"Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait" dir. Douglas Gordon/Philippe Parreno, 2006

Originally conceived as a video installation piece, Gordon and Parreno's 2006 experimental sports documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a significant work that seems to have faded quietly away (as far as I know, there is currently no US DVD version of the film).  Of course, American audiences have never been too keen on soccer, much less avant-garde cinematic examinations of soccer, but what Zidane reveals in it's minimalist approach to the overblown spectacle of modern sporting events is perhaps most crucial in relation to the increasingly bloated and excessive nature of the American commercial sports machine.

Zinedine Zidane - Zidane:  A 21st Century Portrait
Watching Zidane is a bit like staring into the perfect campfire; repetitive, undulating, hypnotic.  The meditative state induced by the rhythms of the film are enhanced by the intricate use of scoring, performed by Scotish band Mogwai, whose tensive use of space in their music meshes perfectly with the pacing of the sport itself, as well as the particular pace of Zidane himself. Gordon and Parreno fixed 17 cameras on Zidane over the course of one soccer match (Real Madrid vs. Villareal - April, 23, 2005) without much regard for capturing the progression of the match, but rather the entire kinetic make-up of one stoic, impeccable player.  Occasionally, sequences are subtitled with transcribed interview text from Zidane, but aside from that, we only get a sense of the man's voice through his mostly monosyllabic grunts and shouts during the match.  Not once in the 90 minute running time of Zidane do we see a score board, and only rarely do we escape to a vantage point that exists outside of Zidane's severe intent.  With that said, the unique choices the directors make when they do sever their focus from the cold physiognomy of their subject are what elevates the film from a cool experiment to a film with something important to communicate.  For instance, Zidane is book-ended by images of the event-as-televised, pulling in so close to the screen that we are left with only uniform sets of brightly colored pixels.  It is this remarkably telling image that frames the entire experience, showing us something that we spend so much attention on, but rarely see in it's reduced form.  Contrasted to the brilliant "half-time" of the film--a montage of world events as packaged by network news sources--the visual scope of Zidane is expanded to a revelatory degree, for a film whose focus might seem relentlessly singular to some.  It may be true that my recent reflections on Werner Herzog's works have me continually returning to the same frame of reference, but Zidane is particularly interesting in contrast to Herzog's recent films, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss, as all these films achieve lofty goals under very limited conditions.  Also, Zidane brings to mind Herzog for the way in which it allows us new access to something that is part of our every day experience, turning the stale, repetitive (this time in a negative sense) nature of the sporting event into an ecstatic visual poem.  As I play Zidane off of Herzog in this way, it begs an important question about the transformative, even subversive, capacities of cinema--which is more important?:  The ability to give us access to the unseen (the life on the ocean floor of Antarctica), or the ability to reveal what is all around us that we continually fail to see (sports).

Encounters at the End of the World
Zidane:  A 21st Century Portrait
I'll take both.  Of course, with a film like Zidane my biases against commercial sports tend to come to the fore, and I see a particularly powerful subversive value in the way in which it reveals the pointlessness and hollowness of the sporting act as commercial spectacle.  Don't get me wrong:  I have no problem with sports in and of themselves--exercise, teamwork, and all that good stuff--but I'm disheartened by how our cultural existence has been so heavily branded by our affiliation with sports teams.  As I'm writing this roughly 11 weeks into the Occupy movement, as the excesses of corporate greed are being dragged out into the light, it seems that the ways in which we excuse major sports figures their absurd salaries by heaping more and more attention and bucks on them in a (negative this time) hypnotic fashion could stand to be examined.  Unfortunately, I fear a film like Zidane has a limited audience in the United States, most likely because it has artistic ambition, refined and specific goals, and patience, patience, patience...everything sports culture is a stand against.  So, I read Zidane as an anti-sports film, regardless of the intent of the film makers.  In the moments where the film makers take you out of the thick of the action, the careful dance of athleticism abruptly replaced by a vantage point that rests in the muffled roar of the packed stadium near the low hum of a light fixture burning high above this solitary match, the effect is jarring, quieting, reminding us, perhaps, of the futile nature of it all.

Zidane:  A 21st Century Portrait
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait can be seen in sections on You Tube, and is available in an excellent Region 2 DVD, which includes interviews with the film makers and Zinedine Zidane. 


nathaniel drake carlson said...
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nathaniel drake carlson said...

A really excellent critique of a film/art-video installation that is defiantly difficult to talk about. And I think it is so because of the elusive nature of its medium and intents, as you describe above. I've seen it several times and experienced it very differently each time, depending on the level of my engagement--once it even lulled me to sleep on my couch (this despite the often roaring soundtrack) and I consider that to be a tribute to its peculiar rhythms and purposes rather than any kind of condemnation. The effect that time was very similar to Kiarostami's great Five, a similar meditative piece also in many ways more at home in the gallery than the theater.

When I've been more alert to the nuances of the filmmaking though I've been quite genuinely thrilled by it, in much the same way as many are transported by the sport itself. There is, I suppose, a perversity to this film in the sense that it does quite willfully seek to disrupt standard means of engaging with sport through standard forms of spectatorship--in other words, it seeks to frustrate expectations, though never for facile reasons. As you say here, its purposes are far too serious, though always subtly coded, to be satisfied with any simple provocation.

I haven't seen it in awhile now (though your piece here certainly makes me want to at least load up the awesome soundtrack, a score that seems to arise organically from the experience) but I remember with great fondness that sensation of being drawn in and yet then given space, allowed room enough, to simply release all my usual viewing habits of aggressive audiencing and just let the experience wash over me. And during that, of course, there are those periods of full conscious engagement and recognition or awareness of singular moments, often breathtaking in their impact. There are so many but a lot of them find their singular nature in an accumulation of detail, of single shots or sequences rhymed like great poetry attentive to the measured pacing and the possibilities within repeated images, often just men lined up and moving together, then apart, then togther again. What a glorious opportunity to just be allowed to witness that, to be freed up from the obligations to fixate on score and success determined via some other context, the usual one. And yet when we see Zidane finally burst into action, after so many langorous stretches devoted just to observing him observing, there is genuine drama there and catharsis, perhaps more now that we have spent that kind of intimate time alongside him and really have come to understand what it's like to wait for an opportunity like that.

But I don't think it's quite right to say that it is all eventually revealed as ultimately futile. I mean, it is futile in a sense of course (as indicated well enough, I think, by the specific nature of Zidane's eventual exit from the field of play) but I prefer to see the film's broader contextualizing devices simply putting it all in perspective; and by all I do mean all, for all of life is represented here, most certainly.

I remember too that the year this came out I had it at the very top of my own best of the year list, tied with the equally astonishing (and astonishingly similar) documentary Into Great Silence about a year spent in virtual silence with Carthusian monks. That film too demanded the same kind of serenity and a trust that our surrender before its monumentality was earned and deserved.

Jason Hedrick said...

Yes, it could definitely occupy a list (that we should write) called "movies where falling asleep is an appropriate option."

(Speaking of, even though I rarely ever fall asleep in a theatre, I could barely stay awake during Tarsem's "Immortals" last week. I can't say whether or not I liked it, because I just couldn't stay conscious...and it was in 3D!)

Anyway, yes, maybe my cynical take on sports culture drove me to an excessive end there, but it really did strike me that way, accented by the film's naturally dark tones. I don't leave "Zidane" with a great sense that there is a purpose to all of this. The game, read as a mini-lifetime, is deliberately stripped of the elements that usually bring purpose to the proceedings, but in terms of meaning, the film leaves me in a place that feels entirely new, but not altogether positive--as I said, this has to do, in part, with my own biases, which were continually called into question for me.

Also, I should say that I enjoy watching football on TV occasionally, as I did this Thanksgiving, and I am not just trying to call out people who enjoy sports, as many of my close friends do (also, those folks know of my own sick obsession with "competitive sports"--cooking challenge shows). I am not just reducing an engagement with professional sports to a negative. But, when it comes to the type of pro sports mass branding that has happened in the past few decades in the US, I see no harm in using this unique film as a catalyst for stirring up some discussion on how people negotiate that.