Nothing At All
The man is Zinédine Zidane, one of the great soccer players of all time. With Zidane: 21st Century Portrait, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno tread the border between film and art to cast a monument to Zidane from moving images. To non-Americans, “Zizou”, as he is tenderly called by his admirers, barely needs any introduction. He was the key player on the French National Team that won the World Cup in 1998 and played for the best professional clubs in the European league. As a sport star, Zidane fills the role of one of the last real heroes of our disenchanted world. People eagerly tell stories and spin myths about him—about how he rose from being a son of poor Algerian immigrants in a notorious neighborhood in the south of France to become the highest-paid and one of the most respected soccer players of his time. Little boys with his numbers on the backs of their shirts dream of growing up to dribble the ball as artistically as only he can.
Jean-Luc Godard, who is too bourgeois to be a real soccer fan (but adores tennis) has always wanted to make a film about sports. He once said that sport, in contrast to politics, literature and cinema, does not lie because it is the only action where the body does not act. This might be one reason why Gordon and Parreno refuse to tell the story of Zidane’s heroic rise. Instead, they focus on the power of his image, the image of him doing what he knows best: playing soccer. The premise of their film is as strikingly simple as it is effective.
The two artists picked a random game in the Spanish Liga when Zidane played for Real Madrid against Villareal on April 23, 2005. During that game they planted 17 synchronized cameras in the stadium, equipped with powerful zooms, that over the course of the 90-minute game had only one target: Zidane’s athletic, sweaty, and sometimes exhausted body. For one and a half hours the film mostly consists of close-ups of the protagonist running back and forth across the green field. Director of photography Darius Khondji, who had just finished shooting Wong Kar-wai’s latest, finds hauntingly impressionistic images for this repetitive action. Zidane hunts for the ball and quickly passes it on to his other teammates (once in a while other soccer legends like Beckham, Ronaldo, or Figo walk through the frame). With hawkish eyes, Zidane attentively anticipates the game and from time to time he mumbles comments to himself. An increasing amount of sweat runs down his face as the game progresses and he engages in a peculiar choreography, alternating between standing, walking, and running in short spurts. Through a microphone attached to his sock, every kick rumbles like a cannonball. The many angles from which we observe the individual player, paired with the elaborately recorded and edited sound, create a dense atmosphere that defies any preconceived ideas we might have of sport coverage or film portraits.
What can we know about a man’s life? Gordon and Parreno indirectly pose a question that artists have been struggling with since the emergence of art itself. Whereas centuries ago only the rich and powerful had the privilege of becoming portraits on canvas or in literature, today, through web blogs, digital cameras, and MySpace, everybody seems to be preoccupied with the production and distribution of their immortality. In collecting as many facts, dates, names, places, and events as possible, we lose track of essence. Zidane hardly reveals any information about its protagonist. Most of the time we don’t even know the score and yet, from watching him play, react and move, we are imbued with his magic.
As the visual medium based purely on time rather than space, film is the ideal art form to experiment with temporality. In discovering a contemporary form of portraiture, Gordon and Parreno utilize a time that disregards linearity, narrative or continuous space. In their other artworks, the two open up ways of experiencing time differently by shifting the temporal structure of mass media or day to day perception. Gordon, for example, turns to classic Hollywood movies for source material. In 5 Year Drive-By, Gordon confronts narrative time with the idea of real time. He proposes to stretch John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers (1956), to the length of the film’s narrative. The resulting 5-year projection, in which each frame of the film is held for about 16 minutes not only stresses the obsessive character of the protagonist Ethan Edward (John Wayne) in search of his kidnapped niece, but also the incompatibility between filmic time and the monstrosity and incommensurability of real time.
By drawing an analogy between soccer and life, Gordon and Parreno’s film experiment proves that the passing of time is more dimensional and less manageable than we would like to think. They shoot a complete soccer game of 90 minutes in real time “from the first kick to the final whistle.” The duration between these two points in time does not follow a straight line, in which minutes tick in an even interval. In the film’s unruly assemblage of images, their flow of time is is stretched, then condensed, multi-layered, and in constant motion. The rhythm of life refuses be measured in minutes.
As with most soccer games—and most video art—there are moments of great boredom in Zidane—a state heightened by the fact that we know nothing about the status of the game. Which team is leading? What are the other players doing? Where is the ball? For long stretches nothing seems to happen. We watch Zidane watching the game and boredom emerges as a moment of autonomy that allows for reflection. A 50-second shot of a single dangling arm sets off thoughts and fantasies. Shortly after, through a change of pace, the atmospheric sounds by the band Mogwai, or a powerful attack on Zidane’s opponent, we are completely absorbed into images again. Time flies.
The camera’s obsessive concentration on a single man is another feature that distinguishes Zidane. Whereas TV operates in the concept of real time, and its temporality is everything but linear or one-dimensional (MTV, CNN, or TiVo), TV entertains the idea of a narrative. Towards the beginning of Zidane, Gordon and Parreno cut back and forth between their film and Spanish TV coverage. On the upper TV screen we see the elapsing minutes of game time and the present score. The commentator reports the events on the field with a loud, overly excited voice. The mostly wide angle and establishing shots of the TV camera give us the feeling of an omniscient observer. In contrast, the film cameras glued to Zidane’s body deprive us of any orientation or knowledge. Zidane spends most of the game waiting—waiting for a pass, waiting for the ball, waiting for the small chance to score a goal. Usually, nothing happens. Attentively he anticipates the ball, spurts to the other side of the field, and misses it. He runs back to his position. The more tired he gets, the more he stumbles, trips, and falls, just to quickly jump right back on his feet, ready to take on the ball at any time. The relentless surveillance of the many cameras casts a frame around the man and isolates him from the surrounding world. He is a lost character in an absurd play.
Then the unexpected happens and the game turns into an existential drama. In the 85th minute Zidane quarrels with his opponent and head-butts him. Turmoil breaks out and a frantic Zidane sees the red card. The directors couldn’t have dreamt of a better ending. Not only because the penalty turns the film into an allegory of futility, but also because the scene becomes the blueprint for the World Cup final in Berlin the following year. There Zidane was notoriously expelled from the game for butting an Italian opponent. This event most probably decided the Cup’s outcome.
In his long, final walk to the locker room—Godard is right— Zidane’s body is not lying. But it is also not telling the truth. After 90 minutes of close observation we still have no clue who this man is. Every aspect of his existence as a soccer legend, a hero, a mere image, or a fallible human being stays impenetrable. The foremost achievement of Zidane is that it proves the immeasurability of life. Gordon and Parreno present their protagonist’s mystery without trying to solve it.
“Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all.”
Jenny Schlenzka just completed her masters thesis on the TV show Miami Vice for the cultural studies program at Humboldt University, Berlin. She is currently in New York assisting Klaus Biesenbach, MOMAs film and media curator and chief curator for P.S. 1.