Early in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, jazz musician and teacher Marcus Daly instructs his class to play their instruments with less control, implicitly urging them to embrace the sensual disreputability of art. Given that Marcus is played by David Hemmings, the star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, one wonders if Argento is having a little joke at Antonioni’s expense. Antonioni is a highly controlled artist, fashioning films that are mysterious yet clearly the work of intense preparation, which strikes his detractors as hermetic and airless. Argento is also a control freak, but he’s capable of shaking things up—with lurid gore and blasts of rock n’ roll and sexual comedy. Perhaps Argento’s saying that his Italian compatriot should embrace cinema’s seamier side.
Marcus’s critique of control isn’t merely a joke on Argento’s part, as it signifies a guiding theme of Deep Red, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, and other films inspired by Antonioni’s radical art thriller. In these productions, men are lonely tinkerers and artist types who’re estranged from society, particularly from women. One may be tempted to cite Hemmings’s character from Blow-Up as an exception to this observation, as he seems to have fun with the models he photographs, but there’s little sense of sensuality or connection in his trysts. Locked up within their heads and eaten up by the minutiae of their professions, the protagonists of these films attempt to extend the control they enjoy in their careers into the outside world. The men become informal detectives, trying to solve mysteries that pivot on attempts to save or scrutinize beautiful women, and are brutally humbled by a terrifying realm that resists such rationalization.
On the surface, Deep Red appears to be more beholden to the obligations of its genre—the giallo—than Blow-Up is to the classic murder mystery. Deep Red has several astonishing murder sequences, and a solution is provided to its central mystery. But Argento, like Antonioni, allows the audience to discern a gaping maw of chaos lurking underneath the images. Each of Deep Red’s compositions reveals new meanings upon each viewing—and so it’s no wonder that yards of essays have been written trying to get to the center of this film. Certain effects are beautifully, if ostentatiously, achieved, such as a shot of a bar in a piazza that brings to mind Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Other textures, however, are subtle and insidious, such as Argento’s most brilliant flourish: hiding the murderer, right after a killing, right in front of us. (De Palma would borrow this formalist coup for Dressed to Kill.)
In Deep Red, Argento marries a cinematic world that’s empty on the surface—rife with surrealistically underpopulated cityscapes—and teeming with neuroses and subterranean evil. The exteriors contrast with the fetishistic bric-a-brac of the interior settings, and with the narrative’s endless reliance on things—paintings, drawings, rooms—that are buried underneath layers of civilized varnish. Seeing in the film is misunderstanding, and Argento viscerally tethers the audience to Marcus’s panic and confusion.
The film brings several plot strands into collision. Marcus is a British man teaching in a conservatory in Rome after a long stint in America, and seems to do little else apart from tenderly lecturing a friend and fellow pianist, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), on his self-loathing and alcoholism. After such a conversation, Marcus witnesses the lurid murder of Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), a psychic who gleaned evil thoughts from someone in the audience of her show earlier in the night. Marcus tries to solve the murder, involuntarily teaming up with a reporter, Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). Meanwhile, the killer conducts a parallel investigation, snuffing out potential informants before Marcus and Gianna can question them.
All of these threads are governed by repression. The killer is threatened by Helga’s inadvertent stirring of the past, just as Marcus is threatened by Gianna’s traditionally “masculine” power and forwardness. Surprisingly, Marcus is reticent about sleeping with Gianna, as the notion of men not being up for sex is rarely touched on by pop culture. It’s been speculated that Marcus is gay, which Argento has denied, though the filmmaker goes to great lengths to rhyme Marcus with Carlo, who also feels threatened, as his misery is revealed to be rooted in his closeted sexuality. Besides being musicians, both are lonely and frustrated with their art, and both are directly connected to the killer. In an early sequence, Marcus and Carlo are positioned on opposing ends of a symmetrical image of a courtyard, conversing while wearing black-and-white suits that function as inverses of one another. (In his audio commentary included on this release, Thomas Rostock interprets this motif more straightforwardly, suggesting that Marcus and Carlo are doppelgangers reflecting to one another lives not lived. More provocatively, Rostock suggests that Marcus is Antonioni, the respected bourgeoisie artist, while Carlo is Argento, a man fashioning art for the masses.)
Deep Red’s nesting symbols have been planted with a delirious sense of emotional logic. The murder scenes complement and anticipate one another in myriad fashions, and are informed with a piercing loneliness that’s unusually disturbing and moving. In Deep Red, when a woman is nearly drowned in a bathtub of scalding water, she collapses onto the floor and attempts to write the identity of her killer in condensed steam on a mirror. Argento lingers, with rapturous calm, on the woman’s outstretched finger as she tries and fails to make this final clarifying gesture before dying. Worthy of Antonioni, this sequence has agonizing existential power, standing in for all the fruitless tasks that govern our lives as we gradually approach death.
The ultimate fruitlessness, in Argento and Antonioni’s worlds, is to make sense of anything. Marcus and Carlo debate limitations of perception, and Marcus misses pivotal clues because he shoehorns the mystery into his preconditioned vision of the world. If Marcus isn’t gay, he nevertheless shares with Carlo feelings of imperiled masculinity and is in denial about his bitterness toward women, which the killer re-channels toward the victims. Said bitterness spurs a disenchantment within Marcus that causes him to miss things; at times, he moves through life with the pregnant passivity of an Antonioni character. Marcus uncovers a drawing on a wall that reveals the answer to the mystery, but doesn’t chip away enough wallpaper to discern the whole story. Searching for another painting, Marcus doesn’t discover, until it’s nearly too late, that he’s actually looking for a mirror. And Marcus only bests the killer out of dumb luck and accident. Looking into a pool of blood—the film’s final tableau of skewed, bottomless perception—Marcus confronts how little he knows about himself and the world that contains him.
This transfer boasts much sharper and richer browns and blacks than previous editions of Deep Red, bringing out the film’s autumnal atmosphere. The reds have a vivid viscosity that hasn’t always come through in prior transfers, particularly in the curtains seemingly enveloping Helga’s head in a theater, which is perhaps the film’s most singularly poetic and terrifying image. Flesh tones are supple and finely detailed, and image clarity is exceptional without compromising the film’s grainy vitality.
The soundtracks are trickier and are helpfully contextualized by notes included in the disc’s menu screen. There are two Italian tracks, a monaural for purists and a five-channel for those looking for a more contemporary mix, as well as an Italian and English hybrid track. The film was shot in English, but a full English track doesn’t exist because Deep Red was shortened by 20 minutes for international audiences. (This export version, which significantly compromises the film, is included in this package on a second disc.) So, to watch the full-length Deep Red in English, which provides a fuller glimpse of David Hemmings’s underrated performance than the Italian editions, one must watch the cut scenes in Italian. Weirdly, this unusual cultural fusion further underlines the film’s obsessions with dualities, identity crises, and cultural skeletons in the closet. These tracks sound similar to these ears: deep, clean, with fastidious distinctions made between the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, which is of paramount importance to a film that so precisely deconstructs itself, featuring a killer who provides her own soundtracks for her murders, suggesting an artist in her own right.
The audio commentary by filmmaker and Dario Argento expert Thomas Rostock is a consistently surprising, appropriately obsessive exploration of a film of endless cultural reverberations. For instance, parsing subtle visual symbols, the understanding of which partially depends on a considerable knowledge of vintage Italian cinema, Rostock makes a profound and convincing case for Deep Red as a parable of Italy’s fascist legacy. Throughout the commentary, Rostock dives deeply into imagery, sound, performance, and contextual history, providing an essential examination of a classic film. Complementing this commentary is “Profondo Giallo,” a new visual essay by Michael Mackenzie, who did a striking piece for Arrow’s restoration of Blood and Black Lace a few years ago. “Profondo Giallo” isn’t as intricately conceived as Rostock’s commentary, but it does an admirable job of thoroughly discussing an ambitious work within a concise running time. On the new end of spectrum, this package also includes a miniature poster, a beautifully produced booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mikel J. Koven and an archive piece by Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills, as well as a collection of lobby card reproductions that will be catnip for Argento nerds.
Rounding out the package are a number of archive interviews, the most interesting of which features Nicolodi, who co-starred in Deep Red and fell in love with Argento, eventually co-writing Suspiria. Nicolodi isn’t sentimental about her ex, describing him as an egocentric control freak and credit hog with intimacy issues—a film director in other words. The archive interview with Argento himself is disappointingly skippable, though the talk with Goblin member Claudio Simonetti offers some choice observations about the band’s roots in prog rock. A few other odds and ends, such as a tour of a gift shop partially shepherded by Argento, round out an enormous supplements collection that doesn’t quite clear the high bar set by prior Arrow packages, such as those for Blood and Black Lace and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Arrow Video sheds clarifying light on Dario Argento’s elusive and hallucinatory Deep Red, without compromising the film’s unnerving bottomlessness.
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Méril, Clara Calamai, Eros Pagni, Giuliana Calandra, Piero Mazzinghi Director: Dario Argento Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Bernardino Zapponi Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 1975 Release Date: April 10, 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Shame
Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer.4
Though stark and despairing, Ingmar Bergman’s films are essentially, perhaps inadvertently, celebrations of art in which erudite characters wrestle with their demons via their creative endeavors. Bergman conjures intricate worlds of sex and violence and creation, which ricochet off each other with a free association of tone that suggests the dream of a gifted and highly self-conscious god. Bergman’s films are catnip to cinephiles, critics, and theatergoers partially because they inevitably flatter such audiences, offering tortured artists of physical majesty whose struggles, to balance the varying privileged scrims of their lives, often suggest nothing less than the great existential plight of humankind.
In this light, it’s doesn’t feel coincidental that Bergman’s less acclaimed films tend to interrogate the foundation on which he’s built this reflexively flattering art, particularly a run of films he made in the 1960s, in which he chafed against his emerging status as a genius and tried to tear his art down and rebuild it from the ground up. In The Virgin Spring, religion (art) is pitifully ill-suited to prevent a series of atrocities, though it perhaps allows the remaining human characters to live with themselves. In Persona and Hour of the Wolf, Bergman attempts nothing less than to foster a cinema that eats itself alive, leaving the respective characters untethered and adrift. And in Shame, Bergman pushes his exploration of the potential futility of art, and artists, even further to the breaking point, following a bourgeoisie couple as they coarsen in the face of an unnamed and highly symbolic civil war.
Shame is a bitter brew that’s leeched of much of the pleasure that even a confrontational Bergman film like Persona can give. The filmmaker begins the narrative, however, in a characteristically evocative manner, mixing eroticism, ennui, and dread. Eva (Liv Ullman) arises from bed, her shirt open and revealing her breasts. She goes to a sink and washes herself, her bare back glistening in the shards of sunlight that are piercing through the shadows. Eva’s husband, Jan (Max von Sydow), gradually awakens, and they begin their morning routine. For many filmmakers, such a series of events would be a matter of setup, but for Bergman this sequence is a kind of ambiguous and ecstatic romantic scene. Eva is a beautiful woman, and her beauty will come to influence the couple’s ability to live in their war-torn country, but Jan has been married to her for years and isn’t struck by her as directly as others might be. (Though the film offers us a moment where Jan regards Eva by a creek, clearly swept up in his intoxication with her.) Yet their casualness together isn’t merely born of routine habitation, as it’s also sensual and nourishing, reflecting the fruits and the challenges of living with someone for some degree of time.
This sequence haunts Shame as the film moves into more violent and austere territory. In this powerfully acidic production, Bergman dramatizes the invasion of a countryside that presumably has never experienced hostile foreign occupation. And though Bergman is riffing on the Vietnam War, and on the remote safety of his own island home of Fårö, Shame’s images of a prosperous white couple reduced to a status of traveling refugees offer a timeless empathetic dare. Eva and Jan have tuned out atrocity until it came tumbling onto their doorstep, taking their music careers from them, recasting them as farmers and then as fugitives. Apart from their skin color, Eva and Jan come to resemble the sort of people that the United States and much of Europe would presently prefer to lock up or fence away.
Bergman prunes Shame of the overt theatricality of even his other ‘60s films so as to suggest a loss of art born of warfare, leaving the viewer to survey craggy, frazzled landscapes and the occasionally sensual, penetrating, unmistakably Bergman-esque close-up of Ullman and Sydow’s faces. And there’s little on-screen violence in Shame to give us a cathartic thrill, which might’ve turned this merciless parable into an action film. Bergman renders horror in terrifyingly fleeting and intimate slivers of imagery: of bodies lying in fields or water, of cars run off the road, of smoke billowing up in the background while military vehicles trundle across the landscape. There are also flashes of light and explosive sounds that aren’t entirely identifiable yet are clearly the product of carnage. Eva and Jan’s home, a synecdoche for this society and their imperiled relationship, is bombed and raided many times, leaving them to start over amid rubble while they castigate one another. Through it all, they compromise themselves over and over, and Jan, initially a coward, becomes a wolf. Which is to say that Bergman has staged a brutal lament of the impotency of war as it’s felt among the populace at its mercy—a bleak poem that’s nevertheless informed with the beauty of his craftsmanship.
Yet death and compromise aren’t the primary terrors animating Shame. Instead, Bergman confronts a realization of the possibility that rarefied society might be stripped of its baubles, including its art, and might have to face the superficiality of the things it loves. (In Bergman’s most obsessive and lacerating films, art is but another kind of mask.) Such terrors are real, of course, and have been faced, most infamously during the Holocaust, but Bergman’s lack of specificity here comes to suggest that war is inevitable and circular and will eventually engulf most of us, who might be currently enjoying the sojourns of Shame’s opening passage. Bergman fillets his interests in this film, forging a vision of annihilation that is, understood, itself, to be yet another bourgeoisie toy. In one scene, Eva wonders if she’s in a dream, and if such a dreamer is capable of feeling shame. The film’s existence is her unattainable answer.
The image, courtesy of a new 2K transfer, boasts a greater degree of detail than prior home-video editions of Shame. Minute textures—particularly of the damage wrought against people and land by war—seem to pop out of the frame, and the ocean of the film’s climactic sequence visually resounds with a newfound sense of clarity. Blacks and whites are well-balanced, which is particularly notable in a brilliant and seemingly found image near the beginning of the film where the central couple is separated by a diagonal shadow looming over their farm, casually foreshadowing their rocky future. Plenty of grit has been scrubbed from the image but not at the expense of character. The monaural soundtrack offers a clean and immersive soundstage, allowing small notes of life to resound alongside the vast clinging and clanging of war.
In a new interview recorded for Criterion, Liv Ullmann speaks candidly, if briefly, about her personal and working relationship with Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann discusses the unity that exists between films such as Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna, and vividly recalls the personal anxiety that drove Bergman to tackle these projects. Two short archive interviews with Bergman are also included on this disc, which find him addressing issues of artistic relevance with a candor that shames the puffy sound bites of today’s media. The best supplement of this package, though, is “An Introduction to Ingmar Bergman,” a feature-length documentary that includes extensive footage of rare films and longer interviews with Bergman, as well as intimate footage of him on various sets. A terrific essay by film critic Michael Sragow serves as the disc’s liner notes, rounding out a somewhat slim package.
Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer, though the supplements could use a bit more meat on the bones.
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Sigge Fürst, Birgitta Valberg, Hans Alfredson, Ingvar Kjellson, Frank Sundström, Ulf Johansson, Vilgot Sjöman, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: John Huston’s Beat the Devil
Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.4
It’s impossible to discuss Beat the Devil, John Huston’s 1953 send-up of the caper film, without addressing its tumultuous production, as that chaos very much worked its way into the fiber of the film. During the making of The African Queen, Huston spent as much of his energy hunting down an elusive elephant as he did behind the director’s chair, and two years after wrapping production on that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart vehicle, the filmmaker jetted off to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for another strange adventure. Once there, Huston, unhappy with Beat the Devil’s screenplay, tore it up and subsequently hired a young Truman Capote to help him churn out fresh pages, which were often delivered to the actors just hours before the cameras started rolling.
Beat the Devil evinces the free-wheeling spontaneity of a film constructed on the fly. Jacques Rivette once wrote that “every film is a documentary of its own making,” which certainly applies, and then some, to Huston’s ramshackle, whimsical farce—often considered the first cult film and the birth of cinematic camp. Huston’s original intention was to make a half-serious thriller with an anti-colonialist bent, but the gentle Mediterranean breeze seems to have dissipated any hint of import in the story and self-consciousness in the actors’ uniformly relaxed performances. Like the ship that’s been docked for “one day to a fortnight” in the small Italian town of Ravello so the captain can recover from a severe hangover, no one—not the cast, not Huston, not even the plot—appears in a hurry to go anywhere.
The narrative of Beat the Devil, such as it is, involves a motley crew of liars, criminals, and scoundrels, all of whom have either grandiose visions of their futures or fantastical delusions about their present-day realities. Only Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) is somewhat connected with reality, accepting his fate as the unwitting lacky of the film’s ostensible baddie, the jovial and ever-sweaty Peterson (Robert Morley), who offers Billy the only convenient way to continue paying his hotel bill. They and the rest of the film’s motley crew of international characters are heading to Africa, supposedly to either mine for gold, diamonds, or uranium, or to grow coffee. But Huston is scarcely concerned with any of this. Beat the Devil is all about the follies that happen while its characters are busy making other plans.
Nearly all of these eccentric types lie about their intentions, while others speak of global conspiracies and massive shadow organizations. Lorre plays a supposedly Irish lackey named O’Hara, who quips at one point that many Germans in Chile have taken such a name and happily loses himself in the international crowd, which is equally fueled by post-war paranoia as it is by aperitifs. As O’Hara dodges his national identity, likely because he was a Nazi, the British Major Ross espouses a strange fondness for strong men like Hitler and Mussolini. At the same time, a married couple, Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown), play at being part of upper-crust British society while not-so-secretly swapping partners with Billy and his beautiful Italian belle, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida).
Beat the Devil is a gleeful mess of narrative false starts and fake-outs, simmering in its own narrative ambiguity as everyone deceives everyone else as well as the audience. But a clear end game is always obscured by the pervasive aura of mistrust in the air. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Beat the Devil isn’t trying to be a sensible film. For a spell, it even seems like there are invisible forces, like those at play in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, preventing anyone from leaving town. For one, when Billy tries to head out for the day with Peterson, their car breaks down and they end up accidentally pushing it off a cliff. And once everyone finally sets sail, their ship, in a fitting metaphor for the film itself, soon breaks down. This dastardly bunch of ne’er-do-wells may have some pretty evil plans in place, but in thwarting their moves at every turn, Huston defuses their treacherous ambitions, inviting us to laugh at their increasingly disastrous blunders.
After decades of being stranded in the public domain, almost any half-decent transfer of the film would be welcome. But, fortunately, Twilight Time’s transfer of the 2016 4k restoration of Beat the Devil is better than one could have hoped. The film’s gorgeous Italian vistas are rich in detail, and the actors’ often exaggerated expressions now exude a clarity certainly unseen since the film’s theatrical release. The image also has a nice balance of blacks, grays, and whites, only occasionally losing a bit of detail in the more darkly lit sequences. If anything, the transfer is too clear, occasionally making such flaws as the edge of Bogart’s wig appear unmissable. The DTS-HD audio track is consistently balanced, though dialogue is a little muddled throughout a few outdoor scenes.
The audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman is, in the spirit of Beat the Devil, a bit scattershot. The trio covers an array of topics, from the film’s divisive reputation to the various differences between this newly restored cut and the public domain version that most people have seen before now. They are only too happy to tell us that Peter Sellers dubbed many of the Italian actors’ voices, and that a young Stephen Sondheim worked as the clapboard boy. But as light-hearted and conversational as much of the commentary is, Dobbs, Kirgo, and Redman approach Beat the Devil not merely as a great cult film, but as a great John Huston film. A short featurette, “Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil,” finds the son of Claud Cockburn, author of the novel upon which the film was based, throwing much shade at Truman Capote for taking credit for dialogue taken straight from the source material. An essay by Julie Kirgo, which offers additional context to the film’s bizarre production history, rounds out the package.
Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone Director: John Huston Screenwriter: Truman Capote, John Huston Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: January 22, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames
A once-in-a-generation cinematic poet leaves us with a hypnotic, quietly enchanting farewell testament, but Criterion doesn’t fully rise to the occasion in properly honoring it.3.5
Abbas Kiarostami’s final, posthumously released film, 24 Frames, is predicated on an absurd, almost comically Sisyphean paradox. Over the course of 24 single-shot vignettes, ordinary patterns of life are painstakingly reconstructed by the filmmaker and his team of VFX artists to the point that the end result resembles a passive, authorless recording—but, of course, not quite. Kiarostami became known for pulling this trick—that is, mingling artifice with reality in near-imperceptible ways—throughout his career, but he never saw the endeavor through to such a comprehensive extreme as he does here, where life forms, precipitation, shifting light patterns, and environmental soundscapes have been conceived and executed from the ground up and made to evolve within the frame seemingly of their own volition.
The basis for the film, specified in an opening title card, is Kiarostami’s photography work. Looking over his stills archive, the filmmaker was apparently overcome with a desire to witness more than what his images could offer, and thus set about resurrecting, with some mixture of memory and projection, the “scenes” leading up to and succeeding the click of the shutter—an undertaking that deflates Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous idea of “the decisive moment.” If one “decides” on immortalizing a single instant with photography, Kiarostami seems to posit, then one has robbed a moment of its life and complexity, qualities that can only be revived through cinema. It’s no accident that whenever a death occurs in 24 Frames, the vignette comes to an end; movement and progress are the organizing principles here.
Those unfamiliar with Kiarostami’s photography won’t be surprised, given a general knowledge of his films, by the subject matter and compositional style of 24 Frames. What’s starkly different here is the emphasis on wintry settings, many of which are recaptured in a monochrome chiaroscuro that makes them seem especially cold and bleak. In the film’s Eadweard Muybridge-evoking second vignette, a black horse runs against the current of a snowstorm while the field of view, fixed from behind a car window, follows in lockstep, finally settling on an image of the horse meeting a companion to frolic joyfully in the blizzard. Despite Kiarostami’s trademark use of an obscuring car window that’s lowered at one point—here by an unseen passenger to allow for a clearer view of the landscape—you might mistake the shot for a transmission from the grim universe of Béla Tarr, so far removed is it from the warm sunshine and pleasant breezes that often weave through Kiarostami’s output.
Unlike Tarr’s films, however, 24 Frames is far from a doggedly materialist work. From the film’s introductory vignette, a playful animated manipulation of Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow that inserts billowing chimney smoke and soaring crows to the original 1565 painting’s placid snapshot of winter, artifice is established as a technical principle. In blending photographic plates and visual effects components, the composite images very nearly achieve convincing photorealism, but certain elements, like the muscular movement of squirrels, deer, and cows, or the quasi-impressionistic renderings of snow mounds and fog drifts, uncannily disrupt the illusion.
Kiarostami wields this omnipotence lightly, creating compositional harmony and intimations of narrative order one moment and cultivating spontaneity the next. Some of the film’s most indelible episodes follow rhyming patterns: In one, a quietly grazing deer darts for the shelter of a grove of trees when a gun fires off in the near distance, and in another a sudden thunderclap stirs a pair of lions from a mating session, with both scenes framed by makeshift proscenium arches (a canopy of trees in the first, a rock wall with a hole cut out in the second) to draw the eye to their respective animal subjects.
Such organizing strategies, however, aren’t always offered. Sometimes there’s no notable narrative event to speak of, as in the extended studies of a few pigeons traipsing around a dead bush or a crow perched on a window frame seen from a shaded interior. Other times, Kiarostami, ever the master of the casually layered, multi-tiered composition, creates so many points of possible interest that it’s easy to linger on a development in one corner of the frame at the expense of another—a means of gentle overstimulation that works in one vignette to amplify the shock of a cat stealthily sneaking from the deep background of the shot to the foreground and pouncing on a bird.
24 Frames is a delight on these sensory levels alone, and depending on one’s patience for contemplating glimpses of natural and almost exclusively non-human goings-on, the overall effect is near-transcendent. But there’s also another feeling shading the experience, a steadily creeping poignancy that relates to the extra-textual knowledge of Kiarostami’s passing and the way in which the film’s ultra-simple structure—title cards announce each frame chronologically in between vignettes—acts as an expiring clock on the master’s career. If Kiarostami is, as suggested by Jean-Luc Godard, the end of cinema to D.W. Griffith’s beginning, then there’s a sobering poetry in the film’s use of the medium’s paradigmatic frame rate for its title and underlying construction. And especially gut-punching is the film’s concluding vignette, which bears witness to the last slow-motion stutters of an After Effects display rendering out an old movie’s soaring final kiss, all while the female editor dozes off at the workstation. That it’s unclear whether or not she’s manipulated the clip in some way provides the scene’s subtle tension, in addition to crystallizing the essence of Kiarostami’s art. Fittingly, “The End” arrives on her screen before we have a chance to determine the answer.
24 Frames’s bewitching textural ambiguity—its thorough muddying of the indexical and the digitally manifested—makes the film something of a challenge when it comes to evaluating its presentation on home video. You can never be sure which elements in the frame were intended to feel artificial as opposed to which should look (or are) photoreal. For example, certain effects that might have been indications of a wonky transfer if witnessed on the Blu-ray of a traditionally shot film here become critical to the experience of the film, such as the way an animal moves, or the slightly overblown sheen of a wintry sky. That said, the image is sharp, vivid, and dynamic in its range of light and shadow, and looks much like how this writer remembers it looking upon the film’s initial release. Perhaps more impressive is the soundtrack, which should be turned up as loud as possible so as to best appreciate an immersive level of detail that’s integral to the rhythms and meaning of the film.
If Criterion’s rather bland, uninspired packaging (at least by their standards) for 24 Frames seems to indicate a rush job, that suspicion is strengthened by the paltry offering of extras, which feels like a disservice to a monumental artist’s swan song. It’s forgivable that all that’s provided in the way of behind-the-scenes documentation is 13 minutes of off-the-cuff, not-always-illuminating low-res footage shot by Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh, as it’s likely all that was available. (To the short documentary’s credit, there’s some fascinating video of Kiarostami at the After Effects workstation manipulating a Jean-François Millet painting that didn’t find its way into the finished film.) But the two newly shot video pieces—one an interview with Abbas’s son, Ahmad Kiarostami, who finished the film after his father’s death, and the other a conversation between critic Godfrey Cheshire and Iranian scholar Jamsheed Akrami—mostly drop the ball on providing rich analysis, as the subjects lean toward platitudes about the film’s “meditative” qualities and its self-evident fusion of Kiarostami’s artistic practices. Akrami at one point relates the film to Persian printmaking, which is an interesting comparison and one that warrants more attention, but his conversation with Cheshire is cut too quickly (not to mention shot, oddly, all in profile) to allow time for lengthy exegesis. It would have been similarly useful to hear more from Ahmad Kiarostami, especially since he was put in the unique position of carrying his father’s mantle, but the focus skews largely toward his own impressions of the finished film at the expense of anything too specific about its production or his father’s life. Somewhat redeeming are the incisive liner notes by Bilge Ebiri, who’s always written eloquently on the late Iranian director.
A once-in-a-generation cinematic poet leaves us with a hypnotic, quietly enchanting farewell testament, but Criterion doesn’t fully rise to the occasion in properly honoring it.
Director: Abbas Kiarostami Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video