the traditional, between stasis and motion.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
- Geoff Andrew, “24 Frames review: Abbas Kiarostami’s living, parting miniatures”, Sight and Sound (May 2017), https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/24-frames-abbas-kiarostami-living-parting-miniatures ↩
- M. Ciment, “Entretien avec Abbas Kiarostami”, Positif 44 (December 1997): pp.84. ↩
- Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in Classical Essays in Photography, Alan Trachtenberg, ed. and trans. (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), pp.237-244. ↩
- Ibid. p.242 ↩
- Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p.24. ↩
- Philippe Dubois, L’acte Photographique. (Brussels: Editions Labor, 1983), p.93. ↩
- Ibid. 243. ↩
- Andrei Tarkovsky, (1989), Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, Kitty Hunter-Blair, ed and trans. (Texas: University of Texas Press, New Ed edition, 1989), p.67. ↩
- David Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), p.173. ↩
- Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?” in Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, Shane Denson and Julia Leyda, eds. (Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016), pp.22. ↩
- Thomas Elsaesser, “The New New Hollywood: Cinema Beyond Distance And Proximity” in Moving Images, Culture and the Mind, Ib Bondebjergs, ed. (Luton: Luton University Press, 2000): pp.192– 193. ↩
- Mary Anne Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p.30. ↩
- William Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), p.225. ↩
- Ibid. p.24. ↩
- Ibid. p.24. ↩
- Isiah Medina, “Second Nature: Isiah Medina on ‘24 Frames’”. MUBI Notebook (February 2018), https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/second-nature-isiah-medina-on-24-frames ↩