What you see up there is a frame from 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami's last film, resting on a frame from from Untitled, the last film that Michael Glawogger shot. I saw Untitled after 24 Frames and spent weeks imagining shots from the two misting into and layered upon each other. This is the only one that I have the skill to recreate.
In a perfect world, it would be possible to see these two films back to back, to see how two vastly different directors (with varying levels of help from collaborators) use cinema to say goodbye. 24 Frames and Untitled are very different films, but they're also similar. Both films are pushing at the rules and guidelines that define the medium. Both are visually spectacular while being almost on opposite ends of the scale stylistically. Neither of them fit any existing genre. Both are proudly and uncompromisingly arty, demanding intelligence and sensitivity from the viewer. They're last works that are also their statements of purpose, as drafted by a third person who understood them well enough artistically to complete their thoughts.
A dying filmmaker sorts through photographs he's taken. Some of them are photographs of the great outdoors, some are of the insides of houses and rooms. They're mostly in black and white, which makes the sporadic appearance of colour photographs all the more dazzling. To these still images, he adds animated details. For a few moments, as he brings the photograph to life, the director on his deathbed is the god of what he surveys, a miniature world contained in a snapshot. The film will be described as "posthumously completed".
Far away, on another continent, a filmmaker, who doesn't know his days are numbered, travels to lands that many would struggle to locate on a map. Accompanied by a camera, he watches and listens. With the camera, he notes how the rhythms change, how the light shifts, how time moves. He has set out to make a film that he hopes will never comes to rest, unaware that in a few months, while still shooting this film, he will be the one resting in peace. It will fall upon his editor to follow the trail of visual breadcrumbs he's left behind to complete the project as a co-director.
The first filmmaker is Abbas Kiarostami and the second is Michael Glawogger. Both their last films are long-winded, beautiful farewells that are rich and glistening with their passion for visual art. Both have been completed by collaborators. While Monika Willi is credited as co-director because she actually gave Untitled its present form, what you see in 24 Frames is what Kiarostami conceived. I'm guessing his son completed what his father left unfinished, but I'm not sure because I don't remember anything in the credits that clarified who was responsible for the film being "posthumously completed".
I'd gone into 24 Frames convinced that, despite my admiration for Kiarostami, I'd fall asleep at some point in the film. Running as I was on enthusiasm, caffeine and bad multiplex food, I didn't think I would be able to stay awake through a wordless, narrative-less and possibly self-indulgent meander through Kiarostami's old photographs. Sure it would be beautiful, but Kiarostami loved testing his audiences. I was certain I'd fail the test. The thing is, 24 Frames isn't an exam. It's a love letter. So not only did I stay awake, I have pages and pages of notes, scribbled in the dark, scoring the page with the rapture I felt following Kiarostami's frames.
There isn't a narrative to 24 Frames, but it is telling us stories about life, cruelty, fellowship and death. It also invites you, the viewer, to interpret and notice the possibilities of meanings embedded in the imagery.
Like the 9th frame, in which we're shown sex that no censor can justifiably snip because it's between two lions. Not that the lion is really 'on top' even when it looks like he is. One crack of thunder, and the lion jumps off the lioness, showing just how much of a wimp this supposedly-regal beast is in reality.
Or the 18th frame, in which nothing prepares you for that chittering sparrow to become the cat's prey. However, the predator's victory is temporary. Another sparrow shows up and continues what its predecessor had started — burrowing into the snow, finding protection and sustenance in what lies under the blanket of pure, cold, white snow.
Different threads connect different images to one another. For instance, the 13th frame shows a seaside with gulls. A gunshot silences their squawking and one gull falls. After the murder of the gull, in the 14th frame, we see a murder of crows. 24 Frames is full of man-made boundaries, like fences and walls and window frames. Nature is almost always on the other side. As the film progresses, the frames tighten. From the great outdoors, we're taken inside and shown the world outside a door or a window. A subtle reminder that Kiarostami was suffering from terminal gastrointestinal cancer when he made 24 Frames and was increasingly housebound before becoming bedridden? Perhaps that's why his visual, physical perspective becomes more and more fixed while his imagination flits like the birds in his frames that refuse to hibernate despite the wintry landscapes?
The film begins with painting, which is what Kiarostami studied as a college student, and ends with films, which is where Kiarostami found his calling. That final frame is just heartbreak because there is something so ... final about it. It has a sleeping woman in the foreground. She's slumped on the desk that has a Mac computer. On its screen, an editing suite is open. It shows a shot from a vintage Hollywood film, of a couple kissing, followed by "The End"; the standard closing of a film with a happy ending. Everything about this frame radiates the past tense. The soundtrack is of a song with the lyric, "Love won't you go once you're possessed." A goodbye never felt so final.
So much is buried, physically and metaphorically in 24 Frames. Sometimes mischievous, sometimes defiant, always elegant, this is a film that plays with the viewer. It feels like a Rubik's cube of memories and images that Kiarostami was playing with, twisting and realigning again and again, creating new patterns without losing old ones.
In contrast to the control and stillness of 24 Frames, Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi's Untitled runs wild. It pulses with Technicolor energy and while Willi's skills as an editor shouldn't come as a surprise, Untitled reveals her to be a poet. I loved 24 Frames, but Untitled imprinted itself on me.
One of the early sequences of the film shows people panning for diamonds and it's tempting to see that as a parallel to what Glawogger was doing with his open-ended shooting schedule. It fell upon Willi to ultimately find and craft the diamond, and what a gem she's rustled up.
Untitled doesn't tell you where it's taking you and you know that you'll reach many places as you follow Glawogger who is frequently following someone else's footsteps. Sometimes there are pointers in the voiceover, but not always. The film has no narrative but is crammed with vignettes, revelations and insights. I would kill for the script of the voiceover that Fiona Shaw has rendered so brilliantly. Here are a few random quotes, jotted down while watching (so might be missing a word or two):
"He closed his eyes and tried to walk blindly."
"The dramaturgy of a goodbye rarely did it justice." [Because more often than not, when you say goodbye, you know that you will see them again. Which means it's not really a goodbye. Curiously, before Glawogger left for this shoot that would turn out to be his last, he apparently said 'proper' goodbyes to everyone who was close to him.]
"If there was a second Noah's Ark, who would represent humanity?"
"His father's name, thou art in heaven
Hallowed by thy passport number ...
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power to turn us away." [He rewrote the entire Lord's Prayer from the perspective of a visa applicant. Brilliant.]
[Envy is like] "...a hand from behind on his neck, buzzing with electricity."
"When everything works, the world is quieter."
"There were too many unfinished dreams out there... . Dreams had slowed down."
"There was no place a person could go where they would be invisible." [Goes on to say that "the closest to being invisible" is to be on a journey.]
"Jungle of Eden.
Garden of Hell."
There's so much that I hope I will never forget of Untitled. Like that shot of the landscape of white sand dunes, with a single tree in the middle and in the distance, a shining blue sea; and even further in the distance, the flatter blue of the sky. Like those minutes spent in either Liberia or Sierra Leone, during a power cut, when Glawogger notices that "there were many levels of light" and that it was noisy when the lights went out because of the glow of screens and the rumble of generators. The generators create a "loud light" — perfection.
Or this standard meet-and-greet (from either Sierra Leone or Liberia. You see why I need to watch this film again?) —
"How da body?" (How are you?)
"Da body inside clothes." (Fine. Nothing special)
The pace of Untitled is a visual thing, determined by the speed with which camera and subject move. Sometimes the film's rhythm matches the quickened pulse of those its filming — like the kids running uphill in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, with jerry cans full of water. They're lit only by the headlights of passing cars, which adds to the sense of rush and speed. Sometimes, the film syncs with the slowed-down sense of contemplation that comes from the one behind the camera, like when we're shown a group of amputees playing football. It's not their energetic pace that you feel, even though the camera follows the game faithfully. Instead, it's the pensive but amused calm that's contained in Glawogger's brilliant little rumination about a language that's made up of footballer's names, a language that would therefore be comprehensible to everyone who loves the game. "Then something may come true for all of Africa," Glawogger concludes.
Untitled is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. Clever, amusing, sensitive, playful, pensive — it shapeshifts vibrantly, filling your mind with a million ideas that hum with silvery static. When it ended, I felt like I was emerging from a dream that had, in 107 minutes, wrapped itself around me. I desperately hope that it will surface again somewhere so that I can see it at least one more time. Also, if this is what Monika Willi can conjure with someone else's footage as a co-director, I get goosebumps what she'll do when she makes her first film as a solo director.
Willi chose to close Untitled in Liberia, where Glawogger died. She remembers his sense of unbelonging, the words he wrote about wanting a place where he could feel invisible, the search for a place that was "nothing". The last words of Untitled are, "MIchael, wherever you are hiding, palaver soup is served." It breaks your heart because we've lost Glawogger, but at the same time, we've found the brilliance of Willi as a poet of cinema. As in so many of Kiarostami's frames, the disappearance of one enables the appearance of another.